Tips for expats to manage reverse culture shock

Relax returned expats, questioning your decision to return home is just part of the process.

If I had a dollar for every time, I had a returning expat say to me ‘What have I done?’, I would be running Insync from my private jet.

I know when I get hit with this question, I am dealing with someone in the throes of reverse culture shock and it is hard to find an expat who after living for many years overseas, has not experienced this phenomenon.

Good news is, it is a feeling that passes.  Bad news is, you don’t quite know when it is going to hit or how long it is going to last

The trick for newly arrived repatriates or those thinking about coming home is to be aware of it and prepared.

What is reverse culture shock?

It is the reaction to returning home from living a life overseas and the emotional stage of re-adjustment.  It’s the feeling of being fish out of water, even though you know the water really well.

How long does it hurt for?

Every returnee is different and so experiences vary, however from the hundreds of repats I have spoken to, what I have generally found is that most repats start to experience reverse culture shock after being home for a month or two.

Often when you get home, the excitement of being back in Australia and reconnecting with family and friends is enough to distract from the reality of day-to-day life for a few weeks. It is often after the boxes have been unpacked and when repats start getting into rhythms of work, life and family that reverse culture shock hits.

Fortunately, it is a phase that passes. The full period of transition to that feeling of ‘being normal again’ does vary, in my experience anywhere between six months and two years.  The length of transition time often depends on how long an expat has been away.

Here are the top tips from the Insync repat community on how to soften the impact of reverse culture shock.

  1. Recognise it is a phase

Realise that feeling like a fish out of water is just part of the process and over time it will pass. Don’t try and fight it. Realise that while you were overseas not only did Australia change, but you did too and both parties are trying to find their way to a new norm!

Sarah Ntiamoah is a returned repat after 10 years in the UK. She said she only became aware of reverse culture shock after returning home and reading an article in her first few months where she recognised the symptoms mentioned matched her own. She says realising that reverse culture shock was just a phase, made it easier to deal with and says she wished she had known in advance so she could have been better prepared. 

  1. Treat life like it’s a new one, not an old one

When people and life look the same, it is easy to assume you are returning to your old life but you are not.  You have changed – you have changed through experience and are often coming home with different perspectives, interests, friends and passions than those you had when you left.

Bridget John returned to Melbourne during COVID leaving her life in Morocco behind.  She said to treat coming home like you are starting in a new country because in many ways you are.  When you went overseas you had put yourself out there and made friends, connections and experiences happen – retain this focus when you get home and do the same.

  1. Rest and exercise

Coming home, looking for a job or starting in a new office and re-igniting or starting relationships means you are often ‘on’ all the time.  This can be exhausting.  A great piece of advice for returned expats I got from Michael Waite, a recent repat from the US, is to get some rest.  Realise that finding your new rhythm can take some time and requires a lot of energy.

  1. Stay connected

Staying connected with your friends and colleagues overseas is one part of the challenge coming home, the other is finding new connections that can understand what you are going through.  I often make the comment that your friends and family back home ‘don’t care about your weekends in Paris’ and what I mean is that while your old family and friends want you back, they may not be able to relate to the life you had or the struggles you are having to readjust.

People who have gone through the experience do – in fact it is why Insync started in the first place.  Literally every day I speak to a returned expat and I hear the sound of relief in their voice when I tell them I know from experience that I know how they are feeling.  More than 500,000 Australians returned home last year – it won’t be hard to find a kindred spirit.  Let’s look after each other.

  1. Explore Australia!

For many expats, the lure of an overseas assignment or adventure was made even more appealing by the opportunity to travel and explore new countries and cultures. Like many people we only realise how little we have seen of our own country once we start traveling through another! When you can, planning a trip somewhere new within Australia not only gives you something to look forward to but also opens your eyes to the travel adventures you can have here on our own back yard.