Monday, 3 September 2012

Reverse Culture Shock in Four Not-So-Easy Steps

You’ve probably heard of ‘culture shock’; the phenomena that happens when you are inundated with new things, usually accompanied by travelling to a new place, resulting in a complete shutdown of your senses. Change is good, but when your body is being relentlessly bombarded by smells, sights, sounds and physical feelings that are completely foreign to it, your brain will consequently be all like ‘fuck this shit, I’m out’. 

Kind of like this.
Anyone who has up and left home to experience a new place – perhaps a different country or town – will tell you that these big transitions take time, and exactly how hard it can be is directly related to the strength of your ability to adapt. Now think about doing the opposite: you’ve spent a considerable amount of time being submersed in a culture that is no longer new to you. After completely adopting the customs of this place you are eventually accepted into the community and have reached the point where what was once scary and new is now completely normal to you. Congratulations – you have officially integrated yourself, after all of that hard work and in a place that once terrified you to your core.

Now for something equally as shitty and twice as unexpected: going back home. Of course, you know this place like the back of your hand. Maybe you’ve grown up here; spent most of your life being a part of this place....It will be a breeze to get back into life back home, right?

Reverse culture shock begins here. Suddenly, things that were familiar to you after you left just aren’t the same. The people you were closest to now seem like strangers and everything you’ve learned while travelling doesn’t apply here. You’re stuck, and the fact that you actually have no idea what is going on again hits you smack in the face. Alas, the four not so easy stages of reverse culture shock have begun:


Your plane lands in your home city as you excitedly step off the platform after a long absence into a world once recognizable. Although you don’t feel panicked or isolated yet, you wear an invisible veil of happy-go-lucky peachy keen-ness. You are ready to accept your pedestal of awesomeness as you have become a world traveller and everyone will think that makes you instantly cool.

This is arguably the most annoying time for your friends. You will take any opportunity to tell a story about how the donkeys woke you up every morning, or how you visited a Buddhist Monk who helped you find inner peace, or whatever vacantly dull anecdote you absently think is relevant to the situation. Life is awesome for someone who has seen the world.


Just kidding, life sucks. Your honeymooning phase is over before it began, and you are quickly coming to the realization that what you considered to be your home has now turned into one of those borderline creepy clown houses at the fair where everyone is wearing badly-drawn face paint and the smell of Listerine and shame lingers in the air. You now understand that nobody wants to hear your travel stories, and instead of waiting around for your glorious return, everyone and everything has continued on without you. 

What’s worse is that while you were away, you became so wrapped up in the culture of your host community that you completely forgot how to live back home. You desperately try to find a way to apply what you’ve learned over the past months, but the attempts prove futile and you long for the familiarity of that other seemingly faraway place. Many people in this stage tend to cocoon themselves in a fortress of anger or resentment; others struggle with issues of anxiety or depression. Storming is the hardest stage in reverse culture shock.


Although it may have been hard to grasp during the process, the storming phase does not last forever, although its longevity is different for everyone and relates to how well you can use (or not use) your resources. You begin norming when the intense feelings associated with storming begin to fade and you find ways to cope with the transition of being home. 

Above: reasons NOT to come home
 A big part of norming is discovering a space where you feel comfortable and accepted. Just like you needed to be part of a community while away, you now need to relocate yourself into somewhere that makes sense and offers you the right kind of support. Oftentimes, our social circles will completely change over the course of leaving home for a prolonged period of time and returning again, and this is probably because you have also changed significantly. What’s cool about this stage is that you can actually begin to somewhat measure the impact of travelling, often with very positive results.


Performing is the ultimate result of reverse culture shock, and thank god it’s awesome because the rest of it sucked ass. You may not reach this part until over a year after your return, so don’t expect to blow through the first three immediately upon arrivial. The good news: no matter what happened, you are better and stronger for it. Experiencing reverse culture shock is an intense learning curve, and one that you won’t ever forget. It will help you the next time you travel and mitigate its effects.

....And some things will never change.
While the prevalence of reverse culture shock never quite fades (no matter how many times you travel), the more you experience it, the more you develop coping strategies that will ease you through it. When you perform, you can look back and find the positives of each challenge, for you are now comfortable and content because you have made the necessity changes that keep you stable. You have found a reasonable outlet to discuss your experiences, having a conversation about it rather than a lecture. Things sure look different from how it was before you left, but in a way that tells you you’re always changing.

Reverse culture shock effects everyone differently and has different timelines because of it. Some people may experience the same step twice, skip a step or relapse back into a bad habit. The trick is finding the right tools to help you though, something I’ll exemplify in my next post.

Thanks for reading and, as always,

Safe Travels,

Aaron Turpin

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