By Dr. Stephen-Claude Hyatt
Clinical Health Psychologist & Traumatologist
Experiencing new cultures and obtaining a better understanding of your own culture can result in some of the most positive and life-altering experiences. When going abroad, individuals will experience differences in manners, beliefs, customs, laws, language, art, religion, values, concept of self, family structure, social organization, government, and behavior, among many other things. All of these elements combine to form your host country’s rich and unique culture, which may eventually merge into your own culture. Moving on therefore, although it can be fun and exciting, can also be quite difficult.
For many individuals a huge part of the new cultural experience is Culture Shock. This is a term used to describe the anxiety and feelings of surprise, disorientation and confusion experienced when people have to operate within an entirely different cultural or social environment, such as a foreign country. It grows out of the difficulties in assimilating the new culture, causing anxiety and stress in trying to determine what is appropriate and what is not. However, there is also reverse culture shock. Very similar to culture shock, a person reentering to their home country after living abroad for years will have to make adjustments to reacquaint themselves with their surroundings, given they would have changed. Unlike culture shock, most do not anticipate feeling like a foreigner in their own country; however, it should be expected. If you have made any cultural adjustments while abroad, you will have to readjust once back home.
Here are some possible emotions and symptoms one might experience associated with culture shock and reverse culture shock.
- Reverse homesickness – missing people and places from wherever you have moved from
- Boredom, insecurity, uncertainty, confusion, frustration
- Need for excessive sleep
- Sadness and maybe depression
- Change in goals or priorities
- Insomnia (inability to sleep) or hypersomnia (sleeping all the time)
- Feelings of alienation or withdrawal
- Negativity towards behavior of new host country
- Feelings of resistance toward family and friends
Lessening the Impact
There are several things one can do to ensure they lessen the impact of reverse culture shock or culture shock. One way we do this is what is termed Transitioning Well, which is accomplished through building a RAFT. The concept of RAFT here is an acronym for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, and Think Destination. This comes from Dave Pollock’s material on Third Culture Kids and living abroad.
Many believe that the solution to transitioning is finding ways to hold on to friends from the old context, which is good, but should not be the focus in the long run. The problem with this notion is, if you spend the majority of your free time maintaining contact with those left behind, you can run the risk of retarding the development of new connections and relations. Below we will define RAFT, so that you are able to transition well and adjust to whatever new culture or context you may be relocating to.
Reconciliation – This speaks to resolving issues in your current place of abode that are yet to be resolved. Persons you may have had disagreements with, and places you have not yet visited. Sometimes we think it is best to just leave certain things behind, but at times this is a mistake. It is better to resolve as many unresolved issues as is possible.
Affirmation – Express your appreciation and love. Make sure the people that have made a difference in your life, and made it easier to live in the particular city, know how much you appreciate them.
Farewell – It is important to say goodbye. Say goodbye to the people, places, pets and possessions that have, that meant a lot to you. There are different ways of saying goodbye, and it important that individuals determine which is the best way for them, be it a party or a more intimate reality.
Think Destination – Research and know as much about your destination as possible. If you are returning home find out what may have changed since you left. Consider the expectations you have about the new place before you leave, and when you arrive there, make the decision to actually transition to the new place.