Editor’s note: “Reentry shock: an explanation of an underrated phenomenon” by Lara Malchow (Team V) is the first research article in the new series “Language education and global citizenship” edited by I. Martin (University of Education Karlsruhe). It is a summary of Ms Malchow’s term paper submitted in the “Global English(es)” seminar (summer term 2018).
More and more people are going abroad because they are considering our increasingly globalised world. With this, they take on the challenge of a new indistinctness of personal, national, and cultural boundaries.
The various advantages of a stay abroad are always emphasized by the people that went abroad. By contrast, the negative consequences are rarely discussed. One of these negative effects is the “reentry shock”. Reentry shock, reverse culture shock, counter culture shock, reentry adjustment – these terms are all synonyms for the same phenomenon. This phenomenon involves the process of coming back home after working or studying in another country and not being able to connect to one’s own culture again.
Reentry is preceded by an immersion in another country or culture and is therefore not a side-effect of simple travel like going on vacation. People who work abroad for a while are particularly affected, also students in a semester abroad or those doing volunteer work in another country.
Despite the increasing amount of people working abroad the importance of the topic is often still overlooked. Most people do not deal with the symptoms of reentry or know nothing about them.
This article explains the meaning of reentry shock and how it occurs, describes its symptoms, and finally lists strategies for coping. To help readers understand the issue of reverse culture shock in its entirety, I will describe the process by detailing the “W-curve” (Gullahorn & Gullahorn 1963) and by elaborating its difficulties compared to culture shock as well as the symptoms and also the ways of surmounting reentry.
Individuals returning from abroad go “through a predictable series of stages in transferring from a domestic to an international assignment and back home again” (Adler 1981, 342). The “W-curve hypothesis” (Gullahorn & Gullahorn 1963) describes these stages. It is an extension of the “U-curve hypothesis” (Lysgard 1955). The U-curve is a model to explain the process of culture shock in the host country. In the beginning, the sojourner is excited and has a very positive feeling towards the new country and culture. This “honeymoon phase” is followed by a low. This low is the so-called culture shock. The volunteer is confronted with cultural, linguistic, and social differences that make him or her lose ground. This is particularly the case when home and host countries display significant differences.
After a certain period of shock, the process of recovery and adaptation begins. One gets used to the cultural differences, which is followed by one’s integration into the host country. The second U completes the W-curve and follows the same pattern as the U-curve. It describes the process of adaptation and integration back home.
The pace of a reentry process can vary immensely. One person feels good after a month, others need more time to readjust. In the initial phase, the average of the mood of the repatriates is on a high level for about one month after coming home. From the second to the fourth month after arrival, the returnees are at their lowest point in terms of their mood. Feelings of sadness, alienation, and loneliness are predominant. In addition, there are other symptoms, which will be discussed later. Around the fifth month, the returnee has recovered and is able to reintegrate into the home culture and procedures. Ideally, the skills learned abroad can now be incorporated into his or her daily life.
Difficulties of reentry
“Re-entry into the original culture was found to be a more difficult transition than was the move to the foreign culture” (Adler 1981, 341). The main difficulty here is that the problems of reverse culture shock “which arise upon returning home, are largely unexpected” (Szkudlarek 2010, 2). Considering the expected culture shock, the sojourners normally prepares him- or herself in matters of culture, climate, food, etc. of the host country they are going to live in. One primes oneself for one’s time abroad because one expects it to be new, unfamiliar, and challenging, but there seems to be no need to prepare for coming back home afterwards. The returnee does not “expect anything unfamiliar when returning home.
The present study indicates that returnees did not anticipate culture shock or trauma. Some planned to “‘just slip into’ their previous life styles […]” (Adler 1981, 350). Another unexpected difficulty is the delayed start of the reentry shock. Reverse culture shock only begins around one month after one’s return. In the beginning, the repatriate feels wonderful about being back and is excited, but after this “honeymoon phase” it might feel like losing ground in the environment that should feel most homely: “[…] the returnee is caught between the two cultures of home and host country” (Gaw 2000, 86).
Reverse culture shock is a personal process. The individual has changed, consciously or unconsciously, in the months of his or her stay abroad. In addition
, it is possible that people in the home country have also developed further. These changes have happened independently of each other and especially the changes of the returnee are often difficult for the others to understand.
As normal as changes are, they are not expected to affect the returnee so strongly. For someone who has not had the same experiences, it is difficult to understand the intensity of the effects of the stay abroad. Moreover, it is often incomprehensible to the others why it causes such problems for the returnee. “If culture shock feels like an expansion, reverse culture shock can feel like an implosion” (Rybol 2016, ch. 1).
The unexpectedness of the problems during re-integration might cause a strange feeling. It is expected to be easy – not only by others, but also by oneself – and it is hard to accept that coming home is harder than expected. Family and friends should be sensitive and open-minded towards the returnee in this phase.
Symptoms of reentry
There are many symptoms that can occur in the process of returning home – this is experienced differently by everyone. With regard to time and appearance, it can occur for various lengths of time and intensities. “[…] [S]ome individuals may experience few, if any, effects of reentry, while others appear to have problems ranging from a few months to a year or longer” (Gaw 2000, 84). A reentry shock often occurs when the person was very integrated in the host country.
However, the absence of reentry shocks is no proof that the person was not completely immersed in their life abroad. Reentry may appear in various ways. Returnees might feel disoriented or frustrated, and growing boredom, insecurity, and tiredness is not uncommon. Some returnees might experience a sense of alienation and loneliness and a phase of withdrawal. In addition to that, a decreased sense of belonging regarding family and friends can occur.
Against the odds, going abroad does not only have a positive effect on students, but also a negative impact during the reentry process. “Their time reintegrating into their home environment and continuing their education was often marked by sadness, a sense of loss, and practical problems” (Porsch & Lüling 2017, 259).
It is not only the affective part of coming home that makes re-entry difficult. Also, the practical part that has to be mastered in one’s environment, like home, work, university, or any other tasks can now be more challenging than before, which leads to individuals closing themselves off from them. Students may lose (or “lose”) an entire term to get back into their old routines.
Many returnees experience “reverse homesickness”, a feeling of not wanting to be in the home country but a serious need to go back to the host country. They feel overstrained and overwhelmed even by simple tasks.
Another aspect that makes alienation even more intense is the communication in the returnee’s L1 (first language). The person might have spoken another language while being abroad or even learned a completely new one. Consequently, the returnee is not as fluent in their L1 as before and has to get used to it again. The “continuum of reaction to reentering the home culture” is wide and this diversity makes it even harder to react to the symptoms (Gaw 2000, 84). The reactions are individual and it is almost impossible to categorise them. In many cases, it is “difficult, uncomfortable, hard to live with and a lot of times hard to understand” (Rosenberger 2017, 95). Therefore, the possibilities to cope with these symptoms are multifaceted, and it is helpful for returnees and their relations to know them. This is a way to make reentry a smoother process.
Coping with reentry
There are different ways to make reentering one’s home country easier and
to cope with one’s reentry. The returnee possibly made friends in the host country and misses them a lot. These might be the people one lived and worked with or one’s fellow-returnees from the same or other countries. It is important to stay in touch with them.
These people understand the process the returnee is going through, and together they can exchange experiences about their problems and find solutions together. Keeping track of news about the host country in this phase can also help. The returnee then still feels involved in the life there to a certain extent, and it is also a good basis for continued communication with host-country individuals.
Trying to counteract one’s feelings in any way is ineffective. Contrary to all expectations, one may feel alienated and uncomfortable, and it is important to understand that this is part of the process. It takes time to get used to one’s environment, culture, and lifestyle again.
Reflecting on one’s experience abroad can be very profitable for the process of re-entry. This reflection can be conducted in written or oral form. One can write a final report about one’s experiences, support the next outgoing team, contribute to closing conferences, pass on one’s experiences in interviews with the project leader, or give lectures in seminars, libraries, or at international conferences (as we do in our project). Preparing others for similar situations can advance one’s own personal and academic progress and reduce the sense of loss.
Moreover, it is important to use the new knowledge one acquired in the host country. It makes no difference whether this happens in a social, cultural, or scientific context. “Living in another culture means you’ll absorb some of that culture and you’ll incorporate it into a new version of yourself” (Rybol 2016, chap. 5). In the larger context, turning away from one’s own experiences and looking at them and evaluating them separately from oneself does not bring any added value for the returnee. These experiences are part of one’s system now and can be processed most successfully if they are integrated.
Dealing with one’s reentry shocks does not work for everyone in the same way. The way of handling this also depends on one’s assessment and evaluation of one’s stay abroad and on which which relation attitude the homecomer has to his or her return.
Impact by volunteers’ characteristics
“Re-entry has been identified as a major personnel issue” (Adler 1981, 343). As described above, every repatriate experiences the reentry process in a different way, and with varying intensity.
A substantial number of studies related to the reentry phenomenon focuses on sojourners’ characteristics and situational factors of repatriation. Research shows that a number of factors can influence the distress experienced upon return, as well as psychological readjustment and overall satisfaction with the transition (Szkudlarek 2010, 5).
How versatile are these influences in relation to reentry shock?
The characteristics and situational variables used for a more detailed description are taken from Szkudlarek’s article “Reentry-a review of literature” (2010). According to Szkudlarek, there are seven characteristics that have an impact on the reentry process: Gender, age, personality, religion, marital status, socio-economic status, prior intercultural experience(s), and previous reentry or reentries.
Various empirical studies have confirmed that men and women experience reentry shock differently. “In general, females are seen to have more problems with re-adaption to family than males” (Brabant et al. 1990, 390). It is precisely because of gender that predictions are made and therefore this is one of the most important characteristics in connection with re-entry.
“Gama and Pedersen (1997) describe family challenges experienced by returning women and their struggle to fulfil their relatives’ expectations of their roles upon return” (Szkudlarek 2010, 5). Sussman on the other hand noted that the alleged correlation between sex and reentry did not confirm shock, so no impact is recognised. According to Martin and Harrell, there is a need for further investigations into this aspect of research.
“Age is the second most frequently researched reentry variable” (Szkudlarek 2010, 5). Different studies have shown that there is a correlation between returnees’ age and the intensity of their reentry shock.
With increasing age, the extent of reentry shock decreases. Accordingly, younger returnees experience it to be stronger. This is explained by the process of finding one’s identity. Older volunteers already have a stronger, more stable identity. Despite immersion in another culture, older volunteers no longer adopt as many values and behaviours as younger volunteers. The appropriation of cultural aspects and the ability to adapt is more educated among younger volunteers. This leads to even more substantial changes in their identity during the stay abroad. The transformations can make it difficult to re-enter one’s own country.
“Several empirical attempts have been made to explore the influence of personality traits on different aspects of repatriation” (Szkudlarek 2010, 6). According to Martin and Harrell, there are different relevant factors that appear in relation to reentry shock. One is openness, which enhances the ability of acceptance or receptiveness to change or new ideas. The individual personality strength of a returnee is influenced by another factor, the positivity of a volunteer. Based on their own studies, Black et al. are convinced that a strong self-image has the greatest influence on the process of re-entry.
The fourth researched characteristic is the impact of a volunteer’s religion. It can play an important role in dealing with the affective and psychological aspects of re-entry after a stay abroad. “[R]elationship difficulties might be a result of newly acquired liberal behaviours and values, which conflict with those of family members back in the home-country” (Szkudlarek 2010, 6). In this case, conflicts in this respect would make it difficult for the returnee to reintegrate.
Szkudlarek’ s article discusses marital status as the fifth characteristic. In the process of returning home, single returnees are more susceptible to these symptoms. Social difficulties are also more frequent, as well as greater identification with the culture of the host country. The immersion takes place more intensively and the re-entry into one’s own country becomes more complex.
By contrast, married volunteers or those who have a stable relationship have fewer problems. This may be since the strong bond is also maintained during the stay abroad. Thus, the immersion does not happen as intensively or the partner is able to understand the repatriate’s situation in a better way. Therefore, re-entering the home country is easier for married returnees or returnees in stable or long-standing relationships.
Socio-economic status is a characteristic that cannot be fully associated with the reentry process due to a lack of research. The research available revealed a decline in social status after the re-entry. As this is a characteristic that is important to many returnees, Szkudlarek believes that further research should be done in this area to achieve valid results.
Prior intercultural transitions and re-entries
In relation to cultural transition, Martin and Harrell conclude that previous intercultural experiences should have a positive influence. So far, studies have confirmed this. However, too little research has been carried out to obtain meaningful results.
Impact by situational variables
Regarding the situational variables, Szkudlarek also lists various extrinsic factors that influence the intensity of the reentry shock. The seven mentioned in her article are the length of the intercultural stay, the cultural distance, the time since return, the contact with host-country individuals, the contact with home-country individuals, the attitudes of home-country individuals towards the returnees, and the housing conditions. Supervision was added later because it was seen to be important.
Length of stay
As several studies have shown, cultural distance of home and host country can have an enormous influence on the process of returning home. The larger the cultural differences are, the more complicated is it to adjust to one’s home culture again.
Possible reasons for this are external influences such as weather and food, but also changes in identity caused by an intensive time abroad. One adopts the norms and values of the new culture into which one has integrated oneself and thereby change one’s perspectives and character. These cultural differences differ for each person – each individual initial situation influences the reentry.
Persons from different parts of the world do not return to the same set of circumstances nor do they face the same set of family obligations. One’s culture, or nationality, has long been recognized to be a significant influence in a person’s life (Brabant et al. 1990, 393).
Time since return
Some researchers, such as Gregersen and Stroh, found out that the longer it takes for a returnee to get used to his or her homeland, the harder it will be to get back to the old daily routine. Difficulties arise in relation to work or study. It takes more time to acclimatize. In contrast, Cox, for example, found no significant link between the two factors. Such contrary results make the validity of the W-curve appear questionable.
Contact to host-country individuals
“Researchers argue that the frequency and quality of interactions with host-country nationals are directly related to the expatriation adjustment” (Szkudlarek 2010, 7). An increased contact to the nationals can aggravate the reentry problems because it means a deeper immersion into the host-country culture. Others were not able to find any correlation and therefore there is a need for further investigations in this part of reentry.
Contact to home-country individuals
Contact with home-country individuals is seen as a major influence in the acclimatisation process. The empathy of these people is increased because they were continuously informed about the sojourner’s experiences. “Research shows that maintaining personal relationships with home-country individuals during foreign sojourns can have a substantial influence on reducing the distress of reentry” (Szkudlarek 2010, 7).
Attitude of home-country individuals towards the returnee
Research shows that there are also negative reactions towards returnees such as lack of interest. While the repatriate was abroad, the home-country individuals might have changed as well, or they minded their own business – and envy has an impact on the reactions as well. Support, sympathy, and understanding are often missing, which makes reentry harder than it would have to be.
Adjusting back to one’s home-country life is also connected to the housing conditions. A higher or lower standard of living means that you now have to get used to the conditions in your home country again.
Supervision in the pre-, while- and post-phase can be helpful in the process of coping reentry. Problematic aspects are constantly discussed, processes and possible problems are monitored. In many cases, supervision and reentry training are often missing. (This is luckily not the case in our project, where returnees have ample chances to communicate with both fellow-returnees or the project leaders for as long as they want).
Reentering with no reentry training often means that the intercultural sojourn becomes encapsulated, tucked away in the mind of the sojourner, and the opportunity is lost to integrate the personal growth and professional knowledge into the sojourner’s current life (Martin and Harrell 2004, 311).
According to Martin and Harrell, returning home can best be mastered with the help of supervision and training. The process is most successful if it is supported by courses or trainings provided. These trainings should take place before and after returning home to prepare the volunteer, but also to support him or her in the processing and evaluation of the stay abroad.
Further research was conducted, and it turned out that participation in reentry workshops was very positively received.
To sum it up: Reentry is an underrated phenomenon, which is often not dealt with enough. The urgency to continue dealing with the topic scientifically prevails. Former and further investigations can help to react to this negative aspect of going abroad.
In the age of globalisation, the decision to go abroad is becoming increasingly normal. With the world losing its borders it is possible for almost everyone to integrate into foreign societies and cultures. The more people are affected by this the more the relevance of this phenomenon increases, so it is worth investing more time and effort in the processes of reentry shock.
Text by L. Malchow
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