Expats are experts at preparing for their next posting, whether it is in Aberdeen or Abu Dhabi. As soon as they hear about the impending move they start to learn the basics of the language, read books on their destination country and join online social groups to connect with people going through a similar experience. Whilst companies spend sizable sums preparing their employees for expatriation, returning employees are typically left unsupported as they make the tricky transition back to their passport country. Just like expatriation, repatriation has numerous psychological phases, many of which are unexpected and unanticipated. Most notably, encountering reverse culture shock when returning home is a surprising situation that is often overlooked by both expats returning and the companies that are calling them to come home.
Reverse Culture Shock
Around three quarters of ex-pats returning home are likely to experience psychological discomfort upon re-entry according to the research. Moreover, for many, unexpected challenges can take them by surprise leaving them vulnerable and defenseless.
When you become an expat you leave your home expecting everything to be new and different and when you return you expect things to be basically the same as when you left. But people often struggle when they realise that not only have they changed, but so too has their once familiar city, their family and their friends. Feeling like a foreigner in a foreign land is expected; feeling a stranger in your own home is not.
It is common knowledge amongst expats that the process adjusting to life over seas is often frustrating, disconcerting and stressful, however repatriates seem to be largely unprepared for the psychological distress and discomfort that commonly accompanies a return home. The less prepared you are for this and the more it takes you by surprise the higher the levels of distress the return journey is likely to cause you. Moreover, often our family and friends at home are just as unprepared as we are for the shock of repatriation and this can often exacerbate any difficulties.
Much like culture shock, reverse culture shock has a number of different phases. Imagine your repatriation journey to be U shaped. You have the initial euphoria of returning home to all of those things you have missed, from old friends to familiar foods, and even the comfort of a common language. This initial spike of joy wears off as you find yourself feeling out of place in your own culture. The novelty of being at home dissolves as you begin to settle into your new routines and life. You have to face the reality of how substantially not only you have changed but also how your home, the culture and the landscape have changed. This is reverse culture shock, the bottom of the U shaped curve, and often the roughest and most difficult part of the return journey. The good news is of course the curve swings up again and although it may take some time you will begin to make the gradual adjustment back towards feeling familiar, accepted and having a sense of belonging again.
Some of the top frustrations and difficulties that expats returning home experience include:
· No one is very curious or wants to listen to you tell them about your experiences
· Inability to explain your experience or emotions to others
· Relationships have changed
· Feeling misunderstood
· Feelings of alienation
· Inability to apply your new knowledge and skills
In 2013 Naomi Hattaway, an American who moved first to India and then to Singapore, wrote blog entitled “I am a triangle” on the difficulties she experiences when repatriating. In her blog she asked her readers to imagine that they were from a placed called Circle Country and were a Circle Citizen. They then moved to Square Society and lived in the midst of Square Settlers. Over time the circle citizen slowly evolves into something different transforming into a triangle. Being a triangle means having some of your original circle culture mixed together with your newly adopted square culture. When the triangle gets repatriated to circle country they don’t become a circle again just because you have landed back home. You remain a triangle. You have forever been changed in some fundamental way by your experience she notes.
Hattaway’s popular metaphor hit on a very simple but important concept. Simply put, being an expat is such an intense experience that it can bring about significant changes in terms of professional and personal roles and values. Changes that we are not even necessarily consciously aware of. Our old value and beliefs systems are challenged and reevaluated, and we begin to view our lives with a fresh perspective.
Backwards or Forwards?
When it comes to repatriation how we think about it can be crucial to how we experience it. The assumptions that are involved with the idea of "going home" and "being back" can fuel much of the discomfort of the reentry experience. The truth is that even though we may be moving “back” to our passport country we are in actuality continuing to move forward in our lives. It is important to reframe the experience of reentry as a continuous, ongoing process. A continuation of your story rather than the end of it. Repatriates need to be dispelled of the notion that their great adventure has come to an end. They should be encouraged to recognise that they are, once again, entering a new and ever-changing cultural and physical environment, no matter how familiar it may feel. As the process of repatriation begins a new opportunity lies ahead. Try to think of repatriation in the same way you came to think of expatriation and experience your “home” environment as you have done the foreign places you have previously made your home. Over the course of living in a different country you have come to develop a great many skills including dealing with unfamiliar cultures, familiarising yourself with the different neighborhoods, and making friends. Use these skills and rely on the abilities and approaches that you honed whilst living internationally.
The Professional Challenges
Multinational companies are finding that whilst they are using plenty of resources to prepare employees for an international transfer, they are less attentive to the other end of the move. The research indicates that although companies are experts in meeting needs associated with the details of moving household goods, cost-of-living adjustments and so fourth, they are much less accomplished in helping employees and their families meet the psychological needs arising from the stress of transition.
The reality is however that the impact of repatriation for the employee, is often far greater than that of the original move. Moving abroad is perceived as exciting, usually involving a promotion or at the very least, an increase in peer status and often the new post plays to the transferees strengths. The immediate impact of life abroad is more keenly felt by the family who are interacting with it on a far more intimate basis. The employee on the other hand has likely been chosen for a particular skill set that is, by and large, appreciated by the new team as an asset.
As the ex-pat journey comes to an end however, and discussions turn to the move back home, insecurities and fears typically surface. Research suggests that less than 35% of companies make any post assignment guarantees with regards to the role that awaits the employee in the office of their home country. Many employees complain that on their return the new skills and knowledge that they have acquired over their posting are not put to any discernable use. Furthermore, employees also often experience returning to a role that no longer fits their knowledge and capabilities very well which can increase anxieties about their overall career path and their future within the company. It is perhaps not surprising therefore to read that around 20% of ex-pats leave the company within the first 9 months of their return.
If the repatriation and expatriation were treated with the same significance, and companies stand to retain the employees that they have spent so many resources training and skilling up, then this begs the question why not do it? Surely the loss of a valued employee to a competitor makes for a compelling reason to fund extra support. Is the bottom line in the repatriation process really the bottom line?
In the end, the transition back “home” requires patience and even more of an open mind than the one you left with. Successful repatriation comes by acknowledging that you are not returning to the same circumstances that existed when you left. The truth is that in the time you have been away you have changed. We have all changed. However, expats tend to change more dramatically than the people who have remained back home. Brace yourself for the shock and enjoy the unique thrills of seeing your home from this different and rather unique perspective.