Human beings make sense of life by becoming familiar with their surroundings and falling into routines to the point that they don’t even need to think about them on a conscious level. Take grocery shopping, for instance. You get into the car and head off to your favorite store and do your thing, buying your favorite foods and brands. You don’t need to think about how to get there, what currency you need to bring and perhaps don’t even need a shopping list.

Make a move and many things change; the routines are adjusted accordingly. But make an international move and everything changes all at once! The physical environment is totally different, filled with all kinds of new sights, sounds and smells. The language and climate may be totally different as well as the people, houses, customs and food.

In brief, culture shock is the name for the reaction people have when confronted with an unfamiliar environment and no familiar support systems in place.

Culture shock typically goes through the following stages:

  • Honeymoon Stage – everything looks charming. You feel like a tourist on holiday. Everything is new and exciting and your expectations are high.
  • Crisis Stage – this is the actual ‘shock’ stage. You realize just how different it really is in your new surroundings. Even the most mundane chores feel tedious and complicated. Everything takes so much longer to do. Things don’t appear so charming anymore, just a hassle. You may feel irritable and hostile, particularly towards your parents or spouse or even the employer who may have been responsible for bringing you here.
  • Adaptation Stage – things are becoming more familiar, you understand the cultural values and cues that passed unnoticed earlier and in general you feel more comfortable in your new culture. Your sense of humor returns.

Now think about returning home after living abroad for some time. The same thing happens when you return to your passport country. It’s called "reverse culture shock" and it is just as powerful as moving to a foreign country. In fact, it is three times more difficult to return home than it is to go abroad. When we move abroad, we expect things will be different. But when we return home, we expect things to be the same and they aren’t. Things have changed while we were away. We have changed while we were away.

IFT offers customized repatriation training sessions for students, families or groups. Click here to visit the "Services" menu.

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