Going home

Regardless if you try to assimilate to the host culture or not, you often adopt some of the norms of your host country. Norms can be changed by the way you behave, and you have had to exist within the local framework. Perhaps you have been using public transportation at home, but if you live where no reliable or safe public transportation is available you have to rely on other alternatives. If you stay long enough in a foreign country, you may have changed so much that you will get a new culture shock when you return home.

Most expats do return to their home countries. At least among the Danes, only half are away longer than two years and 80% are back within 10 years.

Young people returning to Europe from America may find that they have lost a little of the "stiff upper lip" and started to allow themselves to show enthusiasm and go-get-it spirit. That is often frowned upon. Who of your old buddies will remain friends are not necessarily those you would have guessed before you left.

Everybody want to hear about your experiences abroad, but they are on guard at the same time. Telling them how nice it was to do XYZ may be heard as a complaint that XYZ is not the norm at home. People will much rather hear how you have missed ABC - reaffirming that they have something valuable to offer. And to return with ideas from abroad about how some things could be changed at home is not at all welcomed. Not invented here! And you may not be done describing by the time they have moved on from listening.

Thus, coming home can be a bit of an anticlimax. Where the U-curve (see Learning) describes the problems adjusting to the new culture, the W-curve depicts a new challenge upon returning. As is the case with U-curve you are much better off by knowing that this is a totally normal experience, so normal that it has been given a name and psychologists do research on the phenomenon. But as we normally regard our home country a "safe harbor" the adjustment upon return can be more painful. To some degree you expect that going abroad will hold challenges; you don't need your old friends to be part of the challenge.

Cheer up, a W also ends with a line going upwards.

Professionals returning to the company who arranged the transfer have similar experiences. In many companies HQ haven't given much thought to how they want to bring the new experience and cultural understanding of their returning transfers to good use. It is easy to make the decision to send somebody out because they have special skills needed in an affiliate, but while they are away they have not only left the sight of their boss, they may be out of mind as well. Once they return they are not fully aware of the changes, new people, new procedures that have occurred at HQ, and there may be no structured procedure on how to bring them back up to speed. Heaven forbid that they should have learned something or gotten ideas that could require changes at HQ.

On the personal level they may have gotten used to making decisions themselves, or, as they represented HQ, have gotten used to being treated with more respect. It can be difficult to return to the bureaucracy and the interference of superiors once you have been a big fish in the smaller pond.

Finally, if the returning employees suffer from normal "readjustment blues", they may attribute the feeling to the organization.

From a company perspective it seems obvious that this employee will be a good candidate to another transfer position. They were so successful last time. But for the employee - whose family may not want to leave again - this may not be a good option. Rather than being open about the stress this inflicts on the family the employee will rather quit than seem uninterested in "this valuable career opportunity".

Hence, attrition among returning employees is often far higher than for employees in general - but it doesn't have to be this way. The company can plan for a good job that can make use of the employee's personal knowledge of staff and customers abroad. It can be more open to feedback on how HQ may be perceived from the affiliates and listen to suggestions on how to clean up procedures and eliminate bureaucracy. Small things like introducing new colleagues that have been hired while the employee was away or a buddy that make sure the employee is not forgotten at lunch can make a big difference. It can also send a strong negative signal if the employee senses that he is not worth even this small consideration.

One more good reason to be well prepared before accepting a transfer to another country: Make sure that you can come back early if the match is not good - or stay longer if it is. It is too expensive for the company to send you abroad if you should not thrive at all. Remind them.

Just as new people may have been hired you have to remember, that the country you left is not the one you return to. If you have been away for a longer time your language may be outdated, your knowledge of local music groups, actors, TV-series etc. is lacking, and the general "zeit-geist" may have changed. It is not just you who have changed.

One way to keep up is to follow the news online and stay in contact with old friends. Write - Facebook, email, even letters... If you have left, how much of their circle have your friends lost? 5%...??? They can easily survive socializing with the other 95%, but you need to create a whole new circle of friends while you are away - and a new one when you come back if you have not stayed in touch. You can call and Skype - but if you are 10 time zones away, how often can you find a good time? Perhaps your friends don't want you to call at 3 a.m.

Another good reason for writing is that it has beneficial value in processing your thoughts. By moving your feelings out of the feel-brain to the action-brain you process some of the stressful experiences of adapting to a new culture. How often do we not ask somebody for help only to know the answer as soon as we have had to formulate the problem out loud. Writing can work the same way. And compared to talking on the phone, writing gives the option of editing before you press the send button.