Photo by Edward Howell from Unsplash

Americans, who have lived overseas in a different culture for a minimum of six months and are now living back in the USA, have a very different skill set to cope and to thrive in this new way of life. In the midst of ever-changing information and expectations due to Covid-19, their ability to adapt and to flex is off the charts; especially when comparing them to the majority of Americans who have never left their home country for a long period of time. This is especially true for repatriates who had lived in a culture very different from America. What’s the difference?

The difference is experiencing extremes. Repatriates have been stretched mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, linguistically, and culturally to a point of letting go of preempting expectations or assuming what will happen. They have embraced taking events or information in stride and then responding or reacting to it as best they can. In short, they’ve already gone through multiple culture shock cycles while most Americans are living through their first culture shock cycle but in their own culture.

Americans’ First Culture Shock Experience

No one ever expects to have culture shock in their home country or culture but it’s happening right now. Only 5% of Americans are expatriates (1), so understanding the feelings that are happening during the pandemic is challenging if you’ve never lived outside of your own country. Depending on your source, there are four or five phases of culture shock and each one will last a varying amount of time for any individual.

Phase One – The Honeymoon Phase

When you’re in a different country, this is exciting because everything is new and fun. When you’re in your own country, this is keeping the status quo and assuming nothing is going to change. It might not be great, but day-to-day life is going to be understood for the most part. Or so you thought…

It Feels Like: Life is known and familiar.
How to Cope: Be grateful

Phase Two – The Rejection Phase

Life feels overwhelming and what was “normal” doesn’t exist. You’ve absorbed more than enough things that are different which decreases your capacity to react well. The incomprehensible differences outweigh the comprehensible expectations. These expectations could be emotional, physical behaviors, and even thoughts.

This is when people will lash out at others, judge one another, and generally be defiant because they are yearning for a sense of normalcy.

It Feels Like: Everything is irritating and no one understands anything; it’s a very extreme range of emotions.
How to Cope: Remove your emotions from a situation so you can observe & learn…it’s not easy but it protects your emotional capacity.

Phase Three – The Regression Phase

You look for places and people of sanctuary. You may find yourself not wanting to go out as much because you can’t control what happens outside of your own home. You may become lethargic or only seek out people who’ve had experiences similar to your own. If you were living in another culture, you’d seek out people from your own culture or language so everything didn’t feel as challenging. You want a break…no, you NEED a break from the different.

It Feels Like: You’re drowning and everything is just too much to deal with right now.
How to Cope: Give yourself what you need, find respite and care. Know this is a season and it will pass.

Phase Four – The Recovery Phase

Life doesn’t feel as emotionally or spiritually overwhelming. You’ve been able to recharge yourself. Even though nothing in the culture or environment has really changed, YOU have changed. The Regression Phase is like a butterfly chrysalis┬áthat allows you to grow into something new and beautiful; while the Recovery Phase gives you space to stretch your new perspective. You’re coping abilities will have come back because you’ve weeded through what you want to focus on and what you want to ignore.

It Feels Like: You have a new level of understanding and action.
How to Cope: You can be optimistic and positive about things again. It won’t be perfect, but it will be better.

Learn From Repatriates

Repatriates have lived through multiple culture shock cycles because it always comes back – maybe not as sharply each time, but it comes back nonetheless. Here are a few things NOT to do when you’re in the cycle:

  • Blame Everything External From Yourself
    People are being people. It’s easy to say all of the different reasons why something is wrong or challenging; it’s hard to look internally and figure out what your responses could be in the situation.
  • Labeling or Judging
    When people are overwhelmed, it is easy to label things as opposites – good or bad, right or wrong. Identify it for what it is – a desire to control something when everything feels out of control.
  • Learn to Go with the Flow
    As mentioned in the beginning, overall repatriates are better at being adaptable and flexible than others. They tell themselves “this is what needs to be done right now” and have learned to accept what is happening is out of their control. Inflexibility hurts more and takes up huge amounts of energy because it’s all spent on defending something that’s out of a person’s control.

    *Going with the Flow and Agreement are not the same thing.*
  • Befriend a Repatriated American
    When Americans return to America, all they want is for people to listen to their experiences. Life can be overwhelming when someone returns so repatriates are highly sensitive to the experiences you’re having right now. Find a repatriate and ask them to listen; then listen to their experience and how they made it through culture shock.

Be kind to yourself and others as everyone is struggling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in both visible and invisible ways. When you’re feeling out of control, come back to this culture shock cycle and identify where you are in it. You will get through this season of life. Stay safe and stay positive!

(1) According to the US Department of State