Hello, Reverse Culture Shock.

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I sit on the back porch with my Grandfather, drinking lemonade. The ice clinks in the same striped plastic cups I’ve drunk out of since I was five years old (and, presumably, the years before then, too, but those memories are less reliable, more a mish-mash of family lore).

As we sip, we discuss the small house lizards who scale the white-tiled porch, alternately pluming out their red necks to attract lady house lizards. Intermittently, my grandfather raises his hand, and calls out “Hello!”. The couple walking by, the older lady, the children trailing behind them a wagon of hot pink inflatable rafts, all raise their hands in return, mirroring his “Hello!”. They continue on their walk to the beach.

I sit on the back porch with my Grandfather, drinking lemonade. It's the same porch from my childhood, but I'm different. And I have reverse culture shock.

I sit on the back porch with my Grandfather, drinking lemonade. It's the same porch from my childhood, but I'm different. And I have reverse culture shock.

We are in the United States, and more so than that, we are in the South, where the greetings and grins are plentiful. At the public pool, a woman stops her laps to call out a hello to me. A gentleman holds open the gate, says, “Hey there, how are you? Fine day we’re having, isn’t it?” I mumble something in return, disconcerted.

I never thought a hello could throw me so off guard. But the thing is, I’ve adjusted to my life in England, where I listen to podcasts on the bus because so much as a smile to a stranger is bizarre. Where we keep our hands, our teeth, our smile lines and our sidewalk chit chat to ourselves. So my disconcertedness? Is it a sign that I’ve truly acclimatized to the UK? Is it… reverse culture shock?

I can feel my very American ancestors shaking in their graves, albeit this probably isn’t the first time I’ve forced them to such a thing. In 1775, my grandfather’s Hungarian ancestors came to the USA with Lafayette to fight in the Revolutionary War. For a spot at the proverbial dinner table, they gave up their Uralic surname for a softer, Frencher pronunciation. It was all for the elusive American Dream: that years later, their male descendants could be Presidents and the female ones could join Daughters of the American Revolution. Centuries later, I, raised a few too many states above the Mason-Dixie line, quietly decline membership, resigning myself to a life of misused dinner cutlery. (Cue the annual sad country club waiter who takes both my used fork and the correct fork, leaving me fork-less and acutely aware of my primitivity by the main course’s arrival).

I sit on the back porch with my Grandfather, drinking lemonade. It's the same porch from my childhood, but I'm different. And I have reverse culture shock.

So we’ve established that I’m not and never was your classic American flag wearing Southerner, calling out hello’s and fine-days-we’re-having’s to every passer by. But I’m from the Midwest, where we aren’t short of hospitality either. In fact, during my orientation week at college, I sat through a presentation where we were informed about the secret code of Middle Path (a mile-long path that stretched the length of campus). It was simply not appropriate to wear head phones on Middle Path; it was the campus culture to make eye contact, smile, and greet every person, whether you knew them or not, as you walked to class. And that’s what I did for my three years there (you can, then, imagine how isolated I felt my first few weeks wandering my English campus).

Of course, this cannot go without mentioning that in the year I graduated, there was a big to-do about paving Middle Path. A student with cerebral palsy had been admitted to the college, but could not attend as Middle Path’s dirt and gravel nature left much of the university inaccessible. There were debates, there were Op Eds published in the student newspaper, there was even a gravel-testing Alumni committee, dedicated to choosing the right consistency of paving stone so as to maintain the properly nostalgic “crunch” of their college youth. I’m serious. All of this, plus the hello’s, whilst a young man waited to see if the powers-that-be would permit him to pursue further education.

And maybe that’s the conundrum of America: we will give you our grin and our hello, but we owe you nothing else. My grandfather turns to me and says, “I have no idea who those people were.” We continue to sip our lemonades, analyze the lives of house lizards.

I sit on the back porch with my Grandfather, drinking lemonade. It's the same porch from my childhood, but I'm different. And I have reverse culture shock.

I’m sure that when I return to England, I will be wearing my American-ness on my sleeve. I’ll accidentally smile to a stranger on the Heathrow Express. I’ll reflex-hello as I navigate the cobble stones with my groceries. I may finally strike up conversation with my mysterious neighbor, who sits on his doorstep each evening, chain smoking in his purple bathrobe, just asking for a “Hey there, how are you? Fine day we’re having, isn’t it?”. You may even say it’s … reverse-reverse-culture shock (???). But gradually, it will fade.

Have you ever experienced culture shock? Let me know in the comments.

Sarah xx

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I sit on the back porch with my Grandfather, drinking lemonade. It's the same porch from my childhood, but I'm different. And I have reverse culture shock.I sit on the back porch with my Grandfather, drinking lemonade. It's the same porch from my childhood, but I'm different. And I have reverse culture shock.

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58 Responses

  1. this is very timely, as I will be heading back to the US this weekend! I’ve been back and forth to the states three times already since moving to Taiwan and I can vouch that reverse culture shock is REAL. I think for me, having all the advertisements and tv and conversations around be being in English [after being able to ignore/block out the Chinese] can get very overwhelming. also all the options in the grocery store – though mostly Im excited to have allergy-friendly items galore! very lovely writing by the way 🙂 enjoy the rest of your trip!

    1. Oooh Jamie, how exciting! Will you be visiting the mitten? I didn’t make it back there this time. I think this is the most reverse culture shock I’ve had yet, and it’s probably due to the fact that I went back to FL, not MI. That’s really really interesting that you get overwhelmed by English!!

  2. Loved your description of sitting with your grandfather! I absolutely agree about reverse culture shock, people here in Italy always pay for eachother’s drinks and rarely split bills (unless it’s a big group), so if you go for coffee with someone you pay one time and they pay the next. In Britain this rarely happens and now it feels rude to me to share a bill!! Isn’t it odd how quickly you get used to a new culture.

  3. Reverse culture shock is real! I was actually thinking about this exact ‘hello’ thing this weekend as we were trekking in the countryside and said ‘hello’ to every person we passed. Then of course, we came back to Santiago, and didn’t greet any strangers. I’ve always thought it’s a thing of city vs countryside, what do you think? When I go walking in the British countryside I always say hello to people, but that would be impossible in the city as you pass too many people a day, ha!

    1. Yes I’d definitely agree, in the US in particular I think people are SOOO overwhelmingly friendly in the rural areas but then cold shouldered in the cities. It’s that way in the UK, too, but definitely not to the extreme that I’ve noticed in the US! Interesting that it’s similar in Chile!

  4. Hi there, I’ve experienced the same thing. When visiting the US from France, the cheery inquisitiveness of people caught me off guard. I can’t say I was shocked by any of it, but you definitely don’t see that in France really. People may be curious about you, but small talk is kept to a minimum and people know the line between private and public. Even “normal” questions the Publix cashier asked me in FL when paying for our groceries made me do a double take. Like asking if we were going to the beach or what our weekend plans were. Would never happen in France. I wrote about reverse culture shock and smiling on my blog as well if you want to check it out. Not sure I’m allowed to link but you can find the posts via the search bar on my site. 😉

    1. Hahah “cheery inquisitiveness” is a lovely way to put what some may occasionally term “loud and nosy” ;P I was just in FL as well, and can vouch for those Publix cashiers!! And pretty much everyone I passed aha. Can you leave a link to your post here? Your disqus doesn’t link through to your website!

  5. I love your way of story-telling!! I’ve definitely experienced reverse culture shock – probably even more often than culture shock itself. I’ve prepared myself to move to Norway for quite a while so when it finally happened, I didn’t feel too lost and knew most of the customs already. It’s whenever I’m back in Germany though, that I feel like an outsider. It’s just so weird!

    1. Thank you, Van! My first love was always story writing ;P Yes I’m similar to you, I think!! I think because I prepped so much to move to the UK (or maybe was expecting culture differences?) I didn’t experience much culture shock at all! But on the way home I seem to get it more and more! Glad I’m not alone with that!

  6. Oh wow, you went to live in the polar opposite place to where you were from. That must have been a shock getting to England. But you’re prepared for that right? You assume things are going to be different so you adjust for it. I think coming home is a completely different story, you don’t prepare in the same way so these kinds of things take you by surprise. #WanderfulWednesday

  7. Oh how I love the South, well is Texas still considered the South? 😉 Everyone is so nice and warm. Even visiting my family in London, I go in for the hug and I can tell they are like “Eh” lol But then again it happens here too, every time I go up to NYC or Boston to visit my brother, people are a lot “colder”.

    1. Hahaha I guess that is debatable, I will leave the determination up to you Texans 😛 People are different all over – I think you can get culture shock when you cross a state border as well as a country border! And then of course individual people are so different as well. It’s a funny one! (But yeah… I am definitely cautious re: hugging Brits now 😛 )

  8. Reverse culture shock is more sneaky than plain old culture shock, because it’s often the last thing we are expecting when we finally get to return to the comforts of home. I remember being so confused when people kept striking up conversations with me when I moved from Germany to the USA (also the south). I couldn’t figure out why they needed to talk to me when Germans didn’t. 🙂

    1. Totally agree. I spend my day to day like among British people and Europeans, so I don’t actually realize how much I’ve changed (mannerisms, inflection, jargon…) until I come home and feel out of place! It’s such an odd experience

  9. I experience this when I visit Puerto Rico. I have gotten so used to the way of living of California that I feel weird when I go there. I tend to forget how people greet each other or how they interact. But, I am ok with that since it is not something I necessarily miss. #wanderfulwednesday

  10. This is an awesome post. I’ve been back in New York for about a week now and I definitely feel the reverse culture shock. I almost got into a car accident because people drive so much more aggressively here. People talk different, they eat different, they like to do different things. I’m from a very conservative community and the way people talk has also been a huge shock to me, probably the thing I hate the most about where I am from. The culture shock of going back and forth always keeps me on my toes and while I feel like I’ve adapted better to the culture in Hawaii, part of me will always be a rude New Yorker.

    1. I can definitely imagine!! Hawaii and NY seem like polar opposites. Yes I definitely experienced a similar thing – the UK, and the people I know here, are in general quite liberal, especially when compared to the US. So being in the South especially and seeing Trump signs everywhere was quite shocking as everyone in the UK of course treats the situation a bit like a joke. It’s interesting that you think you’ve adapted better to the culture in Hawaii – I feel similarly about the UK. I wonder if that’s somewhat about just being more adaptable to places as we grow older and have a bit more choice where we end up (although I guess you didn’t have a ton of choice with Hawaii aha, maybe my argument is moot :P)

  11. Ha I definitely found that when I went back to New Zealand as well. The shop staff were ridiculously friendly compared to some in London, but also asked questions that took me back as they were so personal! As many have said, it’s amazing how quickly we get used to a different way of doing things.

  12. This was so interesting to read! Also so beautifully written. Reverse culture shock is a scary thing. It’s really surprising when it happens and can be pretty unsettling. I’ve experienced it a few times now, first in my return from Spain and more recently when I was home for a short time before coming back down to Chile. It’s crazy how adaptable we are as people though, and like you said, culture shock comes and goes, it’s strong then it fades. After a few weeks in the States I was right back into my old life with my old friends and that weird uncomfortable feeling fled quickly. But now I’m back in Chile feeling right back home here!

    1. Thank you Lauren! I was drafting it in my brain for a while haha. Unsettling is a really good word for it – and almost like being betrayed… home is supposed to be comfy not unsettling! But then it fades (just as you’re leaving anyway ?)

  13. I definitely feel this. The first 48 hours after returning to the States after 3 years in the Czech Republic was…. jarring. People talked too loudly on public transport, greeted me (a stranger) a little too enthusiastically at a Subway (and then I heard the manager telling off some of the crew members for not saying hello loud enough!), and waited behind an old man in a small town thrift store while he counted every nickle in his pocket for like, two minutes. I wonder what sorts of things will be in store for this summer, haha.

  14. THIS! I felt almost exactly like this after going back home to the US from a year in Spain. I had to stay another year in Spain and now it’s finally over. I’ll be going to the US again and I am dreading the feeling. We will see what happens :/

  15. Beautifully written! And so familiar! I’ve experienced reverse culture shock after living abroad, but just as much in the UK – I grew up in the London suburbs but have lived “up north” all my adult life and really feel the frostiness when I’m back in the south east. Don’t lose your ability to engage with people – I’d rather be the weird friendly one any day!!

  16. Love this, and can definitely relate as a Brit in Sydney – where life is much more relaxed – I definitely feel more Aussie when I go back to London, and then vice versa when I go back to Sydney! xx

  17. My friends always make fun of me for using words like “take away” and “bin” and “chips” when I come home from being in England !

  18. Great post 🙂 although I think you will find that anywhere in the world, city-life is very different to life in small/medium sized towns. So comparing London to your home town isn’t really fair. I’m sure there are plenty of places in the UK where people are extremely friendly and welcoming. Likewise, you probably won’t come across many friendly chatty strangers in New York, for example.

  19. Great post 🙂 although I think you will find that anywhere in the world, city-life is very different to life in small/medium sized towns. So comparing London to your home town isn’t really fair. I’m sure there are plenty of places in the UK where people are extremely friendly and welcoming. Likewise, you probably won’t come across many friendly chatty strangers in New York, for example.

    1. Hi Suzie – I was not comparing London to my home town… I do not live in London (if you read my blog you’ll see I live in a small city on the coast). And I went back to another small city on the coast of Florida, which is also not my home town. In general, people in the U.K. are more reserved and this is generally recognized – not a criticism but just a part of the culture. And that’s beside the point – I wrote about one specific experience, not trying to generalize entire countries.

  20. This is definitely an interesting look into the phenomenon of reverse culture shock and American culture in general… The observation that Americans are friendly on the surface but generally won’t go much further really struck a cord with me. I guess I never really fit in back home to begin with, but this is making me wonder how I’ll see things differently when I do my own homecoming in September after a year in France. Great post!

  21. Very interesting to read and I love your way of story-telling 🙂 . People talk different, they eat different, they like to do different things in another country. But the culture shock of going back and forth always keeps me on my toes <3 !

  22. Hahahaa yes such good article!! I can imagine there’s a culture shock both ways. The south is incredibly friendly too. I remember when I was in New Orleans, everyone said hello (not so much in Chicago). One time a guy was on his cell phone, and he interrupted his call to say hello to me as he walked by! It was so strange to me lol.

  23. This is such a relateable post! I’m originally from Kentucky but I’ve been living in California for years. Every time we fly home to Kentucky and I step off the plane to smiles and “good morning” and random strangers striking up conversations, I can feel my San Francisco “headphones on fuck-you face ready do NOT talk to me” wall begin to evaporate. It’s even worse for my husband, who grew up in California and was like “why is everyone talking to me!??!” when I took him home!

  24. This was an amazing read. I guess it happens to everyone who travel for over a month..
    I live in Delhi (India’s Capital city). I usually travel to the rural areas and smaller towns on my solo trips. There the people are more connected and smile/greet each-other. I love that about the small places! So, whenever I return back to the city, I find it difficult to adjust to the fast and routine lifestyle. It is really sad.. Everybody’s so busy in the cities.. there is hardly time to look around and observe how beautiful life is..
    Your post spoke to me and reminded me of that feeling of going to some place and then returning back with a heartache.
    -Prachi

  25. Great article, I love how you write! I am from Belgium and live in Prague now, and I can completely relate to what you say. Although in Belgium we are not as friendly” as in your hometown, we still say hi to strangers, like when we enter a waiting room at the doctor for example. We also smile a lot to people in the street. But in Prague, nothing like that. No Hi and not even smiles. It was really hard for me at the beginning but eventually I got used to it. Now, when I come back to Belgium and somebody says hi or smiles to me, it surprises me at the beginning. But I really like it. Honestly I hate it when I can’t even smile and when people don’t smile ahah.

  26. Beautifully written! I experience a small bit of reverse culture shock whenever I visit my hometown of Long Beach, California (I currently live in South Dakota), so I can only image how large this reverse culture shock is!

  27. For sure! So used to how pretty safe it is in Singapore, I forget that when I go back to NYC, I can’t just leave a packet of tissue paper to save my seat at a crowded eatery, or better yet, just leave my bag unattended… Hehe

  28. It’s so interesting to read this as a British person… I am currently experiencing culture shock having moved up north in the UK from London. Despite it’s reputation as being WAY more friendly than London and everyone supposedly being easy going – I haven’t really experienced that. It feels kind of aggressive up here somehow, which I’m sure is my own misunderstanding of the culture. In London, I understand how things roll – OK so we don’t talk to each other on the tube, but if something happens, we’re all in it together and I can work out who I can trust quickly. There’s mutual laughs at funny stuff, and people helping each other out when they need it. I think people find me unfriendly up here because of my London ways and I find them unfriendly because I don’t quite get the culture. It’s very weird to experience in my own country…. will be interesting to see what happens when you get back 🙂 PS. Not sure where you’re living in the UK but where my parents live, everyone knows everyone and says hi in the street, just like your uni campus – so maybe it’s just really different everywhere 🙂

  29. When I came home from studying in Italy, the reverse culture shock was REAL in a way I didn’t expect. Sure, everyone warns you about it… but it hit me fast and hard and would resurface at the most unexpected moments. I think one thing that struck me the most was how fake our interactions feel as Americans… and when people aren’t willing to fake it, we dismiss people as being rude, rather than efficient or focused.

  30. I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog. I loved reading your feelings about reverse culture shock (and expat life in general)! I’ve lived outside my home country (the U.S.) for just over three years now and totally relate to the way the smallest things throw you way, way off. I read someone else say that it’s as if everything has moved a few inches to right and so you’re constantly stumbling, just a little bit off. I thought that was an interesting way to put it.

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