We must prepare ourselves for the impending ‘reverse culture shock’

Kirsten Powley
Are you ready for life after lockdown? - Getty

Going ‘back to normal’ after all this time in lockdown will be weird. The more I look back, the more I realise how I’ve really enjoyed many aspects of lockdown life. I don’t want a full return. 

In some circles this admission is sacrilege. How dare I say this, when others have been so bored? Truth is, although I typically find it difficult to sit still and I’ve missed travel enormously, I’ve revelled in the chance to slow down and scale back from 100 miles per hour.

I’ve picked up interests and hobbies I’ve let fall by the wayside (sorry to my neighbours for my guitar playing; you’re welcome for the upgraded garden), and ticked off tasks I’ve been intending to complete for a long time. And I’ve gloriously not felt any FOMO (fear of missing out) from any influencers' or friends’ travels. 

However, as I say this, it’s imperative to insert some caveats. The pandemic has been absolutely awful in countless ways, many have suffered and I’m painfully aware that I’m speaking from a position of extreme privilege.

But the generally jovial attitude to returning to normal has made me strangely panicked and anxious. After having our lifestyles radically changed, including everything from jobs to socialising, we are effectively re-entering society again as restrictions ease. What if during our forced hermiting, we’ve changed more than we realise? This is an eerily similar concept I’ve come to know well as someone who has lived abroad and returned to the UK: reverse culture shock.

Culture shock is widely recognised, but reverse culture shock – “the psychological, emotional and cultural aspects of reentry”, as defined by the US Department of State – is less understood or discussed. When I returned to finish my final year of university in the UK after studying abroad in Australia, it hit me hard. Some years later, I came back from living and working in Canada, and even when I was more prepared for it, it still took its unflinching hold. 

The first time it happened, it was such an alien concept that I concluded I must be as odd as everyone else appeared to perceive me to be. The UK was my ‘real home’, these were my established university friends among my established lifestyle before I went away. I had known them longer than my new Australia friends. Nothing had changed. So why was I so unhappy and disorientated?

For some, the idea of exiting lockdown into a "new normal" breeds anxiety - Getty

They were right, my old friends: nothing had changed – for them. For me, everything had. Sure, the grey, concrete ziggurats of the University of East Anglia were just as ugly-yet-alluring as they had always been. The nights at the LCR – the university’s on-campus club – were just as dismally ‘epic’ and sticky-floored as usual. But I was seeing everything with a new lens; my perception had inextricably shifted. 

Each person has a unique experience with reverse culture shock. It can cover dissociation, depression, frustration, boredom, changes in priorities and a homesickness for where you were. 

In my case, and in my giddy excitement, I wanted to share my experiences with my friends and family back home, including them so I could bridge the gap between the periods of time apart. But the problem is they can’t relate – they have no context, no way to truly connect with or envisage what you’re saying. You just become a vacuum of “This one time, at band camp...” stories. It can make you feel very isolated. 

And equally, the bubble you left that carried on as it always had (for the most part) doesn’t particularly interest you anymore, or is extremely overwhelming. How is it apparently normal to get a face full of smelly armpit on public transport? When one person needs to move past another, why don’t they just say something? Why should you care about the trivial dramas of who said what to who and implied something obscene? There’s a world out there! New experiences! Different points of view! Growing as a person! Your inability to be entirely present can seem rude, as you search for the abyss in which you can fade to escape all these people who just seem to get each other. It often feels like you’ve left a whole piece of yourself elsewhere, which you try to bring back with you, but it’s like fitting a square peg in a round hole. 

I don’t deny that it can all seem a bit holier-than-thou on the face of it. But dealing with reverse culture shock ultimately comes down to a desire to feel connected and gather more meaning from an endlessly confusing but captivating world. And I can’t help but think that's very similar to how our behaviours have presented themselves in this pandemic.

We've felt – and quite literally been – isolated, a bit lost and disjointed. But we've also pulled together and found joy in the little-but-important things. How many of us have taken the time on our daily walks to listen to birds chatter amongst blooming trees? Or jumped on some bandwagon like running or baking and realised we’ve found a new, fulfilling hobby? 

It would be a shame to lose the relationship to the things that have enriched us and return mindlessly to that feeling of isolation and burnout we were so familiar with pre-lockdown. A crowd of people doesn’t equal happiness – just ask anyone who’s tried to see Angkor Wat at sunrise. Like living abroad or travelling for a long period of time broadens your horizons, forces you to go all-in on experiences, pushes you into dealing with a tough circumstances and changes your perspective in the process, these three months may have done the same to us (just without the need to do a bungee jump or imbibe ayahuasca). And that’s no bad thing. 

With this in mind, we all need to give ourselves a break if we feel a bit ‘out of sorts’ when we start to re-integrate. We shouldn’t feel guilty for perhaps not being as excited to have our diaries scrawled to the edges in meet-ups as society makes out we should be. It’s ok if you’ve actually become fond of working from home or have come to enjoy your own company. One reason reverse culture shock is so, for want of a better word, shocking, is that it’s unanticipated and unexpected. Accepting that your priorities have changed, and equally not placing that same expectation on others, is one helpful way of dealing with the oddities.

Of course, there’s one part of ‘back to normal’ I am lusting after, which I’ll be 100 per cent on board with, no anxiety lurking: travel. For all my infatuation with lockdown life, I will smash up my guitar and never touch my gardening gloves again if it means I can jump on a plane or train and have an adventure abroad. Reverse culture shock, warts and all. 

How are you feeling about exiting lockdown? Comment below to join the conversation.