Monique Cumin shares her experience of returning from a period of expatriation and talks about the taboo of facing the “culture shock” in her own country. Flashback to 2009: after 10 years spent in three countries (the UK, Thailand and the Czech Republic), she decided to take up a job opportunity which enabled her family to return to France.
All seemed well for our return
On paper at least, this return would take place under the best possible conditions. My spouse and I both had good jobs in Paris. In my case it even represented a fine promotion for me. Our three children were delighted to be able to finally discover their own country, while continuing to study English in an international school. We quickly found the house of our dreams, just a stone’s throw from the school. We were very excited about the idea of seeing friends and former workmates again we haven’t seen for years. Who could ask for more?
When I got back, my friends asked me THE key question: “So what’s it like to be back in France after so many years abroad?” I was almost astonished by this question. After all, we were in our own country, where we spoke the language perfectly and understood the customs, so why should it be difficult to readapt, particularly considering the near-perfect conditions of our return to France?
The first months went by. I once again rediscovered the pleasure of buying my baguettes from the bakers each day, and was delighted with the quality of the fruit and vegetables on the market. We rediscovered the pleasures of walking through Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I threw myself wholeheartedly into my new job, which was a newly-created post, with the exact perimeter still to be defined. Without realising it, I was experiencing the euphoric stage of culture shock.
Reverse culture shock
And then reality struck me, a kind of feeling that I was no longer in the place where I was meant to be. A lack of ability to understand the reactions of certain French colleagues. The frustration of feeling that my previous experience had not really stood me in good stead. We can call this “reverse culture shock” something which people experience when returning to their own country.
I had the impression of being a stranger in my own land. I no longer knew how to complete a tax return (although it has to be said that the section on expatriation makes the declaration far more complex). I no longer understood a great deal about French politics: it’s a bit like going straight from season 3 to season 8 of your favourite TV series. New characters had appeared, others no longer existed. I’d missed out on 10 years of French music, films and TV presenters. My children spoke an adult form of French and weren’t familiar with typical expressions used by teenagers. For my part, I could no longer speak French with my colleagues in business discussions. My franglais never ceased to surprise them.
I had difficulty communicating what I had experienced. How do you sum up 10 years of your life in three very different countries, a tsunami, a coup d’état and so many other adventures? Where do you begin? And in reality, were the people speaking to me really interested in all my stories?
Cultural differences in working methods
Cultural unfamiliarity with working methods: I rediscovered, with fresh eyes, the interminable meetings which started at 6 PM, with no consideration for those with family obligations. People who took four weeks’ holiday in succession during August, leaving international projects in limbo. The month of May, in which long weekends and working time limitations paralysed businesses. Illegible and incomprehensible payslips. The army of interns. Bosses who are always right and have to decide everything. Analyses spanning 500 pages… just to confirm the current strategy.
The impression that professional experience in emerging nations isn’t really seen as a great advantage. Best practices from emerging countries are often given scant consideration by my French colleagues. They consider it unthinkable that we may wish to replicate an idea which worked well in Brazil, China or Tunisia here in France. Similarly, the CVs of staff having spent several years in emerging countries are often seen as less attractive than those who went to developed nations. Prejudice is still rife.
Why is the return stage often neglected?
These are just some of the symptoms of culture shock encountered following a return from a period abroad. In my case, this unease was quite brief and my capacity to adapt enabled me to get over it all in just a few months. For many people however, the situation is not so idyllic. When prolonged difficulties are experienced, it is a good idea to encourage former expatriates to take stock of their experiences and provide them with a forum in which to discuss them, to be better able to absorb the shock. However, support for expatriates in multinational companies is often focused 100% on the “pre-expatriation” phase (including intercultural training, language courses, etc., and rarely on the “post-repatriation” phase (managing their return). This is perhaps something which many HR departments need to think about more carefully!