Re-Entry Shock - When Expats Move Back To Find *Home* Now Feels Foreign

Going home can be tough
Going home can be tough
Katja Schnitzler

FRANKFURT - After the plane landed, the Baier family felt a little lost. The customs officer didn’t smile; the taxi driver seemed annoyed by the amount of baggage they had. The Baiers (not their real name) were “home,” back in Germany – but it seemed foreign to them. The family breadwinner, Markus, had spent nearly 10 years working in Asia and during that time he and his family had returned only for brief trips.

Markus is now working at his company’s global headquarters in Frankfurt – a city that neither he, his wife nor their two children are familiar with. Yet, it’s the whole country of Germany, not just Frankfurt, that seems “foreign” to them, and the culture shock they are experiencing isn’t only due to the move from Shanghai to a sedate suburb of Germany’s financial capital. The experience of working in the head office is so different Markus has had to reorient himself completely.

As a new Global Expatriates Observatory study by the Berlitz language and education company shows, he is far from being the only expatriate to experience what’s known as "re-entry-shock." This phenomenon can be particularly severe if postings abroad lasted for more than six years. Over 400 expatriates and 125 dependents participated in the study.

Most participants considered their time abroad enriching – in stark contrast with their homecoming, which they qualified as “hard,” “unhappy” and even “painful.” Sixty-two percent found reintegrating difficult, not least because one third would have preferred to stay abroad. A further third would have preferred to move to a different country from their home country.

Another reason why many homecomings were less than happy lay with the company itself, which only 19% of returned expatriates felt was really supporting them. The others felt that their experiences abroad were not valued, and they’d had to face the fact that they were no longer considered to be part of the social career network.

This was certainly the case for Markus who – more realistic about his years abroad than many others – knew that immediate promotion would not be on the cards after he got back. So when he learned he was going to be moved to the head office, he was careful to nurture contacts there and to monitor attractive positions as they opened up. But when he applied for one, he was told that he might have gotten the job if he’d stayed in Frankfurt, but that he wasn’t familiar enough with internal structures and the project at hand. Somebody else got the job.

His former boss had even worse luck: when he got back there were no jobs open at his level. However, the department that posts employees abroad has to take them back, "so you get a desk, but maybe no work," Markus says. His boss wasn’t going to take that, so he took the next available job – and is now below Markus in the hierarchy. "He would have been better off coming back, spending six months relearning the ropes and getting to know people again before applying for a job."

At the supermarket checkout

But only very few people can tolerate uncertainty of that kind, and because of the consequences for dependents, Andreas Bittner, the managing director of the relocation firm Institute for Intercultural Management (IFIM), doesn’t recommend it. Nothing, he says, is worse than spending months in a hotel. The whole family is concerned since “coming home” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll return to the place in Germany you think of as home: there might be good openings in other places in Germany.

Children face getting used to a new school and making new friends; partners have often given up their own jobs to go abroad, as well as friendships, which have to be rekindled or made from scratch. For the returning worker, finding that colleagues haven’t exactly missed you is as sobering as realizing that they are far from waiting with baited breath to hear how this or that is done in other countries.

But Bittner also points out that many companies don’t know how to make good use of worker experiences abroad, and suggests a kind of “company wiki,” listing the contacts and knowledge that employees who have worked abroad have.

As a company representative abroad, one might be invited by the great and the good – but this is not the case upon return. In many parts of the world, Bittner adds, expatriates are among the elite classes and have plenty of domestic help: "There, they were used to the housekeeper doing everything. Here they’re suddenly standing in line at the supermarket checkout counter themselves."

"You have to wean yourself off the privilege – and many don’t want to. I know many people that just keep going from one foreign posting to another for just that reason," says Markus Baier.

Bittner says the danger that comes with this, however, is that one suddenly finds oneself a permanent expatriate without ever having consciously taken the decision to become one.

So would it be better to avoid foreign postings entirely?

Not if you want a successful career, Bittner says. You might not be able to count on a promotion right after your return, "but the ones who fare best are the ones who are successful in their work abroad and then come back and prove themselves at home for six months or a year.” Indeed for some jobs, he points out, somebody with no experience abroad isn’t even considered.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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