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Coming Home


Coming Home

On their call about their book "Introduction to Type and Reintegration", Elizabeth and Katherine Hirsh did a great job clarifying that it may have been written with returning soldiers in mind, but that the concepts also apply in other home-coming situations.

The concept of home can be a concrete notion, e.g. a soldier returning from war, or a student returning from university or boarding school - for the holidays or indefinitely. Of course I would add the repatriate returning from an international assignment.

Home can also be intangible, in a sense that you may be returning to find yourself after a period of not being who you wanted to be or who you were meant to be, for example redefining your self after a divorce, or a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

One of the examples Katherine shared was that of a disaster relief worker, who spent some time in an obviously different internal and external environment, helping people survive. Upon returning home, none of her interactions had the same urgency and life-or-death aspect. Can you imagine what that felt like?

One of the keys I see here is not comparing apples to oranges. Every society and every person has their own level of complexity, and while most of us in the Western world complain on a higher Maslowian level, they are nonetheless situations that cause an emotional reaction. Self awareness through knowledge of Type helps us deal with our dramas more effectively, understand what causes them, and find ways to move through them quicker.

Next week my brother is coming back after four months in Afghanistan. I don't know how he and my parents are going to handle it, I don't know what he saw over there, how he felt, if he has regrets, or how it has made him stronger. I just hope he takes the time to reflect on it, and connect with us, his family, to help us understand what this time was like for him, in a way that is comfortable for him. While I'm at it, I'm also hoping to help my mother understand that her communication style is different than his and to let him come to her when he's ready. 

Next week also marks the one year anniversary my father was diagnosed with cancer. The surgery went well, the follow-up visits all showed no return of those bad cells, and still his cousin told me today he still seems pensive.

Are you ever the same again after life-changing events?

I don't think so. I don't think that's the point, either. The point is, everyone at some stage in their life has to forge a "new normal," integrating your experiences from that period, recognizing how those experiences have impacted you, acknowledging and accepting the change, and learning how to reestablish connections with the important people in your life.

Call me a "J," but the MBTI(r) framework and the information in this booklet provide an effective list of tips and strategies how to do just that.

If you're returning home or have just welcomed a loved one home and would like to explore the benefits Type knowledge can add to your situation, consider taking an MBTI® assessment and reviewing the book. 

Image by Grzegorz Lobinski, Flickr, Creative Commons License.



Repatriation dilemma


Repatriation dilemma

One of the respondents to my repatriation survey asked: how do you deal with coming back to your home country where you're feeling internally free, although there's little financial or personal security, after having lived abroad in a safe society with opportunities for personal growth where you felt internally at un-ease?

I can relate in that I love my hometown, and I know exactly what to do, how to behave, and who I have to be. The expectations are clear, family roles are clear, it's comfortable - and incredibly boring. Every time I visit it feels like slipping into a soft pair of pajamas, they fit, they keep me warm, and hold me in a loving embrace. That feeling lasts for about three days, and then I'm longing for a pair of sneakers to go outside and feel the fresh breeze!

Living in a different place, it's like every day has different weather, and that keeps it interesting and exciting. I never know what to wear! That feeling of excitement and stimulation lasts for a long time, and only once in a while I want to catch my breath and feel that stability and loving embrace again. I can do that by flying home for a visit, or calling my family with a video conference, or even eating a favorite childhood meal.

Sticking it out in the new place, over time, the unfamiliar eventually becomes familiar. I get to add a new pair of comfortable pajamas to the collection, and even though they're never going to be like that old pair I love, they are a sign of my personal growth and experiences I'm blessed and proud to have made.

Dear re-patriates: you're taking yourself with you everywhere you go.

I invite you to take a moment to identify what it is that makes you feel safe and secure and at ease and free where you are now. I agree, it's a paradox and perplexing to feel free in a place with high crime and corruption, and trying to understand it without seeing a solution can be very frustrating. Once you know what it is that makes you feel free, maybe you can brainstorm some ways to make those things portable and take them with you to another external environment where you can feel externally safe and secure and happy and fulfilled, too.

Have you re-patriated back "home" after a time abroad? What's it like for you to be back? How do you cope with the feelings of having outgrown it all, or did you slip right back into that pajama?

Image by Elizabeth Rose Sharpe, Flickr, Creative Commons License



Repatriation strategies

As with all other expatriate practices, repatriation also involves careful planning way in advance. As we have already discussed, the use of mentor programs from early expatriation stages helps to reassure expatriates that their experience will be recognized upon their return to headquarters. Also, thorough training programs should be in place to facilitate the re-entry of the expatriate and his or her family back into their original society.

Frazee (1997) also stresses the importance of involving the respective line-managers throughout the assignment to make sure the assignment will not exceed mutual expectations. It is important that all parties involved in ex- and repatriation have realistic expectations that in the best of all cases are put down in writing before the assignment begins. As the author puts it, "there can't be a guarantee, but there should be an international/domestic career-planning process with options laid out and requirement set (...)" (Frazee, 1997).

Information laid out in a repatriation agreement should include agreements about compensation, transportation, accommodation and in-country support. Especially the monetary issue should be discussed in advance, because returning expatriates will have to face income losses of about 30 per cent and are not as likely to enjoy the same perks as they did abroad.

While the company can monitor the repatriate's job opportunities, it is also important to offer them the possibility of managing their own careers while abroad. Keeping them informed about internal vacancies, establishing contact through the intranet, providing home leaves, the mentor program and other contacts to colleagues at home as well as setting up a resource center and vacancy database can help expatriates take their future into their own hands.

As for a time frame when to begin the actual repatriation mindset, Frazee suggests six months prior to going back home. It is then the challenge for the HR department to identify families that might have specific issues or doubts about coming back that have to be dealt with in detail. The repatriation training should build on the initial expatriate training, reminding the family of how they dealt with the first cultural change and how to apply the acquired skills back into the home environment. Involving repatriates in the home work environment is regarded as the "toughest challenge" by Frazee, but keeping the repatriates informed about the headquarters' situation, training them and holding a homecoming reception could facilitate the re-entry.

Allen and Alvarez (1998) identified some causes for poor repatriation and suggested the following strategies to overcome repatriation difficulties. The company might not consider its subsidiary's activities as very important. A sharp divide in domestic and overseas operations can lead to mediocre performers being chosen for overseas assignments, the "out of sight, out of mind" dilemma occurs and the HR strategies might not be well organized in that the domestic department does not feel responsible for the expatriate and his homecoming. The authors defined repatriation problems as a sign for broader HR problems, describing them as "symptoms of ineffective human resource management policy characterized by a short-term orientation in some cases and lack of involvement and responsibility in other."

The divide between home and host country operations can also place the expatriate in a difficult middle position due to competing priorities. It is therefore necessary to spell out expectations on both sides and plan for repatriation from the beginning. A short planning horizon will hinder the proper repatriation, as there might not be a proper job for the repatriate to come back to. The aforementioned contact, communication and mentor programs can facilitate repatriation, although as the authors note, especially the support from headquarters and mentors needs to be consistent. This implies that training and screening of mentors is necessary.

Planning ahead and linking the overseas assignment to the long-term career plans of the expatriate will create commitment and give a sense of security on both sides. Allen and Alvarez (1998) also indicate that broadening the re-entry 'time window' would also increase the likelihood of finding an appropriate position for the repatriate. Unfortunately, in reality most job openings will not be able to be held for long, but arrangements for the repatriate to return home early and the family following later can be taken care of. It is furthermore suggested to create a repatriate directory and network to maintain contact with former expatriates and enabling repatriates to gain insight into previous experiences. Repatriates can thus be used as trainers of future expatriates.

Black and Gregersen (1999) give examples of how different companies handle their repatriation. At Monsanto, for example, jobs after repatriation are thought about three to six months prior to the expatriate's return. The expatriate's skills are assessed and potential vacancies are reviewed. At the same time, the expatriate is asked to write a report including a self-assessment and a description of career goals. Again, it is noticeable that involving the expatriate into the process and listening to his or her concerns and ideas creates a sense of ownership and commitment and reduces the risk of losing the repatriate. A formal coaching process can assist with debriefing the international experience as well as with realistic goal setting.

Another example is UNOCAL, offering a day-long debriefing program for the whole repatriate family, identifying common repatriation difficulties. Videos from past repatriates' discussions are watched and sharing experiences is encouraged.

In summary, it is safe to say that the company can do a lot for expatriates before, during and at the end of an international assignment, but the ex- and repatriate him- or herself has ways of taking the career into their own hands. Remaining in close touch with headquarters, developing relationships with mentors and line-managers, maintaining visibility through frequent visits, and formulating clear and open expectations all ensure a smooth repatriation.

How have your own repatriations been handled in the past? Does your company have measures in place to make sure repatriate knowledge isn't lost in the process? Thank you for leaving a comment!


Frazee, Valerie (1997) Welcome your repatriates home, Workforce, p24

Allen, Douglas and Alvarez, Sharon (1998) Empowering Expatriates and organizations to improve Repatriation Effectiveness, Human Resource Planning, p29

Black, J. Stewart and Gregersen, Hal B. (1999) The right way to manage expats, Harvard Business Review, p52

Til next week, have a peaceful and happy one! Thanks to Maigi for the free pic.

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How to stay sane on trips "home"


How to stay sane on trips "home"

If you have ever ventured outside the womb the town that you grew up in, be it nationally or internationally, and then took a trip "home," you'll know what I'm talking about. Here are some tips on how to deal with thoughts from "how did I ever survive here?" to "why don't they get me?"

Generally speaking, the phenomenon of reverse culture shock and the in repat circles widely lamented feelings of "wow, I don't think I fit in here anymore" can be ascribed to the human ability, nay, our inherent programming of getting accustomed to everything. In other words, if you have soup every day, your palate will lose the craving for a sandwich. Likewise, if your life happens within a geographically and socially limited arena (and by that I mean you hang out in the same place with the same people all the time), you don't know what you're missing. Or maybe you do, and then you watch NatGeo or the travelchannel, read books, and find that you're at least traveling in your mind. Great start! Next up: language classes and tango lessons at the local community center!

What I'm getting at is that once you break out of your comfort zone, the home you've always known and the community who still happily recounts the noodle incident from the pre-school picnic when you were five, you can't help but grow. You develop skills in communicating with people from different walks of life and countries, and you learn to adapt your behavior to what is culturally more acceptable in your new environment.

The level of reverse culture shock, i.e. when the place and people you called home all your life seem more alien to you than the country on the other side of the globe where you've just spent three years working, depends on several factors, such as the length of time you've been away, how open you are to new experiences, or how involved you've stayed with your old home-base. Some people, therefore, don't experience culture shock but more like a mild culture surprise.

Let's assume you've been away for a few years and are now coming back feeling like you don't quite belong anymore: relax, that's completely normal. As stated above, you've grown and your familiar frame of reference has grown. Where you never used to miss a Sushi restaurant, the local cuisine may now strike you as boring. The cinema connected with happy youngster back-row smooching memories may no longer be able to fill the place theater and ballet have now left vacant in your heart. So, how can you reconcile the old and new you?

With a "yes, and" attitude. Instead of focusing on what you don't have anymore, feast your eye on what has come back to be yours for the taking. Instead of giving up the international lifestyle, find ways to integrate what you have learned abroad into your everyday life back at home, e.g. by participating in expat forums or starting a group for interested people in your community where you can exchange stories and maybe even teach a little about the big wide world out there. If you're only home for a vacation, enjoy the people and make the most of your time talking and catching up with old friends and family.

The trick is not to be hurt because they don't appreciate your fascinating stories from the far side of the planet, or get annoyed at their seemingly unimportant daily struggles. Remember that your frame of reference was very similar not too long ago, and that during the time you've done and experienced all your adventures, their lives continued, too.

A good exercise is using the listening skills you had to employ when you first went abroad: now pay attention to your old gang and notice their body language. When you're talking about white sandy beaches you've been served (enter your drink of choice here) at, do they seem defensive? When you explain your latest professional successes in great detail, do their eyes glaze over?

For all your stories, choose your audience wisely, and never brag. People can't help but compare themselves, and I'm sure you can understand the cavemen who considered pulling the guy who left the cave back in. Why? Because if he goes out and finds more food or a better cave, then those who didn't go will look bad for staying behind. There are always going to be people who are happy in their comfort zones, until the unpleasant moment of having what they're missing rubbed in their faces. And who wants to keep talking to that guy?

Note I'm not saying to hide your light under a bushel. Simply use some finesse and empathy, remember your sense of humor, and enjoy building the life you want wherever you are. Next time you're wondering where you belong, why not try on the idea that you are, in fact, accustoming yourself to keeping on growing. Frank Zappa said the mind is like a parachute; it works best when wide open. I love that saying.

How about you? Til next time!

Image by James Wang, flickr, Creative Commons license