How I (Mostly) Manage Reverse Culture Shock

Don’t pay any attention to the panic-stricken woman in the boutique dressing room. I just forget what it’s like to deal with helpful salespeople.

Feb 13, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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For the last three years, I lived abroad, coming back to the States exactly once. Now that I’ve moved to sunny California, I’m readjusting to the fact that stores are open on Sunday, the relatively low cost of public transit, that some people still use checks, and that most store clerks actually talk to you, if not accost you in their pursuit of commission and/or aggressively friendly customer service.

Adapting to these things shouldn’t be a big deal, and it’s not entirely. I had a worse time adjusting after I moved abroad, and coming back has been a terrific relief in many ways. Readjusting to life in the States isn’t nearly as tricky as I’d predicted it might be.

But it does seem as though I was gone just long enough that now, many of the little things catch me off guard.

I got a little weepy the first time I sat in my car after three long years away. I’m still rather giddy about cheap, all-hours take-out. I’m occasionally distracted in a supermarket, marveling at all of the new potato chip or gourmet soda flavors.

Mostly, I’m cool. And sometimes it hits me when I least expect it.

As I’ve experienced it, there are two phases of reverse culture shock -- at least as an American returning home. The first is rather amusing. Because I’m so genuinely delighted to be back in the land warm smiles from strangers, I too have become the ultimate stereotypical American, grinning like a stoned maniac, over-thanking everyone I encounter. These people are SO NICE! I think.

Really, we mostly are. San Franciscans are a particularly welcoming bunch.

The other side of reverse culture shock is when this friendliness goes hysterically haywire and makes me feel like everyone is deranged. I’m not even entirely sure it can be classified as friendliness. Manic desire to help? Unchecked consumerism? Bad boundaries? I don’t know what I should call it. You tell me.

Here’s what it looks like. One day after acupuncture, I made the mistake of wandering into a boutique in the Mission that specializes in outrageously cute feminine stuff.

I should offer the caveat that I’m not sure what drew me in. Because I live in a teeny ass apartment with exactly one closet, I pretty much don’t shop. I’d have to get rid of something to be able to cram anything else onto a rack or shelf.

Whatever. I walked in. Immediately, I was spotted.

“HIIIIIII!” a guy in a shiny vest squealed as he skidded across the polished floor toward me. “Are you looking for anything in particular?? Can I help you find anything?? What sort of thing do you like???” Only it sounded like one long question punctuated by high-pitched gasps for air.

“Ummm.” I smiled shyly and yanked at a woolen jacket that would pretty much engulf my body. When you feel overwhelmed, hiding in your clothes can seem like a good tactic.

He pulled a short, gauzy dress off the rack instead.

“How about THIS?!”

Here’s the thing. This guy was probably not nearly as unhinged as I perceived. But I spent the last three years tracking down salespeople, waving my arms in the air at servers, and getting aggressive with receptionists who couldn’t be bothered to give me their full attention.

Where I was living, customer service was a foreign (heh) concept. I’m used to being ignored. I’m used to dismissive and outright rude behavior.

By now, I even like it. Or maybe my introverted self always did.

The shrieking salesclerk followed me around for a bit, and quickly weary, I asked for a dressing room, where I assumed I’d be safe from his prying. Struggling to pull the first ill-fitting dress over my rack, there was a loud tap on the door.

“Brittany!” (He’d asked my name, presumably to offer better customer service.) “How are you doing?!”

For a minute, I didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t see me smiling politely behind the flimsy plywood door. This guy must think I’m Daria, I thought.

“I’m fine. It’s OK!” I chirped.

Understated for the win.

“Let me know if you need anything!!!” he yelled as if I don’t know how stores work. 

But I kind of don’t anymore.

I stood there feeling genuinely bad about the whole situation. Does his boss make him act this way? Is he really this enthusiastic about women’s wear? My lack of exuberance was probably disappointing us both.

I emerged a few minutes later, empowered by the few minutes I’d spent alone. I’d actually tried pulling on obviously ill-fitting smocks because I felt guilted into it. I needed to feel like I’d tried. And I regretted that my own frenetic friendliness didn’t kick in when faced with this happy, happy man. But instead of feeling charmed, I just felt overwhelmed.

I held up the big sweater coat item triumphantly. “This one is great,” I said. I guess I’d known all along it would probably be the only item I’d take home. Maybe, as a commission-based employee, he was at least pleased that I’d chosen the most expensive item in the pile?

I placed the rest in his outstretched hands. “Thanks for your help,” I said with a big grin. And what I meant was, thanks for pushing me toward accepting this as my new (again) normal. Thank you for not making fun of me for looking like a deer in the headlights.

Readapting is like anything else. It’s manageable when expected. Effusive salespeople can be cool when you know it’s coming. Maybe when I’m feeling less overwhelmed by new stimuli, I’ll go ask that guy for dress suggestions again. Assuming I have anywhere to wear a dress.

Also, every time I leave the house in it, I get compliments on the jacket.