Did you leave your remote community for a trip to your ‘other’ home to a more urban area this Christmas or NY? Did it hit you hard? Culture shock is not a new malady but has been around since the beginning of time (Wallen, 1967, p. 722). ‘Reverse culture shock’ is what we use to describe how a person might be impacted when returning to their origins or culture, after a long time away. Or in other words, the changes we go through after integrating ‘ways of being’ and connection to a ‘space, place and language’ to another society; namely here a remote Indigenous Australian one. 

As illustrated in the diagram, according to Steward & Leggat (1998, p. 85) the cultural adjustment process takes approximately one year, and passes through arguably four or five stages and phases; elation, depression, recovery and acculturation OR, contact, disintegration, reintegration, autonomy and independence (Steward & Leggat, 1998, p. 85).

(Steward & Leggat, 1998, p. 86)

Research into the wellbeing of health and community workers moving to remote and isolated areas in Canada show the U-shaped curve hypothesis “being worst at approximately 6 months”, and with women often encountering greater stress throughout this process (Steward & Leggat, 1998, p. 88).

Stages of culture shock initially start with the basics such as diverse customs, climate, and language (Wallen, 1967, p. 722). After living or working in remote Indigenous Australian communities for more than one year, you can begin to expect the experience of ‘reverse culture-shock’ when returning to where you came from before.

The six key symptoms of culture shock or reverse culture shock include, strain and effort to adapt, a sense of grief and feelings around identity-loss, rejecting or being rejected by people, confusion, surprise, anxiety, disgust or indignation about differences, feelings of impotence due to reduced resilience (Steward & Leggat, 1998, p. 84).

Just like standard culture shock, ‘reverse culture-shock’ can move into  regression in the form of fantasies and benign mental images of the person’s previous culture. All things from the past are suddenly inflated and viewed as being wonderful” (Wallen, 1967, p. 722). In other words, romanticising the culture you are currently most adapted to at the moment, when away or separated from that place.

This phenomenon can be experienced on varying degrees and can be quite confusing – particularly due to limited support, knowledge and the lack of lived-experience by the vast majority of the Australian population. Most people assume you can only experience this travelling overseas or in a third world country, but it happens right here at home in Australia – and highlights just how different our lives on remote Indigenous communities really are in law, culture, language, ‘ways of being’ and connection to space and place.

Factors that influence the severity of culture or reverse culture shock include how much ‘control’ you feel over your experiences, intrapersonal factors like age or experience, tolerance and/or personal appearance play a part (Steward & Leggat, 1998, p. 85). Other biological factors that determine the degree of impact include your physical health and wellbeing, the impact of biorhythmic disruption from change of altitude, climate or pathogens (Steward & Leggat, 1998, p. 85). There is also the ‘spatial-temporal’ factors such as the length of time spent away, and just how diverse the culture was in terms of dress, food, customs, religious or spiritual differences (Steward & Leggat, 1998, p. 85). And finally, interpersonal aspects such as your personal social networks and financial health play a role in how much the impact is felt (Steward & Leggat, 1998, p. 85).

One of our World Central Mentors Yarran coined our remote Indigenous communities the ‘fourth world’… as it illustrates the parameters of how many of our remote Australian societies do not fall within 1stor 3rdworld categories, but a world of its own; within a first world.

If you are reading this and are the family, friend or loved one of a non-Indigenous ‘Two-Way’ leader, who lives and works in remote Indigenous community service delivery, you too can become more educated and aware by taking advantage of our free Central Axis subscription; developing your ability to engage in ‘active listening’, and even planning a trip out to spend some slow-time on community. 

You might also be surprised at how much spending time on community may enrich your loved-one’s life and work out-bush, as generally speaking, remote Indigenous Australian families are interested to learn where non-local people come from and the family you belong to. This is largely due to the fact that many remote traditional communities are based on complex family systems which gives all blood and non-blood relations within a community a recognised position, in the order of the whole and in relationship to each other. 

We require a great deal more research to spread awareness on Australian remote practice, and the limited relevant academic studies or research in this area generally comes from New Zealand or Canada (Zapf, 1993, pp. 694-704). As you are aware, at World Central we have begun developing resources in this area and providing access to quality articles – however until we gain real funds in research, we can only scratch the surface on many areas of importance in remote practice in this specific context.

This is yet another reason why we created our ‘Two-Way Leadership’ Support, to share rich lived-experienced and knowledge in real-time through our Mentor and support services, from those who have years of experience.

Madden, S. 2020


Steward, L. & Leggat, P. A. (1998). Culture Shock and Travelers. Journal of Travel Medicine, 5(2), pp. 84-88. Doi: https://doi-org.alumniproxy.library.qut.edu.au/10.1111/j.1708-8305.1998.tb00469.x

Zapf, M. K. (1993). Remote Practice and Culture Shock: Social Workers Moving to Isolated Northern Regions. Social Work38(6), pp. 694–704. Doi: https://doi-org.alumniproxy.library.qut.edu.au/10.1093/sw/38.6.694

Wallen, V. (1967). Culture Shock and the Problem of Adjustment to a New Overseas Environment. Military Medicine, 132(9), pp. 722–725. Doi: https://doi-org.alumniproxy.library.qut.edu.au/10.1093/milmed/132.9.722

References also made to knowledge based on lived-experience.