I am a Third Culture Kid: Here’s What I’ve Learned

Third Culture Kids grow up in more than one culture.

Like Barack Obama or any other child who wasn’t raised in their parents’ homeland, I was expatriated and embedded in a foreign culture from a young age and learned how to adapt.

In fact, I grew up in three cultures.

My family was Swiss. At home, we had Swiss behaviors and traditions.

My school was French. I learned the French language, learned about French history and geography, and befriended my French peers.

My surroundings were African. The market, the neighborhood, the people, the culture – the reality of life all around me was that of the Mossi tribe.

I learned how to alter my body language and my behavior. Even my sense of humor differed depending on the audience.

This is what a TCK learns early on, which many only learn later in life:

Adapting is a necessity across cultures.

Perspective and Behavior

TCKs are in a specific cultural group all their own.

They are in a unique position where they are made to value various cultures, placing relatively equal importance on the behaviors and norms of them all.

The “rights” and “wrongs” that are culture-based and learned through primary socialization vary, and so the TCK learns that hardline views differ from group to group.

This allows some flexibility when navigating contradicting norms and values of the cultures into which the TCK is placed.

In this way, TCKs develop specific interpersonal behavior and standards of perspective that a child raised in a single culture does not, as they are not so exposed to opposing worldviews. 

A TCK’s lifestyle is different. Their communication is different, not only in its multilingual nature, but in its style, nonverbal and otherwise.

The complexity of their firsthand experience with multiple cultures produces in them distinct characteristics that enable their positioning as the perfect zookeepers.

Here’s why.

Zookeepers Know Different Species

Due to their knowledge of and relationship with multiple “species” in the “zoo,” TCKs have developed a natural understanding of various perspectives.

They can see through the eyes of the elephant, the eyes of the penguin, the eyes of the giraffe.

They can even see through YOUR eyes: the eyes of the monkey.

While those who have grown up in one culture develop firm values and norms rooted in that single culture, this can often hinder the acceptance of contradicting values and norms.

Those growing up in single cultures often view other perspectives as wrong, rude, forbidden, or even illegal.

Instead of seeing the whole picture and trying to understand the rationale behind another culture’s beliefs, their perspective becomes emotional, biased, and they tend to stonewall understanding.

TCKs, on the other hand, have learned how to monitor emotions about differing perspectives.

They are more adept at registering social cues and norms and more practiced at cultural sensitivity.

Just as they switch fluidly from one language to the next, they are able to fluidly adapt to behaviors of one culture or another.

To them, it is a way of life.

And this natural empathy allows them to be more understanding of YOU, the monkey, as you have “monkey moments” in a foreign culture.

In this way, they can help serve as a patient teacher between the two worlds, if you should be so lucky to secure their friendship.

The Zookeeper: Your Intermediary in a Foreign Culture 

As a foreigner in another culture, we are caged monkeys in a zoo.

This is a common theme in my blog and particularly in my book, I am the Monkey.

As monkeys in the zoo, we look outside our habitats and wonder at the strange animals called “humans” – i.e. the local people whose culture we’re living in.

Why are they staring at us all the live-long day?

The noises they make are odd. The fur they wear is multicolored. Their actions are diabolical.

But of all the humans who gather around our cage, there is one that we can identify with: the Zookeeper.

How Zookeepers Behave

Unlike the human spectators who throw peanuts at you, the zookeeper gives you real food.

More than that, she knows when you’re hungry.

Instead of making strange noises and pulling faces at you, she approaches you normally, she moves naturally.

As a monkey, you don’t fear the Zookeeper, because the Zookeeper doesn’t cause confusion.

Though she is not a monkey, she understands monkeys, and you understand her.

This is the type of person you need when integrating into a foreign culture: a local who understands you and who you understand too.

You may not speak the same mother tongue, but you are still able to communicate well enough to get by.

Cultural Food

The Zookeeper can feed you the cultural food you need to help understand their culture.

Good zookeepers understand both cultures well enough to hash out any differences and help explain their own culture in a way to which you can relate.

Knowing both monkeys and humans allows the Zookeeper to build bridges, providing explanations for behaviors and mental models to aid understanding.

Zookeepers can tell the humans, “You’re making too much noise and scaring the monkeys.”

They can tell the monkeys, “The humans don’t mean to alarm you; they’re just excited to meet you.”

They can tell the humans, “Don’t feed them; they just ate.”

They can tell the monkeys, “I know you’re not hungry but feeding guests is part of the human culture.”

Through understanding and effective communication, the Zookeeper is the intermediary between the two worlds, aiding both the monkey’s integration and the humans’ ability to help this foreigner integrate.

Next week, we’ll look at an example of a genuine zookeeper in action. 

Making Friends: Following the Cultural Rules of Relationship-Building

Is it easy to make friends in your culture?

In the category of “making friends” in the 2020 Expat Insider survey, conducted annually by InterNations, Switzerland ranks at the bottom end of the list at 53. 

Only Japan, Norway, Sweden, Kuwait, and Denmark offer tougher friend-making odds. 

The Local describes making friendships in these countries quite aptly:

“The way to their hearts can sometimes feel as long, dark and cold as the Nordic winters.”

And considering the Swiss concept of friendship and aversion to small talk with strangers, it’s easy to see why this would be the case.

An outsider might find it difficult to gain the trust and loyalty of lifelong friendship from the Swiss…particularly, as an expat, who is more likely to leave the country at some point.

So, how do you build friendships in countries where it’s notoriously hard and where your expat status makes it more likely that your time is fleeting?

Take Your Cue from Locals

Differing concepts of friendship can be a struggle, but some cross-cultural understanding will help ease the transition.

An American in Switzerland should be considerate of differences in communicational comfort.

Because the most important thing to keep in mind in countries that have a more restrictive definition of friendship is to hold back, as your own cultural approach will come across as overbearing.

Refrain from small talk with strangers in grocery stories. When with colleagues, speak in generalities and don’t get too personal too quickly.

And on the other side of the pond, a Swiss expat in America should brace oneself for discomfort when it comes to communication and friendship.

You might choose either to be open to adapting to the norm of small talk and practice sharing your personal life, bit by bit, or you might accept being viewed as closed and reserved by your American colleagues.

If your goal is to make friends and integrate, the first choice will obviously gain you more ground in a culture that’s more sociable than your own.

And remember: when you’re a foreigner, making friends is more than just socializing; a local friend can greatly aid you in understanding and navigating the culture.

Speaking in Generalities

As with everything, these generalities are not inclusive of every American and every Swiss.

You’ll find some Americans to be private and reserved and some Swiss to be more open to friendship.

You must always take stereotypes with a grain of salt and know that each and every person is an individual case.

Regardless, an awareness of your host culture’s general approach to human-to-human contact will help you avoid overstepping the common social boundaries that the culture deems agreeable.

Know the Rules: Understanding the Local Concept of Friendship

“True friends are the ones with whom you shared a sandbox.”

This is a Swiss saying, and it summarizes how the Swiss feel about friendships in general.

Friends are the people they grow up with. This is the general Swiss view.

They view foreigners’ concepts of friendship (particularly, Americans) as superficial.

They may also view certain areas of discussion with friends or social groups as taboo.

Because of these values and norms surrounding friendship, Switzerland might be one of the toughest places in the world to make friends as a foreigner.

In fact, many expats give up and stick to themselves.

But before throwing in the towel when it comes to cross-cultural friendships, learn the rules.

You might find it’s easier to make friends when you know what the local concept of friendship is to begin with.

Local Concept of Friendship

The definition of true friendship differs across cultures, as does what is considered acceptable in social settings. 

Simply put, to make friends according to local standards, you must know what friendship means to that culture.

The rules of forming a friendship in another culture are three-pronged.

They involve knowing the:

  1. Approach to Human Interaction
  2. Socially Acceptable Discussion Topics
  3. Pace by which Relationships are Expected to Progress

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

Approach 

One culture’s approach to human interaction – i.e., tone and delivery – may be very different than that of another culture.

The way in which we speak to each other – whether politely or jokingly – might be considered too uptight in one culture or too abrasive and disrespectful in another.

Knowing the tone and approach to communication that is culturally expected at different stages of a budding friendship can help you in forming cross-cultural friendships.

Discussion Topics

What can you talk about? What is off-limits?

While you might come from an open culture, some cultures are much more generally private than others.

They might see sharing private thoughts and feelings as oversharing, particularly if the relationship is new.

While talking about the weather might sound boring, being too intrusive or intimate in another culture upon first approach is a surefire way to be friendless.

Pacing

As with any developing relationship, there are typical steps to increasing intimacy in friendship and communication, no matter which culture.

Beginning with the basic level of personal communication, greetings are socially acceptable (and expected) to form common bonds during the initial stages of communication.

Next, you might engage in small talk about the workplace (if this is a situation in which you work together) and then non-work-related small talk.

If the relationship progresses, factual personal information might come next: sharing where you live, what you like to do in your down-time, etc.

As you move into true “friendship” territory, more intimate communication will be shared. Whether that’s a sharing of feelings, fears, dreams, the meaning of life, etc.

While most friendships develop along this curve, the pacing across cultures often differs.

For instance, you might move through all four stages within one plane ride. Or it could take you a year to reach this point.

If both participants are from the same culture, their pacing often aligns. They feel completely fine and comfortable becoming “fast friends” on a redeye.

If the participant is from a different culture, they might be uncomfortable with the pacing.

They might feel their boundaries are being intruded upon too quickly, and this invasion of privacy will be turn them off to friendship.

All cultures have different expectations of how and when to progress and intensify communication toward friendship. We’ll talk more about these rules next week.

English as the Lingua Franca: Is Knowing English Enough to Succeed in Business?

English is the lingua franca – i.e., the common language often spoken when people of mixed native languages gather.

This might make native English speakers consider avoiding learning another language and falling back on their English competency.

While communication may no longer be the most important part of learning another language (see last week’s post), there are many reasons you should.

Here are a few…

The Lingua Franca Shifts

The ancient powers of Babylonia, Persia, and Assyria all spoke Aramaic.

The Hellenistic empire spoke Greek.

The Romans? They spoke Latin and so did other cultures outside their own, in order to communicate in a common language with the empirical power.

The Spanish and French languages have also held their own as the lingua franca during their empirical reigns.

This is why in many former colonies, Portuguese, French, and English often remain as official languages.

French was even the primary language in Britain for three centuries, with the motto, “Dieu et mon droit” (“God and my right”), on the U.K.’s royal coat of arms still written in French.

Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, half the world was learning Russian as a second language. The fall was a victory for the English language, as this shifted the paradigm.

English was only adopted as the unofficial universal language of business in the last century, which goes to show how this trend can – and, likely, will – naturally shift.

Considering countries like China are becoming important trading partners, making Mandarin a key language to learn, English may not continue to hold this position as universal language for long.

“English Light”

In his book, Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One, Edward Trimnell provides another reason for broadening your linguistic skills.

He notes that “global English” is usually “English light,” meaning that oftentimes non-native speakers are minimally fluent and have not mastered the nuances of the language.

In order to negotiate with and sell to those who speak “English light,” language skills of your own are required.

The transition of global companies to communicating in various languages is prevalent in the shift of English web content over the years.

While in the late nineties, 90 percent of online content was in English, this has dropped to 25.9 percent as of 2020.

According to Trimnell, this is partially due to the mantra, “Buy from the world in your language, sell to them in theirs…” which is why international company websites are now available in dozens of languages.

Considering what we discussed with the Daewoo CEO last week, selling in a foreign language in a foreign market is clearly important, not only in regards to communication but also in demonstrating respect. 

The bottom line: the times are a’changing, and the skill of language learning should not be underestimated.

3 Vital Reasons to Learn a Language

“Hola!”

“Bonjour!”

“Ni hao!”

“Zdravstvuyte!”

While there are many reasons to learn another language, the below BIG THREE are vital.

1) Understanding Each Other

Communication – a vehicle to understanding – is of course one of the main reasons to learn a language.

English is the official business language of many international companies. Most managers, even of foreign companies, speak fluent English.

In this regard, successful management may not be entirely dependent on learning another language if you look at it purely from a communication perspective.

However, if you’re meant to feel at home in a foreign culture, better understanding will only be had once you know the native language.

2) Learning the Culture

As we talked about in last week’s post, language and culture are intertwined. 

Learning the language will teach you how the culture‘s people think – including your colleagues. 

One personal example of this: 

My father wrote the dictionaries for the tribe of the Mossi, whose language spellings weren’t standardized in the ’70s.

In writing these dictionaries, he learned not only about the language, but about the values of the culture, due to the importance of certain words and phrases.

Greetings, for instance, were many and varied.

When meeting a group of people in a field, you’d extend a different greeting than that of a group congregating under a tree.

Not only does the location impact the greeting, the response is also standardized.

Asking after one’s health is important, as are formalized responses to these greetings.

Even the Mossi are aware about how difficult these greeting customs are to master.

They have a saying, “Saan puusem yaa a ziibo,” which means, “The greetings are a heavy burden for foreigners.”

My father became fluent in the Mossi language and began to understand conversations and idioms.

“When the crocodile is sick, then the buffalo can drink,” for instance, is an optimistic statement meaning there is always an upside in life.

When you learn the language, you learn the culture.

It’s as simple and complex as that.

3) Demonstrating Respect

As my father did with the Mossi, learning another culture’s language demonstrates your respect for the people.

When a Walmart CEO announced that English would be the official company language in Germany, his actions weren’t taken well.

In fact, this – at least in part – led to the conglomerate withdrawing from the German market and to a billion plus-dollar loss.

Instead, handle language as the British CEO of Korean automaker, Daewoo, did. 

When it became apparent that General Motors, the U.S. company that bought out the failing motor company, Daewoo, was viewed as an outsider in Korea, Daewoo’s British CEO, Nick Reilly, took this to heart.

What did Reilly, known for his policy of “putting people as No. 1,” do?

Unsurprisingly, he put people first by way of appearing on a Korean television commercial.

When the people saw Reilly himself speaking the language to show his – and, more importantly, the brand’s – respect and commitment to Korea, they were colored impressed.

The result: the commercial resonated with Koreans, and the Daewoo company – although reorganized and rebranded in many places – saw a dramatic recovery.

Active Listening & Empathy: How to Communicate More Openly Across Cultures

Part of walking around in someone else’s skin, in their experience, requires knowing what their experience is in the first place.

This is where active listening comes in.

Why We Don’t Listen Well

Like empathy, itself, active listening is a conscious process.

You can’t leave your ears open and turn your brain off and assume that, just by nodding along, you are honing your listening skills.

Business relations are fueled by the powerful psychological tool of active listening.

Why?

Because active listening results in mutual understanding.

Think of your last face-to-face conversation.

Do you recall what your conversation partner spoke about? In how much detail could you relate what they said?

If your account recalls more of your side of the conversation than theirs, you may want to ask yourself two questions:

1) Are you talking more than listening?

2) Are you even listening when you’re not talking?

We are often distracted while in conversation, splitting our attention between thinking about what we will next share and listening.

Particularly when the dialogue is more of a debate, we tend to turn our ears off, as we’re more focused on formulating our response than we are in taking in another’s conflicting point of view.

Assumptions are made, because we’ve all heard the “talking points” before. So, whether or not the other is making a new and interesting point, we assume they’re rattling off old news.

The focus, then, is on winning the argument.

But the argument would be much more constructive if both parties opened their ears.

The Structure of Active Listening

  1. Focus
    When active listening, your focus should be on the speaker.
    Put down your phone, look directly at the speaker, turn the part of you off that is already formulating your argument, and really listen to what the speaker is saying.
    If you are multitasking or otherwise distracted, you aren’t giving your full attention and consideration to your partner.
  2. Repeat
    The speaker should also be aware that they’re being heard.
    One way to show you’re listening is to repeat what the speaker has said back to them in a way that recounts what you’ve picked up.
    For instance, the speaker is sharing a personal issue with you. After listening to their issue in its entirety without interrupting, you might respond, “So, if I understand correctly, you’re saying…” followed by a summary of what you’ve been told.
    You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying; but in reformulating what you’ve heard in your own words, you are validating their perspective in that you’ve listened with focus and fully understood them.
    It also helps you, as the listener, switch perspective.
    Sometimes you’ll find your own cultural framework has made you misinterpret something.
    By repeating, the speaker can see that you didn’t quite understand them and clear up their perspective, making this communication more effective.
  3. Open Up
    When in cultural conflict, one is often defensive and refuses to see their opponent’s situational perspective.
    Our natural instinct is to then not listen at all and only to have our voices heard.
    We lash out and might even get personal, which is not effective in bridging the divide.
    Active listening combats that, making both parties feel heard and allowing people to open up.
    A solution is more likely to be arrived at through active listening than through combative conflict.

Through empathy and the tools we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, you’ll be able to better communicate and deal with conflict cross-culturally.

Sociolinguistics: How Do Languages Change Across Cultures?

Cross-cultural barriers.

That’s what you’re facing when ethnocentricity enters into international communication.

You’ll run into every communication barrier imaginable, some variables of which include:

  • Language, itself
  • Nonverbal communication norms
  • Authority ranks
  • Technological environment
  • Social environment
  • Natural environment

Understanding the cultures with which you are working and studying up on these variables will help you combat your own innate ethnocentricity, allowing cross-cultural communication to go infinitely more smoothly.

Let’s take a look at how these misunderstandings arise.

Linguistic Misunderstandings

It goes without saying that language is paramount to communication.

But when you work cross-culturally, you may not speak the same language, which means you and your counterpart will be relying on translators to assist communication.

Hiring a good translator can make or break communication, especially considering, even without a language barrier per se, linguistic understandings can still occur.

Take American versus British English, for instance.

Both cultures speak English, with minor differences in vocabulary, so you might assume communication would be cut and dry. But the culturally-grounded differences in vocabulary, phrasings, and accents have the potential to throw a wrench in communication.

Sociolinguistics

Enter, sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics creates rifts in cross-cultural communications via the social patterning that sometimes distinguishes class, inflates stereotypes, or highlights other national prejudices.

In fact, the differences between American and British English actually stem from class distinction, itself.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the British exported the English language to America.

Those who settled in America pronounced the ‘r’ in words, something known as “rhotic speech.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, to distinguish themselves from the commoners, the upper classes began softening their ‘r’s. But the distinction didn’t last long as the masses naturally followed, thus creating a profound difference in pronunciation between British and American English.

The change in spelling and vocabulary was more intentional.

Without standardized spelling, dictionaries were necessary to preserve the pronunciation of words.

Those in the UK were created by scholars in London, while those in the US were compiled by lexicographer, Noah Webster.

According to some, in order to establish cultural independence from the motherland, Webster changed the way American words were spelled (no ‘u’ in colour, for instance), thus creating further differences in the English language across the two cultures.

Minor Details are of Major Importance

Minor details are crucial when it comes to business negotiations, therefore the fine print might be blurred by minor differences in language.

The more minor the detail, the more difficult it is to correct.

For instance, you can spot a major translation error from a mile away. Although correcting such errors may consume a lot of time, look unprofessional, and put stress on negotiations, at least they’re easy to catch.

However, accents, dialects, and cultural language choices can strain international negotiations between two cultures who are, more or less, linguistically on the same page.

We’ll talk more about this next week.

How Business Communications & Negotiations Differ Across Cultures: Rule- Vs. Relationship-Based

When you walk into a Western office, any Western office, you know that there are rules.

They are hardline rules, and they apply to everyone, across the board.

Western cultures (“Western” meaning the US and Europe) are rule-based cultures.

In countries where equality and justice for all are building blocks upon which society is built, this rigidity in rule-following makes perfect sense. Rules provide objective guidelines for companies, for government, for society as a whole.

Relationship-based cultures, on the other hand…

Relationship-Based Cultural Communication

Negotiation is the basis of relationship-based cultures. Even when it comes to “the rules.”

Managers in relationship-based cultures dictate these rules, and so the better the relationship you have with said managers, the better stacked you are at the negotiation table.

Anything and everything can be negotiated in such cultures.

This leaves a lot of room for ambiguity, something Westerners aren’t very comfortable with when it comes to the workplace.

Being as such, communicating within relationship-based cultures requires one to keep in mind a complex network of human relationships.

Rule-Based Cultural Communication

The company rules in a rule-based culture (like those in the West) are spelled out; they’re explicit. Unless a worker hopes to be fired, he follows the rules.

In fact, the rules laid out by Western managers are communicated directly, and they are often compiled in various written resources.

Most American companies have thousands of pages of rules, included in such documents as the company’s mission statement and vision, their HR handbooks, compliance handbooks, job descriptions and responsibilities, expense regulations, strategies, etc.

Written regulations, above all else, are spelled out for you. Personal preferences and favored relationships don’t apply (at least, they shouldn’t in theory).

This allows managers to communicate within a set of rules. They, therefore, often communicate directly, unambiguously, and concisely.

Negotiation

Considering each culture’s values and the way these values impact communication, negotiating tactics are extremely different across these two cultural types.

When negotiating in rule-based cultures, one often uses a direct approach, as the rules are objective, and disputes can subsequently be resolved using said rules.

In relationship-based cultures, where rules are not black and white, courtesy and saving face is the most important part of a negotiation.

A Western manager must go into a negotiation with the business partner of a relationship-based culture focused on building and maintaining a relationship, rather than with a strategic focus on “the rules.”

Americans and other Western cultures see business as business and not personal. There are rules, so negotiations can get tough, without partners walking away from the table with a broken personal relationship.

But with a relationship-based business partner, you can’t negotiate tough and then expect your partner to amiably join you in a round of golf.

This may be the norm in America, but not in China nor in Japan.

Instead, business and personal are intertwined, so the relationship must be cared for above all else.

Next week, we’ll talk about bridging this understanding.

10 Cultural Universals: Technology

Technology.

It accelerates and informs our culture.

Sometimes, it evolves slowly.

Sometimes, it evolves at the speed of light.

Sometimes, it is light.

When we talk about technological development, we’re not talking only about technology as we know it today. And by that, I mean computers, the Internet, and everything associated with the word “tech”.

We’re talking about the evolution of aspects of daily life across time, which can manifest in many technological forms.

What forms?

Technological Development

Technology involves the evolution of the way we, as humans, live and interact with the world.

How we make ends meet.

How we get from here to there.

How we share our lives and record history.

Some examples of technological evolution:

  • Transportation: the wheel->carts->roads->road networks->bicycles->trains->automobiles->planes.
  • Communication: oral tradition->written word->telegrams->telephones->email->text->instant message->social media->videocalling.
  • Industry: the invention of steam power->the use of steel and iron->development in coal industry->advances in engineering->development in chemical industry.

These are just three areas of our technological evolution that have changed cultures all over the world.

How Do Technologies Change Culture?

As Charlie Gilkey put so eloquently in his article, “Technology and Culture Influence Each Other”:

“As much as technology is created from the fabric of our culture, technology also creates the fabric of our culture.”

Let’s take one of our examples from above to illustrate this.

Communication

Just imagine how different life was way back when the only means of communication was oral tradition.

Instead of instantly sharing one’s thoughts with all the world, Bob had to travel to George’s house in order to deliver a message.

Communication, therefore, took much longer, the audience was limited, it relied on memory, and it likely relied on more forethought too, because, due to these limitations, it was infinitely more important that Bob conveyed his message correctly the first time.

Then, there was written word. It could be conveyed and delivered to the recipient with more directness and accuracy.

Next, telegrams. Then, telephones.

When telephones were invented, you could call up your mom and ask her when you had to be home. And now, you can even see her face when you do so.

Communication has taken on new, more instant forms – from emails to texts to IMs to Tweets. These more instant means of communication can rapidly impact culture. In fact, they’ve created tsunami waves in the form of social media movements.

For instance, as described in “Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements,” a social media movement in Iran has and is changing the status quo when it comes to women wearing hijab in public.

Such movements are so impactful that they are altering the tides of history.

We’ll talk more about that next week.