With so much written about the challenges that come from growing up between worlds, it’s important to highlight TCK strengths too. One of the most powerful of them is “Cross-Cluster Influence.”
According to Cluster Analysis, there is a universal phenomenon that happens when diverse people navigate the same space—they tend to gravitate toward those most similar to them.
It looks something like this:
Think of the way children divide up at recess and consider the cultural makeup of city blocks. In a somewhat fixed environment, we’re naturally attracted to those who are like us. It’s an organic phenomenon observed in most social contexts where natural association is allowed. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together.
The result is a collection of social groups that revolve around each other but never blend, their members comfortable in their isolated likeness.
In professional and social environments, the drawback is clear: there’s a stagnancy that happens in each cluster. The contentment that comes from familiar methodologies, behaviors and social structures inhibits change and growth.
So when a cluster morphs into a more hierarchical format, as it naturally will, the person who takes on leadership will usually be drawn from the center of the pack—he or she will embody the traits, beliefs and lifestyle of the rest of the cluster.
How does this relate to TCKs?
Since clusters are built around sameness, the only members positioned to introduce new concepts, behaviors and methods that can enhance the group’s identity and function are those who dwell on the edges—those who don’t fully belong.
TCKs are typically the ones who hover on the outskirts of circles where one world-view is accepted as the norm. We tend to resist implanting ourselves into an immobile context, preferring to circulate among many rather than completely identify with just one. We’ve traveled in too many varied clusters to be comfortable settling into a group predicated on sameness.
Here’s the good news: the “mostly belonging” that can make us feel like outsiders is actually what allows us to bridge multiple clusters—because we understand and relate to some facets of all of them.
What a strategic strength!
The alienation we sometimes feel can actually be a platform for influence, a broadening and unifying asset.
Because we live on the outskirts of the clusters, we have the power and perspective to broaden the frames of reference of people who have seldom felt the urge to venture out of the “known.”
Not only can we speak of what we’ve observed, but we can attest to the benefits of different approaches because we’ve actually experienced them.
Our viewpoint is not diminished by tunnel-visioned allegiance. Our vocabulary isn’t restricted by single-cluster conversations. Our methodology isn’t bound by the pressure to work within accepted norms.
What TCKs offer to stagnant clusters is priceless: expanded viewpoints, innovation, diversification and broader networking across cultural divides. It’s a huge, over-overlooked strength we derive from the chronic “unbelonging” (see here) that tends to plague us.
The only barriers standing in the way of our influence are self-imposed and can be overcome with a bit of forethought and intentional thinking:
1. Value edge-living
Because being cross-cultural can feel like a lifelong uphill battle (see here), some TCKs have chosen to blend into their new environment in order to avoid the awkwardness or loneliness of being different.
They’ve chosen the center of the cluster in the pursuit of a sense of belonging.
This may be the result of losing sight of the advantages of being multi-cultured and focusing only on the challenges. Those advantages are legion and well documented: adaptability, flexibility, linguistic ability, acceptance/understanding, global-mindedness, inquisitiveness, fearlessness, tolerance. And that’s just naming a few.
In order to use our difference for influence, we need first to celebrate our edge-residence and recognize the benefits (as well as the challenges) it confers.
2. Identify yourself
At initial contact, it is wise to avoid overwhelming new friends and colleagues with our extensive cultural resumes. I recommend focusing on similarities first, then revealing our full identity (its strengths, shortcomings, frustrations and joys) in the context of established relationship. I’ve addressed that here.
Unfortunately, and possibly out of a desire to “keep it simple,” I’ve seen TCKs get stuck in the cautious phase of self-revelation. When we fail to disclose what we bring to our circles, we lose our voice.
And TCK voices are needed to bridge the gaps between clusters and to promote understanding, innovation and positive change.
So though blending in to the center of the cluster may feel like Belonging, I urge TCKs to venture out to the edges of their clusters—into the “Unbelonging” that can be a platform for their greatest contribution.
3. Resist censure
There’s a tendency for TCKs to assess the cultures we know. With our cross-cultural world-view, we’re in a good place to evaluate what we see.
The danger is in disdaining or dismissing the cultures we judge to be inferior. This can come across as arrogance rather than cultural savvy—perhaps because we use words and display attitudes that express exactly that!
Whatever the culture that frustrates us, it’s important to acknowledge that true influence, the kind that draws the edges of clusters closer to each other, can only be achieved when respect for all clusters is conveyed.
Speaking positively of all people groups (even while acknowledging shortcomings) establishes our cultural IQ, promotes trust from all sides and increases both the willingness and courage of others to learn from each other.
4. Be patient
What seems evident to us may appear daunting or too foreign to those who are comfortable in their clusters of likeness. It is completely legitimate for them to resist change, because they haven’t yet experienced what we’ve known.
Be patient. Slow down. Keep explaining. Illustrate what you’re saying with relatable facts. Ask questions. Be humble. Encourage. Demonstrate. Give it time. Make of your difference a force for good.
There’s no question that our cross-cultural pedigree gives us a perspective and knowledge base that can be translated into influence. Our edge-dwelling is a strength too often overlooked. But our experience-tested authority in those in-between places where clusters fray and begin to integrate will be maximized by intentionality.
We must first commit to value our global living, establish our credibility, eliminate any hint of conceit and exercise perseverance.
Only then will we operate in our most useful capacity: as edge-dwellers of influence, capable of drawing clusters into contact with each other for the betterment of all.
About Michèle Phoenix
Born and raised in France by an American mother and a Canadian father, Michèle is a Third Culture Kid fully engaged in Third Culture work. After earning a BA in Communications from Wheaton College (USA), she returned to Europe as a teacher at Black Forest Academy (Germany) and spent twenty years there deepening her understanding of the TCK experience. Now a published author (Tyndale), she serves with Global Outreach as a TCK Advocate, developing materials, speaking, writing and mentoring international families. Recent engagements have taken her to Nepal, Germany, Spain, Czech Republic, France, Switzerland, Turkey and Canada. For more on Michèle’s books, blog, work and resources, visit www.michelephoenix.com.