Cultural Identity Shifts


Every global nomad or cross-cultural person who has arrived in a new culture has a shift in how they think about themselves, i.e. their identity.  If you want to read more about how identity is a four-way interaction, I write about it here (the theory is known as Communication Identity Theory).  

Researchers who study intercultural moves and the people who move, have coined the term “cultural identity shift” to talk about the process of how we become aware of who we are in a new culture. The idea behind this is that much of our identity has been shaped by the culture around us.  This is why Indonesians are different from Ecuadorians and Fijians are different from Norwegians. Your culture has formed how you think, act and feel.

We are generally not aware of our cultural identities until we cross into a different culture. The contrast of the differences between how we think, act and feel versus someone else’ actions or thoughts casts a new perspective on how we thought about ourselves.  What was perfectly appropriate actions and reactions in one culture are now awkward in the new culture. We sense we don’t fit in but may not know initially how to best adapt to a new situation.  Figuring out this new way to act is called “acculturation” and it is a process. During the process, the new person will experience a cultural shift of their identity.

Cross-cultural research:

Nan Sussman, a psychologist who studies cross-cultural psychology, has done a lot of research about how people think about themselves in a cross-cultural situation, i.e. cultural identity shifts. Her research focused particularly on global nomads, or “sojourners” as they were more commonly known in the 1990’s and early 2000’s to researchers. While her research is relevant to some kinds of cross-cultural people, particularly global nomads, I think a lot of it applies to adult TCKs, who are a very diverse group of people.  On my references page, you can find some articles by Sussman and other researchers, de Waal and Born, who applied these cultural identity shifts to the context of TCKs.

(Caveat – the point of Sussman’s research is pretty chunky and I have found it difficult to explain simply. So make sure you are wearing your social sciences vocabulary hat before you continue.)

Elsewhere on this website, I have defined TCKs as “Someone who, due to their parents’ choice of career and sponsoring organization, spent significant time during their developmental years in a culture(s) other than their parental home culture and subsequently repatriated to a parental home culture for a sustained period of time.” I deliberately did not give a specific number to define “significant time” in the above definition because what is significant varies to each TCK.  Some military TCKs may have been born in a different country but repatriated when they were two years old and thus don’t remember much about their time abroad.  In contrast, a teenager whose parents worked for a year as teachers at an international school might feel that those twelve months abroad were very significant in their lives.

The importance of understanding cultural identity shifts:

Cultural identity shifts are important to understand because everyone who lives abroad for a length of time, changes in some way. However, change is only noticeable in relation to something else; a case in point is when you realize you’ve gained weight when your clothes don’t fit suddenly. You did not notice your weight gain after one or two days, but at the end of the month, your clothes tell the truth. Most global nomads don’t realize that they’ve changed until they repatriate; the same may be true for some TCKs when they repatriate, particularly if their time spent in the host culture was relatively short (a few years versus an entire childhood).

The four models of cultural identity shifts describe how people react to their time in another culture and how this time impacts how they think about themselves; i.e. their identity.  The models explain why TCKs (and global nomads) have different experiences with repatriation. 

Identity: Fixed or evolving?

In order to understand cultural identity shifts, there are a few psychological concepts to unpack first about identity.  Remember, the trouble with talking about identity is that it is a “both/and” concept, rather like light, which is both waves and particles.

First of all, the cultural identity shift has already occurred before the cultural transition; the cultural move is when one is first aware of the shift. Although we may like to think of our identity as fixed and unchangeable, the truth is that how we think of ourselves evolves slowly over time. Your identity at age 15 has many differences from your identity at age 45. For example, you may still like the same music genre at age 45 as you did at age 15, but your way of interacting with the world has changed. How you act within the world is part of your identity.

The second thing to know is a concept called “centrality of identity”. This is the opposite of an evolving identity; it’s the idea that there are some things about your identity that have stayed the same throughout your life.  For example, as a little child, your parents might have commented on how you took care of others; if you continued to take care of others as you grew up and even went into a profession where you could get paid to take care of people, this would be an example of “centrality of identity”. This is not a matter of a personality trait, although personality is certainly one piece of the many pieces that make up identity. This is more something that has been consistently “you” throughout your life.  The interesting thing about centrality of identity is that we define this for ourselves through the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Centrality of identity is a continuum. While we all have this sense about ourselves, some of us seem to have a stronger, more established, more settled sense of “who we are” than others. 

Two vectors of cultural identity shifts:

Sussman wrote about two interacting psychological variables that determine what kind of cultural identity shift a global nomad may experience during a cultural transition. Think of this like a typical X/Y graph with strong/high on one end and weak/low on the other. The first variable (the X on our imaginary graph) is an individual’s cultural flexibility, meaning how adaptable and open to cultural differences a person is. Someone who falls at the higher end of the cultural flexibility continuum would be very adaptable and open in how they interact with a new culture.

 The second variable (Y on our graph) is one’s centrality of cultural identity. This is a little different than what I described as centrality of identity, above. Cultural identity talks about the frame of reference a surrounding culture provides for how we think of ourselves as well as how we interact with others. For example, when I first lived in Japan, I was accustomed to people smiling frequently, as a gesture of general unspoken good will, as they do in many parts of the United States (New York City being one of the exceptions). Giving out constant gestures of general unspoken good will is not a cultural value in Japan as it is in the United States. Therefore, I could no longer use a general goodwill gesture like a smile as a “door-opening move” to practice my nascent Japanese language skills.    Notice that in this example, I described a behavior (smiling) that was used and informed by a culture (the United States) where I had recently lived, in comparison to a culture where I had just moved (Japan).  This again emphasizes that cultural identity is only something that one is aware of, in comparison to or in relation to another culture.  People with strong centrality of cultural identity would have well established ideas of how their cultural group should or shouldn’t act.

Four models of cultural identity shift:

Because Sussman’s original research was conducted more than two decades ago, I have taken the liberty of updating some of the language and also, contextualizing it for repatriating TCKs, instead of its original audience, which was “sojourners”, i.e. global nomads or expats.  For example, instead of “home culture” which would be a good term for global nomads, I use “passport culture” for TCKs. 

For each model, I use Sussman’s term as well as my own title. I describe where on the axis of cultural flexibility and centrality of identity the model belongs. I also describe the experiences within the host culture and the repatriation acculturation.

Model 1: The Grateful Repatriate (Sussman’s Affirmative model)

Centrality of cultural identityStrong/high. This could be due to moving overseas as an older child/teenager, and thus having a more established cultural identity. Also, the time spent in the host culture may be relatively short.
Cultural flexibilityWeak/low.
Adjustment to the host cultureMinimal adjustment to the new culture. Maybe social experiences are primarily with similar culture expats (e.g. living in a compound with expats from the same passport country) and contact with the host culture is nominal.
Adjustment after repatriationBecause the centrality of cultural identity was strongly oriented to the passport country and there was minimal impact from the host culture, repatriation may be experienced as a relief. Repatriation affirms the original centrality of cultural identity.
Lifestyle preferences after repatriationMinimal impact from time spent overseas. Grateful repatriates return to similar lifestyles such as those they enjoyed before the move overseas.

Model 2: The Determined Patriate (Sussman’s Subtractive model)

Centrality of cultural identity  Weak/low.
Cultural flexibility Strong/high.
Adjustment to the host culture Tends to have adapted well to the host country; perhaps the TCK was born in the host country and so was immersed in the host culture. May not have lived in the passported country prior to repatriation or may have only brief contact with the passported country.
Adjustment after repatriation Initially uncomfortable with passported country because their self-concept is relatively unformed. In order to feel like they are part of the passport culture and establish a stronger centrality of identity, they over-compensate and turn themselves into a committed version of what they think a citizen of the passported country should be like.  
Lifestyle preferences after repatriation These individuals eventually “subtract” their past experiences in the host culture from their identities and conform to what they think a “mainstream” individual in the passported culture would be like.  This is typically motivated by a strong desire to belong.

Model 3: The International Friend (Sussman’s Additive model)

Centrality of identityWeak/low
Cultural flexibilityStrong/high
Adjustment to the host cultureTends to have adapted well to the host country; perhaps the TCK was born in the host country. May not have lived in the passported country prior to repatriation or may have only brief contact with the passported country.
Adjustment after repatriationFinds passported cultural cues are confusing and uncomfortable and thus, initially rejected.  Comfort in the host culture is continually sought.
Lifestyle preferences after repatriationAn eventual addition of their past inter-cultural experiences into a dual cultural lifestyle.  People, food and customs from the host culture are frequently sought out and preferred over passported cultural people, food and customs. Also, this kind of TCK may prefer to travel than stay in one place (in contrast to the “determined patriate” model above).

Model 4: The Global Citizen (Sussman’s Inter-cultural model)

Centrality of identityStrong/high
Cultural flexibilityStrong/high
Adjustment to the host cultureTends to have adapted well to the host country.
Adjustment after repatriation Adapts well and relatively smoothly to life after repatriation. 
Lifestyle preferences after repatriationSeeks out other CCKs but is comfortable with compatriots as well.  Integrates elements of intercultural experiences into everyday life with ease and balance.

Other variables that can affect cultural identity shift:

As I wrote before, these models describe how a person perceives their identity during a cultural transition and using their self-perception, illustrates what choices they may make about life after repatriation.  In addition to the variables of cultural flexibility and centrality of cultural identity, Sussman also wrote that there were four other factors that can also affect identity shifts, but were not included in her original models.

These are:

Personality/internal factors: For example, an individual’s ability to cope and cultural sensitivity.

External factors: For example, the perceived distance between one’s passported and host culture. Canada and the United States may be perceived as similar in many areas whereas Canada and Morocco would perceived as culturally distant from each other.

Temporal factors: These include the age of the individual during the cultural transition and how long the individual spent in the host culture.

Cultural factors: For example, loosely-scripted versus tightly-scripted cultures.  A “tightly-scripted culture” has clear and rigid rules about how “normal people” behave and the penalties of veering away from these social rules are severe. Tightly-scripted cultures tend to be more homogenous and culturally self-contained, i.e. they do not borrow or adapt much from other cultures. For TCKs repatriating to tightly-scripted cultures, the cultural expectations of behavior are obvious and deviations from these expectations are not welcomed.  In contrast, loosely-scripted cultures have fewer social rules, more flexible standards for “normal” behavior and are generally more tolerant of digressions from normative behavior. These cultures are also more heterogeneous and pluralistic, i.e. diverse and so cultural expectations tend to be vague and can vary.  It may be that subtractive identities (i.e. the determined patriate) and affirmative identities (the grateful repatriate) are more commonly found in tightly-scripted cultures and having an inter-cultural identity may feel like swimming against the current.


According to Sussman, the first three models are the most common responses to repatriation and the fourth one is rare. Many TCKs can place themselves at the point of repatriation in one of the four models. Writing personally, the model that describes my repatriation best is the “international friend” and an example of this is how my cooking is known as “Lois’ funny food” (apparently peanut sate sauce on chicken is “funny”; I call it delicious!) among certain circles of non-CCK/non-TCK friends. However, I have noticed that over time, cultural identity shifts can change.  I know of some TCKs who were firmly in the subtractive model and are now in the additive model, after becoming parents and wanting to share stories of their childhood with their children.  I also know of some TCKs who were once in the inter-cultural model and now have become subtractive.  This may be due to their current circumstances and quest for belonging.

The models of cultural identity shift are useful for understanding what a newly repatriated TCK may be going through for the first few years after repatriation. Repatriation is a process and it can take years for some to work through. However, I’m not sure how useful the models are for adult TCKs, after they have become established as adults. Along with wrinkles and wisdom, another gift age inevitably brings is a deeper sense of self, i.e. a more established centrality of identity. Useem and Cottrell’s 1993 study on the influence of a TCK background on adulthood clearly showed this. In that study, older adult TCKs generally reported being content with how their lives had unfolded and treasured their TCK background, even if intercultural transitions, particularly repatriation, were rocky and sad.

I think researchers like Sussman were pointing to something important, with the four models of cultural identity shift, but I question how useful the models are long-term, given the many other variables (personality, etc.) and the passage of time.