My professional career began in the 1980s, when the head of one of the largest investment banks in Hong Kong needed support with his cross-cultural team. Perhaps because I hold an MEd—with a specialisation in cross-cultural studies—and have an interest in the field, my resume would have fit the requirements.
Resumes, however, are only paper-thin-deep; my skills in cross-cultural environments probably have more roots in my childhood, rather than my thesis.
The term Third Culture Kids (TCKs) was coined in the 1950s by Dr Ruth Hill Useem. It describes the experience of children—including Dr Useem’s own children—who follow their parents into another society during their developmental years. Being British-American myself, having attended eight different schools prior to graduation, and having raised two TCKs, I know the acronym like the back of my passport.
Though such a life might leave TCKs feeling uprooted and chronically out-of-place, there are silver — even golden — linings.
For example, it is through close contact with different—often conflicting—cultures that TCKs are almost forced into tolerance, understanding, and adaptability from a young age. A TCK might master indirect English etiquette, but remain unfazed by Dutch directness. A TCK might throw open their doors to Indonesian hospitality, whilst being acutely aware of North American hints and limits. A TCK might feel more at home amongst Muslims, and still be able to quote the catechisms of Christianity. And the comparisons go on…
Sure, all this is useful if a TCK’s work is in supporting a cross-cultural team, but where does that leave the rest of them?
Throughout my career I have advised, trained and coached—and given seminars, presentations, and seminars to—a wealth of organizations. Though these organization have included a diversity of multi-national companies, governments, and educational institutions, I have seen a number of similar themes cropping up.
For example, in this increasingly globalized world where project partners and supply chains criss-cross the continents, managers often describe their ideal employee as a textbook TCK: globally-minded, adaptable, and university-educated.
In preparation for an upcoming book, The Path of the Pomegranate, I conducted interviews with 333 adult TCKs. One of their defining features was indeed being highly educated—301 of 333, lucky to attend international schools around the globe, went on to receive at least an undergraduate degree. 261 received a Masters.
The insights didn’t end there, however, as the fact that 48% held two or more passports testified their dynamic nature.
Though many of my interviewees described issues of rootlessness and restlessness, I hope to show through my work that the demands of the increasingly cross-cultural world of business are pregnant with the promise of a warm welcome for TCKs.
Please read the blogs on this site to find out more.