Culture & Identity

Culture TCK

I distinctly remember one of the first times I drove in the United States. I’d learned to drive in the UK not too long before, and I knew that I would need to constantly concentrate while across the pond to make sure I stayed on the right side of the road. I’d heard legends and rumors of the difficulty switching between left-driving countries and right-driving countries, but I took on the challenge relatively undaunted.

To help remind myself, I taped a small sign to my steering wheel that read, “KEEP RIGHT!” in bright red letters with an arrow pointing to the right. I have to admit, I actually did pretty well adhering to the correct side of the road! But I was rather unprepared for all the other confusing aspects of driving in different countries.

I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota trying to find a college one of my friends was studying at.

Minneapolis highway

The US has far more road side advertisements and bright shiny distractions than I was used to – I’d been living in smaller towns and villages in the UK and other parts of Europe. Not only that, but Minneapolis has a bewildering amount of one-way streets, bus lanes, do not enter signs, “enter only on days divisible by 4” signs, variable speed limits, and moose crossings. I was overwhelmed.


Stressed but determined to stay alert, I was horrified to see red and blue flashing lights coming up behind me with an accompanying police siren growing ever louder. I dutifully pulled over (to the right) and rolled down my window. By this point in my life, though I hold a British passport, I had developed a convincing American accent (thanks to exposure in the international world) which had helped me blend in whilst traversing the US. But I immediately knew it was time to be as different and foreign as possible. A police officer approached, clearly perturbed. Before he could even say a word, I delivered (in a truly over-the-top British accent) an apology-laden speech. Something along the lines of, “I’m so very sorry, sir. I’m from the UK and am just visiting the US – I’m a huge fan already! Love what you’ve done with the place in the last couple of centuries! Glad all that tea-in-harbor-nonsense is behind us, am I right?! Whatever infraction I’m guilty of I sincerely didn’t intend to break the law. I can call the British consulate if that helps. I was at least driving on the right side of the road, and that’s a huge accomplishment! Please forgive me.”

The officer was stunned. He leaned in the car and asked, “Are you for real? Is there a camera in here or something?” I responded that I did have a camera in my backpack if that would be helpful. I assured him I was real, brandished my British passport, and awaited my fate. He calmly explained that I was indeed on the right-hand side of the road. Unfortunately, it was a one-way street in the opposite direction than that in which was heading – and on top of that, was a bus-only lane. Thankfully he took pity on me and rather than issue me a citation, asked where I was trying to go. He then instructed me to follow him closely. He pulled in front of me with his lights still flashing and siren still wailing and escorted me all the way to my destination. I am forever grateful to the Minneapolis Police Department.

Believe it or not, this is a story of culture and identity above all else – two aspects of supreme importance to the human experience. There are loads of really good definitions for the word culture, one of my favorites is:

A dynamic definition; culture is a generalization about how a group of people coordinate meaning and action among themselves. – Milton J. Benne

But honestly, my absolute favorite is:

How we do things around here. – John Mole

The funny thing about culture is that while we’re all swimming in it, immersed in it, we rarely notice it… until it’s different. Most drivers devote very little attention to staying on the correct side of the road, it’s a given, they’re used it, everyone knows almost instinctively… but force someone to adjust to the opposite side and it becomes a worrying preoccupation. Many people in their native land would struggle to define their own culture because it’s a given, they’re used to it, everyone knows almost instinctively… but venturing to a different culture suddenly lends clarity to what your own culture actually is. How you drive, speak, think about time, perceive power – all of these (and so many other) aspects form part of the lens you interpret reality through: your culture.

Expats are among the groups of people who face the task of balancing their own memories of an association with “how we do things around here” alongside a new set of “how we do things around here.” The phenomenon of Third Culture Kids (those who grow up regularly traversing multiple cultures during their developmental years) has shown us that it’s possible to go through life with multiple cultural lenses. We can actually make a culture of multiple cultures.

Here’s where identity comes in to play. Our identity is quite simply who we are… but it’s also who we’re not. In fact, the expat experience often highlights for us more of who we’re not than who we are… at least initially. When I knew I was in trouble in Minneapolis, my gut reaction was to play up who I was not: I made sure to highlight my British accent to accentuate the fact that I was different. I was putting forward my identity as inherently not the same as my surroundings in hopes that it would exempt me from expectations that I would know “how we do things around here.” Many expats initially feel defined as simply “not local” when they are immersed in a new culture. Identity helps us rationalize where we belong, and where we don’t. Who we are and who we’re not.

With that in mind, I often think of identity as a zoom lens. By that I mean, I believe it’s a far more dynamic concept than people realize. If there were an incredibly powerful zoom lens on the moon and it zoomed in specifically on you – you would fill the frame. You are unique, and nobody is exactly like you if we zoom in that closely. Zoom out far enough though, and we could fit the whole planet in the frame. At this level, you are one of more than 7 billion other people, all on one planet. You have a lot in common on this level. I feel identity is a way of us deciding what different levels of zoom we’re going to concentrate on. At one extreme you’re unique and one-of-a-kind, at the other extreme you’re blurred in with all the other inhabitants of Earth. In between are various zoom stops like your nationality, gender, athletic ability, physical appearance, religious beliefs, ability to cook… all different ways you can identify with others and as an individual.

Culture is not the Sole Factor of our Identity

Our culture, and the cultures we experience are an important part of our identity… but it’s critical to remember that culture is a component of, not the sole factor in our identity. Additionally, much like our identity is relatively fluid when seen through different stops on the zoom lens, culture is actually fluid and ever-changing as well. One clear example can be seen in the difficulty many expats experience during repatriation. When you leave your home country, a snapshot of its culture and your place in it stays with you. While you’re away, that culture continues to ebb and flow – we update “how we do things around here.” Upon return, it can be very jarring when reality has moved on from the snapshot we carry with us.

Healthy Senses

For expats in particular, having a healthy sense of identity and appreciation for culture is a critical indicator of success. We need to feel secure in our identity to function well. A lack of a sense of identity or ability to appreciate culture will sap energy from other endeavors. If we feel secure in our dynamic identity and can foster an appreciation for our culture and that of others, we are equipped with a useful set of lenses to help us see reality clearly in various circumstances.

It Does Not Define

Sometimes we need the simple reminder that nobody goes through life stuck on one zoom level, we benefit from seeing things up-close and farther away – the same is true of identity. We all belong at various levels and that’s an incredible comfort. We are all unique at various levels and that’s a powerful diversity. Culture, how we do things around here, helps create the lenses we use, but it alone doesn’t define us. We’re more than our jobs, our ability to drive on either side of the road, more than our past, more than our nationality, more than what people see… we’re greater than the sum of all those things, and culture should be a reminder of how amazing our identity (and that of those around us) is on multiple levels.

Meet Chris – Expatriate Specialist: Identity Culture

Chris O’Shaughnessy is an acclaimed speaker and author who works with international schools, colleges & universities, government agencies, businesses, and other organizations to help expats thrive.

Read more and find out about his book and how to schedule him for speaking engagements…

Discover the Expatriate Specialist team, click here.

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