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A short essay about culture from a third culture kid

Max, our resident TCK, explains the notion of the Third Culture Kid, and what an employer or recruiter you can expect from this unique but expanding group.

A “third culture kid” or TCK is often defined as someone who grows up in a different culture, or cultures, other than their parents’ culture. More poetically put, they are citizens of everywhere and nowhere – only the airport is their home.

One expat moves every 44 seconds

Expats make up 3.1% of the global population

85 per cent of TCKs speak two or more languages 

Image of Kuala Lumpur Towers TCK Third Culture KidThe first time I was actively exposed to the acronym, TCK, I was a high school Junior at Mont Kiara International School in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Christopher O’Shaughnessy, a famous public speaker, was invited on campus. He talked to us about his experiences as a TCK. The term resonated with me, as I have the privilege of considering myself part of this peculiar group of people. Due to globalisation, there is an ever-growing amount of TCKs. The expat population has quadrupled in the last 25 years. The number has grown from only 73 million expats in 1960 to 230 million expats in 2013, and these expats have offspring – therefore continually producing new TCKs. While compared to the global population this is still quite a small number, a recruiter will come across TCKs every now and then.

The stereotypical TCK:

You may ask, what personality traits a TCK brings to the table? Or more importantly, what strengths and what weaknesses do they have in a business environment?

Starting with their strengths; they are very adaptable, flexible and pragmatic due to the constant moving and switching schools they had to do.

These transitions have forced them to acclimate to a variety of different settings. Iwama, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University studied Japanese TCKs. His results showed that TCKs had more flexible minds and displayed a higher bilingual ability than students who had never lived abroad. In Iwama’s words “TCKs swim in two cultural oceans”. They adopt a three-dimensional view of the world through their encounters with people from all social spectrums and areas of the globe. These valuable experiences provide TCKs with the soft skills for leadership and managerial roles.

This goes hand-in-hand with their cross-cultural skills and their broad worldview. TCKs see other cultures as different, but not as superior or inferior to their own. This open-mindedness helps them when working with people from different nations – they create community from diversity.

Lastly, they generally love to travel and prefer careers with an international outlook. TCKs will be thankful for any business trip they get to go on. More importantly though, they will know how to communicate effectively with a wide range of people from different cultures and backgrounds.

“Aren’t those who actually experienced living overseas better candidates for globalisation than those who have never left Japan?” Yasuo Ichimuramanaging director of the Japan Foreign Trade Commission.

Although there is a large number of benefits of employing TCKs, it has been reported that a significant weakness presents itself in the form of a lack of conflict resolution skills. Due to the fact that inconsistency and transition are inherent to the TCK experience, there is less to no opportunity to deal with conflict, effectively making avoidance the easiest option.

As an employer, this shouldn’t be too much of a call for concern. Acknowledging the potential blind spots of this group of people can provide steer to your performance management ‘check-ins’ and 1-1’s. As a manager, put on your ‘coaching hat’ and empower your people to tackle stressful situations with total confidence.

In a globalised world where interactions with people from all four corners of the globe are an everyday thing, TCKs can be a valuable asset. But don’t forget that not all TCKs are the same, and individual differences must be considered. The character traits described above are merely a framework of how a typical TCK may behave at work.

To all the recruiters and managers reading this blog, watch out for TCKs applying for a job! They might be just what you need if you advocate a modern, globalised and efficient workplace.

If you would like to learn more about empowering your employees regardless of culture, (or cultures!) give us a call, or check out this nifty infographic all about how you can transform performance in just 15 minutes – seriously!


Maximilian Koprolin