Third Culture Kids and Cultural Jet Lag

In the matter of cross-cultural knowledge I think it’s safe to say that the term cultural jet lag is of crucial importance. It was introduced by Marc Perraud when he was conducting his research in cross-cultural psychology. He defines the term as „the phenomenon of partial socialization in adults born from bi-cultural/national unions and whose childhood was characterized by nomadic displacement during key personality developmental stages”. It describes an issue that is becoming more and more pressing, as new generations of TCKs (Third Culture Kids) grow up, and as far as we can see, it is becoming more of a social issue rather than an individual one.

Who is the TCK?

Third Culture Kids are the people who grew up in a different country as their parents’, or were frequently exposed to different cultures during the years of their early development. They can also be kids whose parents moved a lot, and they didn’t grow up to have a country which they can relate to as their „home”. In the case of third culture kids, cultural jet lag is the basic way of experiencing life itself. It differs from culture shock and the feeling of disconnection that expats experience in their new country, and it also differs from the feeling of disconnection and isolation resulting from reverse culture shock. These phenomena are the results of onetime occurrences, events, such as moving from one’s home country, or moving back home after several years of having lived abroad. But the people experiencing them still have a strong sense of bond towards their home country, and they have a place they can relate to as their home, even if at times they have shorter or even longer phases of experiencing disconnection and not finding their places. Their sense of identity includes a home, a strong sense of belonging. What third culture kids lack, is precisely this sense of belonging, which strongly relates to one’s sense of identity, and their cultural jet lag derives from a strongly atypical developmental environment rather than certain life events. (Note that TCK is a term that can also be applied to children and adults as well. A 30 year old person who has grown up in the above mentioned condition, is a typical third culture kid.) So, simply put: cultural jet lag is the defining state of mind of the third culture kid. But lets dig a bit deeper, and see what this means in practice and how can it shift from an individual issue to a social one.

Cultural Jet Lag – A Closer Look

Cultural jet lag is sometimes also referred to as cultural schizophrenia, which indicates all of its above mentioned characteristics, namely that it is not a passing state, but rather a prism through which one sees their entire existence. It affects the personality not just as a cumulation of experiences, but as the ground-note of existing. It is the constant feeling of being an outsider looking in, being disconnected. Being there but not being able to participate, to become part of it all. It is not about not being able to bridge the cultural differences. One can know all about all the differences and act accordingly, but on the inside they may still feel that they are not part of the culture to which they know all the rules and norms to. Acting on autopilot is a TCKs typical way of coping. The dangerous side to this issue is that the people affected by it can develop serious personality problems. Some of the symptoms include antisocial behaviour, commitment difficulties, often boredom or even apathy, social anxiety, lack of identity, and studies have shown that substance abuse is also more likely amongst those affected by cultural jet lag.

The Bright Side of Cultural Jet Lag

There are the positive sides to it, however. The personality traits and skills that can develop thanks to cultural jet lag, definitely scream for attention. Studies show that this state of mind results in outstanding creativity, global awareness, and TKCs tend to have a more humanitarian and also strategic way of thinking. And I see social responsibility kick ina t this point. We are living in the midst of a paradigm shift, but we already have the means of reflecting on it, and observing it while we are living it. I think the most important thing is to focus on all the potentials of cultural jet lag, whilst not closing our eyes upon its dangers. In today’s global workplaces the positive effects of cultural jet lag can be a great treasure, and the people affected by it can also gain by using the bright side of their experience to create value. Another important thing is how psychology is getting slowly remodeled and redefined by cross-cultural aspects. Recent studies have shown that cross-cultural questions affect such depths of human psychology as the definition of self for example. It is clear that a paradigm shift is happening, and it probably won’t be long until the basis for a new way of thinking and self-reflecting is built, all of which will be of great help in dealing with such issues as cultural jet lag for example. Until then the most important is to stay aware and recognize these aspects of a globalized world, and address them both individually and socially.

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