[This article is available in audio format on the Pondering Purple podcast.]
With so much written about the challenges that come from growing up between worlds, it’s important to highlight TCK strengths too. One of the most powerful of them is “Cross-Cluster Influence.”
Cluster Analysis is a social science theory that essentially supports the fact that “birds of a feather flock together.” At least—they do before a healthy TCK enters the picture .
I don’t want to get too deeply into the weeds, but here’s how it essentially plays out. According to Cluster Analysis, there is a universal phenomenon that happens when diverse people navigate the same space—they tend to gravitate toward those most similar to them.
Think of the way children naturally divide up at recess or consider the cultural makeup of city blocks. In a somewhat fixed environment, we’re naturally attracted to those who are like us. It’s an organic thing observed in most contexts where natural association is allowed. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together.
The result is a collection of social groups that revolve around each other but never blend—mostly because their members are comfortable in their isolated likeness.
In professional and social environments, the drawback is clear: there’s a stagnancy that happens in each cluster. The contentment that comes from familiar methodologies, behaviors and social structures doesn’t encourage or inspire change or growth.
The person who takes on leadership in a cluster will usually be drawn from the center of the pack—he or she will embody the traits, beliefs and lifestyle of the rest of the cluster. This even further inhibits any kind of meaningful opening to other perspectives and practices.
How does this relate to TCKs and MKs, you might ask?
Here’s how: We are uniquely equipped to be Cluster Busters. We just need to a) realize that we are and b) go about it thoughtfully.
Since clusters are built around sameness, the only members positioned to introduce new concepts, behaviors and methods that can enhance the group’s identity and maybe even expand its function are those who dwell on the edges—those who don’t fully belong. (You can look back at this article for more on TCKs and belonging.)
TCKs are typically the ones who hover on the outskirts of circles where a singular world-view is accepted as the norm. We tend to resist implanting ourselves into a matchy-matchy, immobile cluster, preferring to circulate among many groups rather than completely identifying with just one of them. We’ve traveled our whole lives in varied clusters and the thought of being confined to just one of them feels diminishing to us. Not to mention claustrophobic.
Here’s the good news: the sense of “unbelonging” that can make us feel like outsiders is actually what allows us to bridge the gap between clusters—because we can understand and relate to some facets of all of them.
The alienation we sometimes feel can actually be a platform for influence, a diversifying and bridge-building asset. What a strategic strength!
Because we live on the outskirts of most clusters, we have the power and perspective to broaden the frames of reference of people who have seldom felt the urge to venture out of the “known.”
Not only can we speak of what we’ve observed, but we can attest to the benefits of different approaches because we’ve actually experienced them.
Our viewpoint is not diminished by tunnel-visioned allegiance. Our vocabulary isn’t restricted by single-cluster conversations. Our methodology isn’t bound by the pressure to work within accepted norms.
What TCKs offer to stagnant clusters is priceless. It’s expanded viewpoints, innovation, diversification and rich networking across cultural divides. It’s a huge, often-overlooked strength we derive from the chronic “unbelonging” that tends to plague us.
The only barriers standing in the way of our influence are often self-imposed and can be overcome with a bit of forethought and intentional planning:
1. Value edge-living
Because being cross-cultural can feel like a lifelong uphill battle (see here), many TCKs have chosen to blend into their new environment in order to avoid the awkwardness or loneliness of being different.
They’ve chosen the center of the cluster in the pursuit of a sense of belonging.
I don’t want to imply that this is wrong or weak. I’ve found that it IS possible for me to chameleon my way into closed clusters and find community there. It feels good. It IS good. I’m just cautious not to restrict the entirety of my identity to that one group. The advantages of being TCKs are undeniable: adaptability, flexibility, linguistic ability, acceptance and understanding of others, global-mindedness, inquisitiveness, fearlessness, tolerance. And that’s just naming a few. Losing my connection to those for the comfort of finding belonging in a cluster would be a diminishing trade for me.
That’s why I’ve made it a goal to remind myself of my inner complexity, even while resting in the squooshy center of well-defined clusters in some areas of my life. In order for TCKs to leverage the benefits of our knowledge base in the interest of others, we need to first celebrate and value our edge-dwelling, to recognize and embrace the gifts it offers.
2. Identify yourself
Please hear me: Initially at least, it is a wise thing for us to avoid overwhelming new friends or colleagues with the totality of our cultural resumés. We need to approach new environments like we wade into cold water at the beach. Slowly, deliberately and without splashing too much.
I recommend focusing on similarities first—really digging into our areas of commonality—and developing the foundation of relationship or collaboration based on those. Then, when there’s a degree of comfort with each other, we can begin to more fully reveal our personal, cultural and professional experiences. Those aspects of our lives that shaped our multi-faceted identity. I’ve addressed that HERE.
But please, no matter how strong the impulse to permanently “keep it simple” might be, don’t get stuck in the cautious phase of self-revelation. When we fail to disclose what we bring to our circles, we lose our voices.
And TCK voices are needed to bridge the gaps between highly identified clusters and to promote understanding, innovation and positive change.
It’s okay to have one foot in the center of a cluster and the other firmly planted on its outer edge. It’s not always comfortable, but that posture can make room for us to be an influence that moves the whole group into more openness, innovation and change.
3. Resist judging
There’s a tendency for TCKs to judge the cultures we know. And then—to say the quiet words out loud. With our expanded cross-cultural world-view, we’re in a good place to evaluate what we see, but if we seek to have a positive influence, insulting even small aspects of a cluster will be a disqualifying flaw.
Disdaining or dismissing cultures and subcultures we judge to be inferior can come across as arrogance rather than savvy. And honestly, I’ve used words and displayed attitudes that expressed exactly that!
Whatever the culture that frustrates us might be, it’s important to acknowledge that true influence, the kind that draws the edges of disparate clusters closer to each other, can only be achieved when respect for all clusters is conveyed.
Speaking positively of all people groups (even while acknowledging some shortcomings) establishes our cultural IQ, promotes trust from all sides and increases both the willingness and the courage of others to learn from each other.
4. Be patient
What seems evident to us may appear daunting or too foreign to those who are comfortable in their clusters of likeness. It is completely legitimate for them to resist change, because they haven’t yet experienced the benefits of change.
Be patient. Slow down. Keep explaining. Illustrate what you’re saying with relatable facts. Ask questions. Be humble. Encourage. Demonstrate. Give it time. Make of your difference a force for good.
The bottom line is this: There’s no question that our cross-cultural pedigree gives us a perspective and knowledge base that can be translated into influence. And our edge-dwelling is a strength too often overlooked. Our experience-tested authority in those in-between places where clusters lean toward each other will be maximized by intentionality.
The term is cutesy, but we are uniquely equipped to becoming Cluster Busters. The value of that is real. First, though, we must commit to valuing our global experience, establish our credibility, eliminate any hint of conceit and exercise patient perseverance.
Only then will we operate in our most useful capacity: as edge-dwellers of influence, capable of drawing clusters into contact with each other for the betterment of all.
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I like having a multi-cultural perspective and am aware of rarely really fitting in, but I never thought about the strengths of that part of my thinking. Sometimes people seem to enjoy the different perspective, but I never thought of it as such a strength or in such a clear condensed way. This article was very helpful. Thanks, Michele! I shared this with people.