Cosmopolitan Identities

Cosmopolitan Identities

“In an era where global vision and cross-cultural competencies are critical to business success, multicultural upbringing can be far-reaching. Multilingual, highly-skilled and international experienced, they have unique skills and abilities that enable them to function more effectively in a global business environment.”

Born in New York to parents of Chinese origin, Amie received her college education in Paris. After her university studies in France, she moved to Italy where she started her own company working with the local international community in Milan.

Amie’s story illustrates what is called the TCK (third culture kid) concept: as a child she spent her formative years outside of her parents’ culture and then moved for university to France picking up elements of a third culture to grow up as a global cosmopolitan. The identity horizon of cosmopolitans transcends the conventional local boundaries. They live transnational lives going back and forth between countries.

Alongside of global cosmopolitans like Amie, we can observe an increasing number of people who identify themselves as ‘bicultural’. Biculturals are individuals who have deeply socialized in more than one culture. Within this category are immigrants, children of immigrants and individuals whose parents are from two different cultural heritages. In 2012, one in ten people living in the EU and OECD areas was born abroad, which means increasingly more people are developing a non-conventional cultural identity – that is, bicultural or multicultural identities.

In an era where global vision and cross-cultural competencies are critical to business success, the multicultural upbringing of people like Amie can be far-reaching. Multilingual, highly-skilled and international experienced, they have unique skills and abilities that enable them to function more effectively in a global business environment. They are innate culturally intelligent. Holding and applying several cultural different schemes simultaneously enable them to switch mental frames between different cultural context more easily. They are aware of distinctively local characteristics but see beyond the interest of one place only. Cosmopolitans tend to move their ideas from one country to another and are able to integrate activities spread throughout the world. The capacity to adapt to change and complexity comes naturally to them.

An interesting question is, if those skills and competencies typically found in bi- and multiculturals can be learned by monoculturals. Managers for instance can become learned-multiculturals through expatriate assignment when they immerse in local host cultures and practices. But the experience of just “being there” is not enough they have to internalize the values and norms of other cultures and become able to authentically exhibit the culturally relevant behaviours. This comes through a process of true reflection and adaptation of own attitudes and values at a deeper level, which Dr. Hyun-Jung Lee, PhD and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at The London School of Economics, calls “identity negotiation.”

“They will have to go through identity negotiation, which is this on-going process of questioning current identity systems and experimenting with new ones. Encountering concrete experience that are novel, observe and reflect on the meaning of these new experience and eventually incorporating new ways of doing and being into their lives.”

However global work is not limited to those who cross geographical boundaries. Today there are an increasing number of managers exposed to foreign clients, colleagues and cultures by virtual projects or global team collaboration. Rather than physically they have to relocate mentally and psychologically, by crossing cultural and intellectual boundaries.

In whatever forms of global work managers might be involved, more and more likely they will have to go through identity negotiation, which is this on-going process of questioning current identity systems and experimenting with new ones. Encountering concrete experience that are novel, observe and reflect on the meaning of these new experience and eventually incorporating new ways of doing and being into their lives. In this process, individuals gradually encounter fewer and fewer identity-threatening experiences and, ultimately, settle into equilibrium, a relatively stable state of existence or a new identity.

We know that cosmopolitan managers can make a huge, positive difference to the success of global innovation processes and they can instil new global corporate cultures. But do organizations really identify these distinctive skills? Do they leverage the full potential of cosmopolitan individuals? Do they understand the needs of employees with more than one cultural profile and are they able to retain these talents? Global cosmopolitans want the opportunity to use their capabilities and knowledge to create meaningful careers; they want to make a contribution. If they feel cut off their deeper dreams, abilities and global experiences they leave the job.

Article by Dr. Bettina Gehrke, PhD
Professor at SDA Bocconi School of Management
Author of Global Leadership Practices: A Cross-Cultural Management Perspective

For anyone who would like to learn more about the fluid identities in a multicultural world, please have a look at the program of the Annual conference of SIETAR ITALIA “Multicultural Identities: Understanding the Sense of Belonging”, 5th-6th of May 2017 at Acquario Civico di Milano.

Click here to see the program

SIETAR Italia is Society for Intercultural Education Training and Research: www.sietar-italia.org/en/

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