Third Culture Kid Dating; adults who have spent their developmental years outside their parent's culture

Are you a Chameleon, a Screamer, or a Wall Owner?


Lived outside your passport country growing up? You’re a Third Culture Kid (TCK), and it’s a must that you read Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, a fantastic book written by Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock.  They argue that there are three different reactions that Third Culture Kids can have.  Try and detect who you are:

Chameleons : They define them as “those who try to find a ‘same as’ identity. They hide their time lived in other places and try to conform externally through clothes, language, or attitudes to whatever environment they are in”.

Screamers: Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock describe these TCKs as “those who try to find a ‘different from’ identity. They will let other people around them know that they are not like them and don’t plan to be”.

Wall Owners : One last way for TCKs to react they describe as “those who try to find a ‘nonidentiy’. Rather than risk being exposed as someone who doesn’t know the local cultural rules, they prefer to sit on the sidelines and watch, at least for an extended period, rather than to engage in the activities at hand”.

So, what are you? A Chameleon? A Screamer? Or a Wall Owner?  Am I the only TCK out there whose thinking oh my gosh this is so relevant to us!  How many times have we reacted in these ways? Does it change from one day to the next?  We’ll so often be the odd ones out that we need to choose to react in one of these ways. Whereas monocultural kids don’t have to worry about this. They will know the cultural rules and behaviour you should have each and every time. We’ll have to walk on egg shells to make sure we’re not bending the cultural rules.

But yeah, if you’ve been moving every couple years, and you don’t necessarily know all the customs and appropriate behaviour you’re meant to have in social events, then sometimes you simply choose not to engage.  You’re tired of making that extra effort that only adult Third Culture Kids will understand.  I mean how many times, as a TCK, have you thought, I should go out tonight to that Housewarming party, but even just the effort of having to go along with the customs and norms… You just can’t make that effort. You’re just having one of those days and you don’t want to engage or try. You’re reacting like a ‘Wall Owner’.

Ok, well what about when you decide to engage? You go on that weekend away.  You know you’ll have to constantly be adapting to behaviour and have the ‘normal’ reactions that a local would have. And you choose to hide your international upbringing.  You bring all the ‘fancy dress’ you’ll need for the Disco night. Even though you never grew up with that sort of thing. You bring a bottle of gin. Knowing that everyone will be drinking all day. That’s just what they do here. Even though you didn’t grow up in that sort of culture. That wasn’t the norm. But again you choose to hide what you constructed as your views over time. For once, you want to ‘fit in’ and not be bothered by others about your differences. You are blending in. Or at least, you’re trying. You’re reacting like a ‘Chameleon’.

Then, sometimes, you go to that leaving drinks for your colleague. But you have no interest that night in ‘fitting in’. You have a glass of red wine. Even though everyone else is sharing bottles of Prosecco. When someone asks you if you’re thinking of going to see Kaiser Chiefs in 2 month’s time with a couple of the other team members, you blatantly tell them you don’t really listen to them, so no.  Might not be the culturally accepted way of answering the question or being subtle enough. But you’ve chosen to answer the way you learned in a more direct fashion in the country you spent the most time in years ago. An 80s tune comes on, and you tell your colleagues to come dance. You’ve crossed that invisible line.  First, there is that awkwardness. They are looking at you, thinking, should I? Is this appropriate? Then, when they join one by one, everyone is smiling and laughing. You haven’t played it by the cultural rules, but you weren’t planning on blending in.  You’re being yourself, which of course means a mixture of different customs you’ve picked up over the years. You don’t want to hide that night or adapt or adjust.

So what are you? How do you react as a TCK?


2 thoughts on “Are you a Chameleon, a Screamer, or a Wall Owner?

  1. Just one error here: the co-author with David Pollock is Ruth Van Reken – not Useem. The latter is, indeed, credited with coining the term TCK, but she did not co-author the book you cite here.

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