Who or what is a “bicultural” and how important is biculturalism for organizations? Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of Renault-Nissan, seems to be the quintessential prototype of a bicultural (or in his case, a multicultural). He was born in Brazil, moved to Lebanon when he was six with his Lebanese parents, went to university in Paris, and had assignments with Michelin in France, Germany, South America and the United States. He led a successful turnaround of Nissan in Japan, and has been CEO of Renault since 2005. But what is it exactly that makes him bicultural? Is it the fact that he was born and raised in different cultures? Or is it his deep knowledge about these (and other) cultures? Or is it, in addition, his ability to adapt to many different cultures?
Research has shown that simply having been exposed to different cultures does not necessarily make one truly bicultural. According to studies by Schwartz and Unger (2010) and others, biculturals are those who are comfortable and proficient in one’s heritage culture and the culture into which he/she has settled. They don’t necessarily give up one cultural identity but are able to carry both, and they identify with two or more cultures. They have internalized two different cultural “schemas” and can switch from one to the other depending on the situation and the context. The term for this is “cultural frame switching,” and it refers to the ability to switch between language and social interactions in response to cultural cues (for which they are “primed” to respond).
Let’s take Divya, an Indian-American manager who works in the corporate headquarters of a U.S. global company and who had a short-term assignment to work in one of its subsidiaries in Bangalore. Most of the employees there were local Indians, so Divya was primed to switch to her Indian cultural frame. However, she was also very aware that she was there as a representative of her corporation, which primed her to switch to more of her American frame under certain conditions. In Divya’s case, while the local workforce knew that she was born and raised in India, they also expected her to behave more like an American since she had been in the U.S. for over twenty years. This dynamic between Divya and her environment played out almost daily, and in discussions with Dorothy, she has learned how to switch frames when needed, and is quite comfortable in doing so.
Molinsky (2007), who refers to this as cross-cultural code-switching, suggests that you need to be willing to try on new behaviors that may at times not be that comfortable, although he implies that you don’t need to be bicultural to do this. Having worked on assignment in many different countries, I can certainly attest to this. For example, I have met a lot of local Singaporeans who seem to be adept at cross-cultural code switching even though many of them have not lived or worked extensively outside Singapore. In fact, they are what Benet-Martinez and Haritatos (2005) would consider to be high in Bicultural Identity Integration (BCII), that is, they consider two cultures (i.e., in their case, Western and Singaporean) as complementary and compatible.
This view of the benefits of preserving and integrating two cultural identities differs from the traditional view that persons from other cultures need to “assimilate” to the mainstream culture. Individuals who have high BII view their mainstream cultural identity as compatible and integrated versus oppositional (and thus difficult or impossible to integrate). As Nguyen and Benet-Martinez (2013) describe it:
Bicultural individuals with high BII tend to see themselves as part of a hyphenated culture (or even part of a combined, emerging “third” culture), and find the two cultures largely compatible and easy to integrate. Bicultural individuals with low BII, on the other hand, tend to see themselves as living “in-between cultures” and report seeing the two cultures as largely conflictual and disparate.
Schwartz and Unger (2010) illustrate this with a hypothetical Chinese-American example: “The person might also feel an allegiance both to the United States and to China, as well as to the local Chinese community. She might feel Chinese in comparison to her American peers and feel American in comparison to her Chinese peers, but she can function effectively in both cultural contexts.” (p. 27) One clue for those high in BII is their exposure to “familial ethnic socialization” (Mistry and Wu, 2010), that is, “the extent to which parents teach their children about (and expose them to) the language, symbols, and traditions from the family’s heritage culture.”
A recent meta-analysis (Nguyen and Benet-Martinez, 2013) has shown that biculturalism is positively associated with psychological (e.g., life satisfaction, self-esteem) and sociocultural (e.g., academic achievement, career success) adjustment. Some studies have shown that individuals high in BII tend to be more creative but only when cues from both cultures are present. Benet-Martinez and Fabra (2016) suggest that “…organizations and settings where the development of blended bicultural identities is facilitated (e.g., schools with policies that foster harmonious intercultural relations and cultural hybridity) might also produce individual and organizational outcomes that are more creative.” (p. 27)
Another supposed advantage that biculturals have is in their level of “attributional complexity,” or the ability to use differentiation and integration effectively in causal reasoning (Lakshman, 2013). The argument is that biculturals are somehow better able to figure out more accurately what might be causing or driving the behaviors of others and come up with a more holistic interpretation. In many cross-cultural situations where the cues might be ambiguous (e.g., are team members looking down because in their culture that is expected or because they don’t want to disagree with you? Is Helmut disagreeing with me because I’m from Corporate, or because he’s frustrated about his role?), this would indeed seem to be helpful.
In considering what biculturals bring to global teams, Thomas et al. (2010) suggest that they have important roles as boundary spanners and conflict mediators. For example, Max, a Dutch expatriate who spent part of his high school and university education in the United States, works for a Dutch multinational and has had assignments in different parts of the world. He leads a global marketing team where he has to network with Dutch executives in corporate headquarters in Amsterdam (his boundary-spanning role) as well as work with the non-Dutch members of his team some of whom perceive the Dutch members as arrogant (his conflict mediation role). Max, and others like him, have learned to switch frames depending on the cultural context.
L’Oreal, the global beauty company, has in fact been focusing its recruitment for product development teams on “multiculturals,” those whose family backgrounds are multicultural and/or who have lived in different countries. Hiring individuals who are bicultural seems like a winning strategy for global organizations. However, successful execution of this strategy poses some challenges. First, identifying who they are is not simply a matter of demographics (that is, whether they have been exposed deeply to two different cultures). Take these two examples. Kathy has an MBA from a leading business school, and has been working as a junior staff consultant with a prestigious management consulting firm. Her parents are Ukrainian, and while she was raised in the United States from the time she was eight years old, she has continued to identify with her Ukrainian cultural heritage. When working with corporate clients in the U.S., she is careful not to display any of her Ukrainian heritage, and in fact, comes across as very “corporate.” However, her heritage is very much a part of her identity; she enjoys going to Ukrainian events, and has visited her home country several times. At the same time, she also identifies very much with being an American.
By contrast, Liu, Kathy’s classmate in B-school, has struggled a bit more. She grew up in China, but did her undergraduate and graduate work in the Midwest. She still speaks with a strong accent even though her facility with English is strong. Although she has lived in the U.S. for over ten years, she does not quite feel at home in Boston (her current residence). While she enjoys living in America, there are several aspects of living there that bother her, especially the strong individualism of her colleagues in the workplace and the lack of respect for authority. Both Kathy and Liu might on the surface be considered biculturals; however, while Kathy seems to have high bicultural identity integration, Liu does not yet seem to have a high level of integration.
In fact, some researchers have suggested that biculturals low in BII may “disidentify” with cultural norms and want to avoid conforming to expectations. As Mok et al. (2010) suggest: “Integrated biculturals can match cultural norms because they do not feel that they undermine their other cultural identity in doing so. Conversely, less integrated biculturals may render following cultural norms as threatening their other cultural identity, spurring an impulse to retreat, or affirm that other identity to restore equilibrium in their bicultural identities.”
A second challenge is the climate or culture of the organization and its practices. Researchers have pointed out that in general biculturalism thrives best in a multicultural environment, such as in cities like New York, Toronto, Sydney, and Manila. Biculturalism is not necessarily an advantage in monocultural areas such as parts of rural Japan, Mexico and even some U.S. Southern cities. A bicultural who demonstrates heritage cultural behaviors even in an appropriate setting (for example, being deeply respectful to a Japanese government official visiting the corporate home office) in a corporate environment that does not value such displays might feel out of place. Biculturals will thrive best in organizations that support and encourage multicultural or global perspectives.
For managers who have been exposed deeply to two (or more) different cultures and who would like to leverage these experiences, here is some advice. First, do a “current state analysis” by asking yourself the following questions. Towards which of your two cultures do you feel a stronger identity or a stronger preference, or do you identify almost equally with both? Why? Are there aspects of each culture that you prefer over the other, and aspects that you dislike? Be aware of the extent to which you view the two cultural values you have as compatible (high Bicultural Identity Integration) or oppositional (low Bicultural Identity Integration) as this might have implications for some of your preferences. For example, a fascinating study by Friedman et al. (2012) showed that Westernized Taiwanese professionals who viewed their Taiwanese and American identities as compatible preferred using an equity-based rule in employee pay allocation in an American setting (where this type of rule is more consistent with Western management practices) and an equality-based rule in an Asian setting (where this type of rule is more consistent with Asian management practices). However, those who viewed their two cultural identities as oppositional preferred using an equality-based rule in an American setting and an equity-based rule in an Asian setting.
Second, do a “future state analysis” by asking yourself the following: given your professional and personal goals, what aspects of your current cultural identity would you like to change, if any? For example, in Liu’s case, after some discussions with her business coach, she has decided that to succeed in her workplace, she needed to show more assertiveness. She began to recognize that questioning her boss and others in authority did not mean she lacked respect for authority. In fact, she values being able to contribute her ideas even though these may not align with those of her superiors. And third, consider initiating two to three short-term actions to get you closer to your goal. Again, in Liu’s case, one action she decided on was to make sure to have a question or two ready to ask during meetings.
There are some interesting questions that perhaps further research will shed more light on, especially as they have implications for individuals and managers working globally. For example, what aspects of the context (for example, peers speaking a different language) trigger a person to switch frames? How does a person know what behaviors are appropriate when switching frames? And does the degree of difficulty of switching frames increase the farther away the person has been from one of the cultures? For example, there are many biculturals who have lived away from their heritage cultures for some years. How effective are efforts to preserve their cultural heritage (such as staying in touch with friends and relatives from the home country, going home to visit, listening to their heritage country’s music or watching films)? How much of an impact do factors such as linguistic challenges (e.g., having a thick accent), the acceptance of diversity in one’s immediate environment, and experiences of being mistreated because of one’s ethnicity have on one’s bicultural identity integration? And how do similarities between cultures affect cultural integration and identification? Would someone who is bicultural due to having been born and raised in Mexico but now living in Peru have an easier time with identity integration than someone who was born and raised in Russia and is now living in Australia?
Although tensions around assimilation and integration will continue in part because of protectionist and nationalistic trends in some nations, most companies will continue their efforts at globalizing – whether this is through different products or services for different markets, new consumers or expanded supply chains. Talented individuals who successfully address their bicultural identity should have a competitive edge over others, and firms would do well to seek out and develop such talent.
Benet-Martinez, V. and Fabra, U. (2016). Multicultural Identity and Experiences: Cultural, Social, and Personality Processes. To appear in K. Deaux and M. Snyder (Eds.), Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Hong, H. (2010). Bicultural Competence and Its Impact on Team Effectiveness. International Journal of Cross-Cultural Management, 10 (1): 93-120.
Lakschman, C. (2013). Biculturalism and Attributional Complexity: Cross-Cultural Leadership Effectiveness. Journal of International Business Studies, 44 (9): 922-940.
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Nguyen, A. and Benet-Martinez, V. (20). Multiculturalism: What It Is and Why It Matters.
Nguyen, A. and Benet-Martinez, V. (2013). Biculturalism and Adjustment: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44: 122-159.
Schwartz, W. and Unger, J. (2010). Biculturalism and Context: What Is Biculturalism, and When Is It Adaptive? Human Development, 53: 26-32.