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What Being Stuck between Two Cultures Can Do to a Person’s Psyche

Posted: August 27, 2017

What is the recipe for long-term happiness? One crucial ingredient cited by many people is closeness in their social relationships. Very happy people have strong and fulfilling relationships. But if we feel rejected by those who are closest to us – our family and friends – it can sour our attempts to master the recipe for happiness.

Bi-cultural people, who identify with two cultures simultaneously, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of rejection. A person can become bi-cultural by moving from one country to another, or if they are born and raised in one country by parents who came from elsewhere. For example, for a child born and raised in London by Russian parents, Russian will be what’s called their “heritage culture”.

Research has shown that being bi-cultural is a tremendously beneficial trait because it makes us more flexible and creative in our thinking. But bi-cultural people may experience their upbringing as the collision of multiple worlds. They sometimes face criticism for stepping outside the bounds of what’s normally acceptable in their heritage culture. This experience of rejection from one’s heritage culture is referred to as “intragroup marginalisation”. People experience this when they adapt to a new culture in ways that are deemed to be a threat to their cultural origins.

In the author's ongoing research, they are looking at ways that people can cope and overcome experiences of rejection from their heritage culture. To understand this painful experience, other research has looked at whether personality traits, such as attachment style, can make a person more likely to feel intragroup marginalisation. Attachment style shapes how we interact with others in our relationships. A securely attached person sees themselves as worthy of love and others as trustworthy, while somebody who is insecurely attached can be anxious and sensitive to threats of rejection. They can also avoid and feel uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy.

Insecurely attached bi-cultural people tend to report greater marginalisation from their friends and family. This may be because they are sensitive to rejection and perceive themselves as failing to uphold the traditions expected of them by their heritage culture. For example, a second-generation Bangladeshi in Britain may feel ashamed at not being able to speak Bengali very well, or a Hungarian who moved to Britain may feel that their values have changed. Another key personality trait reflects how individuals perceive their sense of self in relation to others. We can see our self as being independent and unique from others, and as having a high sense of agency. Alternatively, we can see ourselves as being interdependent with others and fluid, changing based on the situation.

Research has found that people who have a more fluid sense of self are less likely to feel rejected from their heritage culture, compared to those who have an independent sense of self. This is because they are better able to reconcile both their cultural identities without experiencing conflict.


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