Explaining the Three Cultures of a Third Culture Kid

03 Jun

Last week Libby Stephens posted an incredible explanation of the three cultures that make up a Third Culture Kid. I have never seen this explained so clearly and succinctly! I highly recommend all of you check out the original post here. There’s a short video as well as the written description.

Here’s a slightly abridged version of the descriptions Libby gives:

Culture 1: The Legal Culture.
This is…the passport culture, the citizenship country. It is that country that a person belongs to legally. The numbers of TCKs having more than one ‘first culture’ seems to be on the rise…Today many countries are allowing dual, triple or even more citizenships. Being a dual citizen is not only beneficial politically, financially or to bypass long immigration lines. It is also quite the status symbol in the TCK population. (I sure wish I had more than one.)

Culture 2: The Geographical Culture. 
This culture is a compilation of all the cultures and countries a TCK has lived in (not visited), whether it is 2, 4, 6 or more countries. It is this ‘second culture’ that is the main contributor of cultural behaviors adopted by the TCK such as appropriate greetings – you know, kissing on cheeks, bowing at the waist or shaking hands. The second culture also influences both verbal and nonverbal language…So does it matter how many countries a person lives in? Maybe not for the definition, but it often does matter to the TCK.

Culture 3: The Relational Culture. 
Of all three cultures in the definition, this is the one that is the most misunderstood, but it is also the one that most TCKs often hold as the most precious…The third culture is a unique and separate culture shared only by others who have also lived internationally and multi-culturally yet not necessarily in the same countries…It is not ‘culture one’ mixed with ‘culture two’ to make ‘culture three’. It is a unique and separate culture with their own way of communication, social interaction, values, etc. This culture has no legal standing, passport or rights…There is no place to stick a pin on the map. But it does have a population – a rapidly growing community that is scattered across the globe.

I love, love, LOVE this explanation! I think this is something most TCKs instinctively *get* but have difficulty articulating and explaining to others.

The reason that TCKs from different places connect so well is that they have a shared relational culture. They have different traditions from their countries of origin, and different cultural influences from the places they’ve lived, but they have a lot in common relationally. They know what it is to live between worlds. They have experienced the feeling of not-belonging both in places where they legally belong, and places where they live full-time. They have learned to adapt, to fit in. They have a variety of friends from a variety of places. They are more comfortable in a multicultural environment than in a monocultural one. There is so much they share!

Even if they have not lived together physically, they have lived through many of the same transitions and adjustments. They have experienced many of the same encounters, albeit in different places at different times. This shared-ness is powerful. This is why so many TCKs are more at home with each other than with those who share only the 1st or 2nd culture with them.


Posted by on June 3, 2011 in TCKs


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3 responses to “Explaining the Three Cultures of a Third Culture Kid

  1. Dounia

    June 16, 2011 at 4:31 am

    This is a wonderful entry – thank you for posting the description of the three cultures, I’ll be sure to check out the original post as well! I am a TCK (grew up as one and remain one in my adult life so far!), and I have never seen it explained in such a clear and precise manner! And it is so true that us TCKs feel most at home with other TCKs…there’s a tacit understanding that makes everything easier among TCKs.

    Thanks again for posting, I enjoyed it very much!

  2. Tanya

    June 16, 2011 at 9:47 am

    Thanks, Dounia! I’m glad you enjoyed it :) Libby’s stuff is awesome – I’d never seen it explained so well either. I always struggle to explain it well to those who haven’t experienced it in some way (like friends and family at home). They get the concept of a kid growing up overseas, or in a variety of places, but it’s harder to grasp the shared culture (not just community) of those kids.

  3. Dounia

    June 18, 2011 at 1:49 am

    Thanks for your reply Tanya! It is a very difficult concept to explain, and that description really sets it out nicely. I recently started a blog writing about my journey as a TCK (experiences, emotions, the way we/I see the world…), and it’s really great to read other blogs that are TCK-related. It’s nice to see your own thoughts and feelings echoed in someone else’s words – reminds you that there are others like you, who understand you and what you’ve been through! If you ever have a chance to take a look, my blog is ; I would love any comments, feedback or suggestions you may have, as I’m very new to the blogging world!


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