The Mental State of Today’s Cross Border Executive

20 September 2022

Expatriates are important to their organisations; in fact, some argue that in our globally connected age they are essential. Yet there is no doubt that sending people to work in countries other than their country of origin can have drawbacks. Expatriates may suffer various psychological challenges including lack of a stable social support network. One group of individuals, although they suffer the same potential consequences and more, may have developed useful strategies for dealing with life abroad. Third culture kids (TCKs) are children of expatriates who spend most of their growing years in a country other than the one listed on their passport. Sharing the experiences of expatriates in general, they also have unique strengths and struggles. In adulthood, TCKs are known as Adult third culture kids, or ATCKs.

ATCKs are likely to have a number of highly useful skills. They have less issues with travelling, often wanting to continue to live international lives. They are often excellent observers with deep empathy and flexibility, able to handle people and read situations. Their expectation of change, and thus adaptability, can lead them to be lifelong learners, and they are likely to know another language. They are aware of the world in a global sense, with insight into other cultures.

However, ATCKs also suffer unique psychological issues. Their identification with people worldwide may lead them to suffer greater distress at events in the news. If living and working in their passport country, which they are expected to call ‘home’, they are likely never to feel truly at home, as a result of spending so much time living elsewhere. In fact, many feel as though they do not really belong to any one culture, but to a unique blend of cultures; hence the ‘third’ culture. They also carry unresolved grief from leaving behind communities and significant others frequently throughout their lives.

How can organisations capitalise on the strengths of ATCKs, and minimise the impact of difficulties they may experience? ATCKs often feel their strengths are not recognised or utlised, so organisations can think about actively using them for tasks they are uniquely suited to. TCKs can help others who are about to take on international assignments to know what to expect and how to cope better. Organisations should aim to give potential expatriates a realistic ‘preview’ of what taking on a job abroad will be like, so that they don’t have unmet expectations. TCKs can help with this kind of education.

ATCKs themselves can take action to improve their adjustment to their current home environment. Sharing with others who have had similar experiences has often been found to be most helpful, as other TCKs are the closest thing available to a cultural community, this could also occur online. Working at understanding how their experiences have made them who they are and embracing this unique identity leads many TCKs to be proud of their backgrounds. It is important for TCKs to recognise things they have had to leave behind them in the past that may be causing them unresolved grief.

Expatriates in general and ATCKs in particular share common strengths and difficulties. With the right approach from their organisations, and acceptance of the issues that may impact on them, these individuals have a variety of useful skills to offer which are ideal for today’s international world of business.