By Sebastian Reiche
It shouldn’t be of a much surprise to meet a bicultural today – the world is increasingly interconnected, people are more mobile, there is a lot of migration, many live abroad and form multi-cultural families, hence many are exposed to and hold at least two identities. It is also a commonly accepted notion that biculturalism is beneficial. For example, I have written about advantages of biculturalism, arguing that biculturals are a valuable asset in organizations, as due to their multiple cultural perspectives they tend to be effective cross-cultural communicators, may be more creative, and are generally more flexible in multicultural environments. Indeed, a recent meta-analysis indicates that there is a strong and positive association between biculturalism and both, psychological and sociocultural, adjustment.
So, lucky you, if you are a bicultural, right? However, does it really take as little as having parents of different cultures, or living abroad, or just having a deep exposure to another culture to reap all those benefits? Hardly so…
As it turns out, there are different ways of being bicultural. For example, if you are an ethnically Asian living in America, you could identify yourself as Asian-American, or as an Asian living in America. According to researchers Benet-Martínez and colleagues (2002) such difference in self-presentation reflects differences in managing biculturalism. In the first case of identifying as Asian-American, the scholars speak of so-called compatible cultural identities, where both cultures are integrated, there is no conflict, and the person is able to behave in a culturally competent way based on the situational demands. In the case of ‘Asian living in America’, the researchers speak of quite a different bicultural experience, which they label oppositional cultural identities. In this case, ethnic and mainstream identities may be perceived as distant and even conflicting, which makes it difficult to hold both identities at the same time. As such, although in both situations individuals may identify with both cultures, they would be on the different ends of the perceived bicultural identity integration continuum.
In a set of three studies with Chinese American biculturals, the researchers found that individuals who perceived their cultural identities as compatible (high bicultural identity integration) responded to different culturally primed situations in a more culturally congruent manner than individuals with oppositional identities. In other words, when being primed to think either like an American or like a Chinese, ‘adjusted’ biculturals smoothly switched their responses between the two cultures according to the situation (e.g., behaving in American ways after being primed with American culture). The ‘confused’ biculturals exhibited a reverse priming effect, hence switched to the ‘wrong’ cultural frame in their responses (e.g., behaving in American ways after being primed with Chinese culture).
As such, the study suggests that bicultural experience, or the type of bicultural, matters. Relevant to this specific study, it mattered in the ways of using cultural background to interpret social events. Yet, based on these result we may also assume that the advantages of biculturalism discussed at the beginning might be similarly dependent on the way one is experiencing the two identities. This clearly requires more research, but what seems certain though is to conclude that plainly stating biculturalism as beneficial is too much of a stretch!