Cultural Chameleons: Third Culture Kids’ Role in the Play of Life

By Zoe Krueger Weisel

When it comes to the third culture kid’s personal characteristics developed via his or her unique childhood, there are aspects which can be seen as advantages and challenges simultaneously. One such aspect is adaptability as opposed to a lack of true cultural balance, which has led to the coinage of the term “cultural chameleon” (Pollock et al. 2017).

This can be related to sociologist Erving  Goffman’s dramaturgical theory (1996), where  life can be compared to a “play” one must engage  in by taking on a certain role, depending on  who one’s counterpart is at any given moment.  An important part of socialization is learning  how to behave in certain situations or, to put it  in terms TCKs know well, becoming a cultural  chameleon. To avoid standing out and being  different in their host cultures, TCKs quickly  learn to adapt to new cultures by learning their  languages or by changing their appearance and  cultural practices, for example. According to  Goffman, this adaptation process can be referred to as “impression management.” TCKs do this to better blend in with their new environments so they are not seen as outsiders. This character trait does not just help them survive the struggles of their daily interactions in new places but can also be very useful and beneficial to their later lives as they can easily adjust to new schedules and changing circumstances and switch between cultures as quickly as necessary (Pollock et al.). Research has even suggested that TCKs themselves “describe their capacity to adjust as cultural understanding, attitudinal robustness and a belief or self confidence that they will be successful on future international assignments” (Westropp et al. 2016).

However, this skill of quickly being able to adapt to new cultural environments can also lead to
the challenge of not experiencing a sense of true cultural balance. While they may externally
appear to fit in with the crowd and culture surrounding them, the individual may internally be going through a challenging process of trying to understand the new culture, always wondering if they are giving a convincing performance within their life’s play or not.

Additionally, TCKs may “have trouble figuring out  their own value system from the multicultural  mix they have been exposed to” (Pollock et  al.). This means that it may be hard for them  to differentiate their own set of morals and  convictions from those of the “hive mind  mentality” of the culture they are in currently.  This may also lead to a sort of identity crisis  within TCKs, since they may not know what to  believe or who they are, apart from their current cultural identity (Pollock et al.).

Being TCK chameleons may not just present an internal struggle but also may attract skepticism from people surrounding them. Since others could observe them while they are switching cultural practices from one moment to the next, TCKs may come across as untrustworthy. TCKs might struggle to control their manner of interacting and the image they are emanating, which can clash with their idea of impression management. This can make it difficult for them to convince people of their authenticity, since they may tend not to be completely familiar with their current culture in a way that seems natural to observers. Since TCKs are seemingly characteristically unpredictable, it could be hard for people with more culturally conventional backgrounds to understand how their upbringing may have influenced their behavior in this regard.

Due to their status as cultural chameleons, however, TCKs may develop the characteristic of an expanded worldview. Because of their internationally mobile upbringing “[t]he TCK’s awareness that there can be more than one way to look at the same thing starts early in life” (Pollock et al.). They experience cultural differences around the world firsthand while also being able to observe people viewing life from many different perspectives philosophically, politically, and socially (ibid.).

However, this wide range of perspectives can  also lead to TCKs developing confused loyalties  regarding “such complex things as politics,  patriotism, and values” (ibid.). They could,  for example, not know which country to be  supportive of during world sports, be conflicted  when supporting their home country’s policies if  they might harm their host country, or maybe not  know how to react when friends talk badly about  the other country they feel loyal to in one way or  another (ibid.).

Furthermore, it can be argued that TCKs do  not necessarily feel a sense of belonging within  a nationality or place but rather by having “a  community, an ‘interstitial culture’ to which they  belong” (ibid.). Research has indicated that their  “sense of belonging [is] three times stronger to  relationships than to a particular country” (Fail  et al. 2004). Since they may not have a “sense  of home” in the classical definition of the term,  they often find other ways to determine their  belonging independent from geographical borders  (Pollock et al.; Westropp et al.).

TCKs are also said to identify more often with  their school surroundings than with their parental  home environment while growing up (Fail et al.).  The reason for this may be that they are often  sent to boarding schools (Pollock et al.), where  they spend most of their upbringing, but also due  to the fact that the school and the educational  environment in general represent the Third  Culture for many. It seems to be the case that no  matter what approach one takes analyzing third  culture kids, it always leads back to them feeling  most comfortable within the Third Culture itself,  creating their cultural identity through shared  experiences with other TCKs and a mixture of  both their home and host countries.  

One great challenge that can arise from TCKs  regarding their sense of belonging and home  in relationships and school environments  (representing the Third Culture instead of  places), is that these factors do not stay static.  Relationships change or end, especially those  made in international schools, since these are filled  with highly mobile TCKs, regularly moving to new  places with their families. TCKs are even said to  consider regularly losing friends a normal part of  life, which can lead to them becoming “cautious  about forming relationships” (Gilbert 2008) and  “keeping distance between self and others” (Lijadi  and Schalkwyk 2014).

Since many TCKs tend to not feel at home  within their “external environment” (Pollock et  al.), they often struggle to answer the question  of where home is. Even though many settle for unconventional ways to describe where they  belong, a difficulty of not having a physical  place to call home is that they also do not have  a place to return to once they leave the Third  Culture. They may even “view themselves as  cosmopolitan people who feel comfortable in a  variety of environments” (Fail et al.), which surely  sounds very beneficial at first glance, but at the  same time they may “lack a sense of belonging  in any one” (ibid.) of these environments. An  interesting aspect is also that “[t]he phrase ‘sense  of belonging’ shows that there is a link between  a sense of belonging and sense of identity”  (ibid.), implying that not having a physical place  to go home to does not just pose the question  of where they belong but also of who they are.  “Their experiences appear to have shifted how  they construct identity as it relates to home,  belonging and place” (Westropp et al.).

Hopefully, the increasing amount and quality of  research into TCKs can begin to help them as  they try to find their own unique roles in the play  of life.


Fail, H., Thompson, J., & Walker, G. (2004). Belonging,  identity and Third Culture Kids: Life histories of former  international school students. Journal of Research in  International Education, 3(3), 319–338. https://doi. org/10.1177/1475240904047358 

Gilbert, K. R. (2008). Loss and Grief between and Among  Cultures: The Experience of Third Culture Kids. Illness, Crisis  & Loss, 16(2), 93–109.  

Goffman, E. (1996). Wir alle spielen Theater: die  Selbstdarstellung im Alltag. 5. Aufl. Piper. München. Lijadi, A., & Van Schalkwyk, G. (2014). Narratives of  third culture kids: Commitment and reticence in social  relationships. The Qualitative Report, 19, 1–18.  

Pollock, D. C., Van Reken, R. E., & Pollock M. V. (2017).  Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Third Edition.  Nicholas Brealey Publishing. Boston.  Westropp, S., Cathro, V., & Everett, A. M. (2016). Adult  third culture kids’ suitability as expatriates. Review of  International Business and Strategy, 26(3), 334–348. https://

Zoe Krueger Weisel is a young German-American Italian researcher based in Italy. She was born and  raised in Germany, but has lived in both the US and  Italy since starting university. She has always had  a particular research interest in the third culture  experience due to her own military third culture  background. ORCID ID:  Work profile: krueger-weisel

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