How do you react as a TCK?

Lived outside your passport country growing up? You’re a Third Culture Kid (TCK), and it’s a must that you read Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, a fantastic book written by Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock.  They argue that there are three different reactions that Third Culture Kids can have.  Try and detect who you are:

Chameleons : They define them as “those who try to find a ‘same as’ identity. They hide their time lived in other places and try to conform externally through clothes, language, or attitudes to whatever environment they are in”.

Screamers: Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock describe these TCKs as “those who try to find a ‘different from’ identity. They will let other people around them know that they are not like them and don’t plan to be”.

Wall Owners : One last way for TCKs to react they describe as “those who try to find a ‘nonidentiy’. Rather than risk being exposed as someone who doesn’t know the local cultural rules, they prefer to sit on the sidelines and watch, at least for an extended period, rather than to engage in the activities at hand”.

So, what are you? A Chameleon? A Screamer? Or a Wall Owner?  Am I the only TCK out there whose thinking oh my gosh this is so relevant to us!  How many times have we reacted in these ways? Does it change from one day to the next?  Whereas monocultural kids don’t have to worry as much about this, we have often experienced being ‘different’, having been an expat in different countries or going back to our ‘home’ country after years of having lived abroad. Whereas a local will most likely know the cultural rules and behaviour you should have each and every time in that place, we’ll have to walk on egg shells to make sure we’re not bending the cultural rules.

If you’ve been moving every couple years, and you don’t necessarily know all the customs and appropriate behaviour you’re meant to have at social events, sometimes you simply choose not to engage.  You’re tired of making that extra effort that only adult Third Culture Kids will understand.  I mean how many times, as a TCK, have you thought, I should go out tonight to that dinner party or networking event, but even just the effort of having to go along with the customs and norms… You just can’t make that effort. You’re just having one of those days and you don’t want to engage or try. You’re reacting like a ‘Wall Owner’.

Ok, well what about when you decide to engage? You go on that weekend away with locals. It’s a two hour drive from where you live.  You know you’ll have to constantly be adapting to behaviour and have the ‘normal’ reactions that a local would have. And you choose to hide your international upbringing for a while, just for a weekend. For once, you want it to be effortless. You want to ‘fit in’ and not be bothered by others about your differences.  When the attractive guy or girl you like looks over, you look away because you know that’s what you’ve seen other people do in your group. You restrain from blurting out anything that could be misconstrued as unusual. Even if you’re dying to crack that joke you learned a while back in Germany to the person you’re attracted to. You are blending in. Or at least, you’re trying. You’re reacting like a ‘Chameleon’.

Sometimes, you might react differently. A third scenario is the following. You go to that leaving drinks for your colleague. But you have no interest that night in ‘fitting in’. You have a glass of red wine, even though everyone else is sharing bottles of Prosecco. When someone asks you if you’re thinking of going to see Kaiser Chiefs this year with a couple of the other team members, you blatantly tell them you don’t listen to them, so no.  Might not be the culturally accepted way of answering the question or being subtle enough. But you’ve chosen to answer the way you learned in a more direct fashion in the country you spent the most time growing up. An 80s tune comes on, and you tell your colleagues to come dance. You’ve crossed that invisible line.  First, there is that awkwardness. They are looking at you, thinking, should I? Is this appropriate here? Then, when they join, one by one, everyone is smiling and laughing.  You flirt with the guy you fancy the way you know how, which is being direct. You haven’t played it by the cultural rules, but you weren’t planning on blending in.  You’re being yourself, which of course means a mixture of different customs you’ve picked up over the years. You don’t want to hide that night or adapt or adjust.  You’re reacting like a ‘Screamer’.

So what are you? How do you react as a TCK?


  1. This is a great article! As a non-TCK, I don’t really know how to react with TCKs and I know other people that have trouble as well. People can reference this article to help interact with various TCKs!

  2. As a non-TCK, I can’t relate much to this but I love how you broke down each different way of thinking as a TCK! Loved the Article!

  3. I have to admit… I’m a screamer. There are different situations where I am also a chameleon or a wall owner, but when amongst friends and family and those who care, I am a screamer.

  4. This article has a really interesting point of view. I enjoyed getting to read how a TCK does react in those different social situations. I never realized how difficult it must be for someone of a different culture to try and find their way in a new place. Great article!

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