Are You A Fruit Salad Or Juice?

In my first article, I defined a multicultural person simply as someone who embodies more than one culture within herself or himself.

In my second article, I explained the notion of culture as an iceberg, consisting of surface aspects (such as food, dress, and customs) and deep aspects (such as values, beliefs, and assumptions) that influence how we think, feel and act. Now that we’re on the same page about what it means to have one culture, we can better start to understand what it is to be a multicultural person.

In short, it is to possess the values, beliefs, assumptions, and norms of more than one culture. For instance, in response to my last column, a reader who is an American raised by Chinese parents noted that she ‘straddled the line between interdependent and independent’ self-concepts.[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] This brings us to the question, how do multicultural individuals reconcile two different cultures within themselves, when these cultures may entail opposite values, beliefs or assumptions?[/perfectpullquote]

Research finds that, broadly speaking, there are generally two ways that multiple cultures can be structured within an individual: as distinctive, separate cultures (compartmentalized), or as a merged or blended culture (hybrid)[note]Hong, Y., Morris, M. W., Chiu, C.-Y., & Benet-Martínez, V. (2000). Multicultural minds: A dynamic constructivist approach to culture and cognition. American Psychologist, 55(7), 709–720[/note]. Of course, it is often more complicated than that – scholars have proposed various other multicultural configurations – but this simple contrast is useful in explaining key differences among multiculturals.

[bctt tweet=”How do multicultural individuals reconcile two different cultures within themselves?” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]

Compartmentalized Cultures


[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Research has found that although multiculturals can hold both cultures (e.g., interdependent self-concept and independent self-concept) within themselves at the same time, they only activate one at a time.[/perfectpullquote]

So, how does this work? Cultural cues can activate a cultural frame and like flicking a light switch, can turn a cultural frame on or off. These cues can be language, faces, iconic images, surroundings, etc. This is known as cultural frame-switching. [note]Verkuyten, M., & Pouliasi, K. (2002). Biculturalism among older children: Cultural frame switching, attributions, self-identification, and attitudes. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 33(6), 596–609[/note].

[bctt tweet=”Multicultural folks can turn cultural frames of language, faces, images, and others on and off.” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]

For instance, a study of Greek children living in the Netherlands found that when a Greek frame was activated, the multicultural children tended to think in a more Greek way: They made more situational explanations, identified more strongly with their friends, and placed higher value on family integrity and obedience by children, compared to when a Dutch frame was activated [note]Benet-Martínez, V. (2012). Multiculturalism: Cultural, social, and personality processes. In K. Deaux & M. Snyder (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology (pp. 623–648). New York: Oxford University Press [/note].

Multiculturals can frame switch on a range of things, including emotional experience, cooperation, and decision-making, among others [note]Martin, L., & Shao, B. (2016). Early Immersive Culture Mixing: The Key to Understanding Cognitive and Identity Differences Among Multiculturals. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 47(10), 1409–1429[/note]. This cognitive flexibility can be a great advantage in situations that call for being able to see things from multiple perspectives.

[bctt tweet=”Multicultural folks can frame switch emotional experience, cooperation, and decision-making.” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]

Hybrid cultures


This means that the multiple cultures within the person are not clearly distinguishable from each other – the interaction of cultures has produced a new cultural frame within the person. So the person is a blend of each original culture, like a juice blended from different fruits. My own research (more on this in future articles) suggests that multiculturals who fit into this category don’t frame-switch [note]Benet-Martínez, V. (2012). Multiculturalism: Cultural, social, and personality processes. In K. Deaux & M. Snyder (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology (pp. 623–648). New York: Oxford University Press [/note]. Instead, they tend to interpret situations in an in-between way that indicates a single, hybrid cultural frame. For instance, unlike a multicultural who compartmentalizes Korean and American cultures, a hybrid Korean-American multicultural will likely have a single self-concept that is less interdependent than would a typical Korean person, and a less independent self-concept than a typical American person.

[bctt tweet=”Mesh of cultures produces new cultural frames in multicultural people.” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]

[bctt tweet=”Do you interpret situations in an in-between way that indicates a single, hybrid cultural frame?” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]

This may mean that they don’t have the same type of cognitive flexibility as multiculturals with compartmentalized cultures, but their unique thinking style which blends multiple cultures may have other advantages that are yet to be discovered.

[bctt tweet=”Are you a #multicultural person with cognitive flexibility? ” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]

So far, we’ve been focusing on how cultural frames are organised within individuals – we can call this the cognitive view of multiculturalism, because it relates to thinking (i.e., the mind). [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Another aspect of being a multicultural individual has to do with the culture with which you identify – we can call this the identity view of multiculturalism, and it relates to being (i.e., the self). In the identity view of multiculturalism, the contrast between compartmentalisation and hybridisation comes into play as well.[/perfectpullquote]


The Identity View

Research shows that some multiculturals feel they have multiple, separate cultural identities (e.g., a Korean identity, and an American identity). Yet some multiculturals feel like they identify more with a blended culture rather than each culture separately (e.g., a hybrid Korean-American identity). [perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Whether one has compartmentalized identities or a hybrid identity may affect one’s psychological well-being and adjustment (e.g., self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness).[/perfectpullquote]

From what we know so far, the general pattern seems to be that the more integrated one’s identities, the greater one’s well-being and adjustment.[note]Lücke, G., Kostova, T., & Roth, K. (2013). Multiculturalism from a cognitive perspective: Patterns and implications. Journal of International Business Studies, 45(2), 169–190[/note].

Where do these cognitive and identity differences between multiculturals come from?

Various factors may have an influence. For instance, learning cultures separately is more likely to lead to cognitive compartmentalisation, while growing up in a cultural enclave is more likely to lead to identity compartmentalisation.[note]Benet-Martínez, V., & Haritatos, J. (2005). Bicultural identity integration (BII): components and psychosocial antecedents. Journal of Personality, 73(4), 1015–1049.[/note].

[bctt tweet=”Growing up in a cultural enclave is more likely to lead to identity compartmentalisation.” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]

To sum up, although people use the term ‘multicultural person’, there are fundamental differences among multiculturals. Some keep their cultures separate in their mind and/or self, while others blend their cultures in their mind and/or self. These differences matter, because they can lead to differences in skills and behaviors. Each way may have its own unique advantages.

[bctt tweet=”There are fundamental differences among and within multicultural individuals. ” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]

In my research, I consider both the cognitive and identity views. I explore how compartmentalisation versus hybridisation patterns may develop in individuals, and the implications for how multiculturals contribute in organisations. In future articles, I’ll share with you some of my recent research findings, which are likely to be particularly relevant to multicultural families.

[bctt tweet=”Do you compartmentalize or hybridize multiple cultures within yourself? ” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]

Do you compartmentalize or hybridize multiple cultures within yourself? We would love to hear your thoughts, questions, or stories about culture and multiculturalism. Please feel free to leave a comment below or get in touch with the author directly at


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