Career Woman

Nationality types: are they a cultural identifier or a misnomer at work?


Imagine you are at a business event or at a social party surrounded by new people. In conversation, you find yourself curious about someone’s cultural background. You might be tempted to ask, ‘where are you from?’ Even if you mean well, for those on the receiving end, the question may have deeper implications than you realise. At the face of it, seeking to know where someone is from is merely a way of building a connection. In most cases, however, a question about nationality types it is also loaded with presumptions.

What do you think of when you think of nationality types? A passport, a border, cuisine or a national hero, perhaps? Is it part of your cultural identity? For many, nationality is merely a legal status of citizenship but not an accurate personal identifier as such. Yet there is a natural tendency to view cultural similarities and differences with people based on perceptions around a single cultural facet , most commonly nationality and ethnicity.

Cultural identity and nationality types; the perspective of a ‘third culture’ kid

My daughter spent her formative years in Dubai, arriving as an impressionable one year old up to the age of 18. That was a lifetime compared to the many expatriates who came and went on shorter-term contracts. As far as she knew, the cultural melting pot was home.

As much as she identified with being ‘from Dubai’, she wasn’t entitled to own the label. We knew that we were without status in the UAE. Unlike Australia, which offers a pathway to permanent residency and even citizenship, life in the UAE was punctuated at four-year intervals when employment visas came up for renewal.

Visibly of South-Asian descent, holder of a British passport, with a British-Asian mother and a Pakistani father – ‘where are you from?’ is not an easy question for Zehra to answer. It was no wonder, then, that a seemingly benign question could literally shake her world.

It was a constant source of grief for Zehra as she grappled with her sense of identity and belonging until, thankfully, she stumbled upon an article that awarded her a nationality types status: a ‘third culture’ kid. Well into her teens by this point, she now belonged to a cool new generation of kids. The term was coined decades ago to describe those who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland and is gaining more importance in today’s era of globalisation. As sociologist Ruth Van Reken warns, life as a third culture kid can create a sense of rootlessness and restlessness, where home is ‘everywhere and nowhere’.

As Zehra can tell you, she would like to say that she is ‘from Dubai’, but she can’t. ‘If I say I’m British, I get puzzled looks – clearly I don’t look or even sound British, so that doesn’t satisfy people.’ Then comes the interrogation – ‘But where are you really from?’ Zehra says, ‘I then feel I have to fill that awkward moment of silence by going on to explain my cultural identity. By this point, any motivation to build a connection on nationality types is lost’.

Intercultural relationships are giving birth to an increasingly number of third culture kids. Nationality types alone is not a cultural determinant and those who rely on this classification only are depriving them- selves of a potentially rich interpersonal exchange.

The trap of stereotyping

To rely heavily on national culture alone, or in fact any single cultural identity alone, forms a myopic view and leads us to the trap of stereotyping, which does not accurately reflect cultural identities or predict beliefs or behaviour. In my book, Curious about Culture, I describe myself as British-Asian living in Sydney, Australia. I believe that identifying myself based solely on my citizenship, my town of birth or my place of residence, is a limiting self-description.

How to frame your curiosity

Curiosity is key to meaningfully deepening our cross-cultural connectivity. We can demonstrate curiosity by asking deliberate questions to gain useful perceptions, free of judgement. Look to frame your curiosity with respectful, open questions, rather than questions that project an assumption that reduces people to a singular facet of their cultural identity.

We have established that ‘Where are you from?’ is not a great ice- breaker. For those being asked, these questions feel loaded. We need to ask ourselves what motivates our desire to know about someone’s identity, faith or ethnicity. If it is to confirm a hunch, steer away and save everyone an awkward moment. Did you pick up on an accent, or a racial profile that piqued your interest? Think of a situation when you were recognised by a feature ascribed to you. Go back to that moment and remember what it felt like being asked a question laden with assumption or limiting notions. What would you have liked others to know about you instead?

I will admit, there are times when I can’t hold back my curiosity – especially if I have an urge to build a connection or show that we have something in common. However, if we assume a similarity or even a difference, we run the risk of causing offence. You can frame your questions around a detectable trait and take it away from the person. Examples could include: ‘Did I pick up an accent?’ ‘What is the origin of your name?’ ‘What is your family heritage?’

If you have time for a deep and meaningful conversation, considered and carefully framed questions will lead to a more comfortable and open dialogue that can go beyond the surface. In a social setting, with the advantage of time, you can wait for the topic to surface organically. Underpinning your curiosity with active listening will help you determine if there’s an opportunity to expand the conversation.

About Gaiti Rabbani

Gaiti Rabbani is the author of Curious about Culture (Major Street Publishing 2021) a book about cultivating cross-cultural understanding. She an Executive Advisor People and Culture, a Cultural Intelligence Specialist and founder of Rabbani Collective, a company that enables businesses to harness the potential of their people through custom learning and development programs. For more information about how Gaiti can help your team visit

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