Living the Hyphen: How Multi-Local is the New Multi-National

Race is biological. Countries are historical. Culture and ethnicity are social.

People are human.

What should be a relatively simple lesson in global vocabulary becomes a much more fascinating one, especially today. After all, the world is connected to a greater extent now than ever before--literally, technically, and even genetically. The Internet is a large contributor to that point, but so is the fact that people themselves are less and less likely to come from a singular heritage, race, or even country.

While a country or state may have fairly distinct borders, humans notoriously color (way) outside the lines and in many different colors. Not only does it make our interactions more interesting, it also makes them more important.

In his published paper about cultural identity, Ulrike Meyer reflects upon the intertwined roots we now have, given that so many of us start in one place and mingle about the world, learn other languages, and identify with cities, religions, and politics that are unlike the ones we were born into. "Identity construction takes a whole lifetime and assimilates all kinds of life experiences," states Meyer. Cultural identity, then, becomes less of where people were born and more of how they identify with the formative influences that continue to shape their lives.

Taiye Selasi expounds this point in her TED talk, Don't Ask Me Where I'm From, Ask Where I'm a Local, speaks candidly and informatively of the not-so-subtle differences of those specific ideas, the shifting of the questions' intentions from what and where to who and how. The constructs of country and birthplace have to do with history, and, perhaps, someone else's politics. What happens after that fact, the accumulated experiences and the growing list of influences, has to do with life.

Selasi goes on to describe examples of how two of her friends, born on opposite sides of the planet, have far more in common with each other in terms of "the three R's"--rituals, relationships, and restrictions--than they do the neighbors they live beside.

In my cross-cultural consulting career, forming these connections is the basis of what I do. Cultures are interacting and combining in ways people have never imagined, but perhaps that is because we have assumed that countries and cultures are permanent and closely-related constructs when, in fact, they aren't. They enter, change, and leave this world much like the humans that create them, and should therefore be treated, not as immutable facts, but as the fluid reference points they are.

Ask any Chinese-Mexican-American. Or Lebanese-Ghanaian. Is the person the pieces of where they are from or the hyphen that brings them all together? I vote for hyphen.

The United States offers an example (and National Geographic made it visual) as it fulfills its "melting pot" destiny, where ethnic backgrounds merge with racial genetics and cultures and languages, and where many a census form could be answered with a "D: All of the above."

It may be easy to assume that this melding of ethnicity, culture, and race somehow dilutes the sanctity of each, and some may argue that fact. However, when you take Selasi's suggestion and identify a person based on their rituals, relationships, and restrictions--and not on their genetics or passport--you may find their cultural context not only more concentrated but also more relatable. And this understanding leads to better communication, which leads to tolerance and increased global responsibility.

And this is why I love my job.

"Finally, what we're talking about is human experience, this notoriously and gloriously disorderly affair," says Selasi. "To begin our conversations with an acknowledgment of this complexity brings us closer together, I think, not further apart."

What may seem as harder work is quite the opposite. In fact, it is as simple as changing the labeling noun of "identity" to an interviewing verb "identify"; instead of getting to know a pigeonhole, you are now getting to know the pigeon. Identity, after all, is full of nuance that can be both intensely personal and profoundly universal. Identify the humanity--the hyphen, if you will--and the rest, whether it's increased productivity in the workplace or forming the foundation of a peace treaty or getting to know your newest neighbor, has an opportunity to fall into place.