Forming Your Cultural Identity

“Where are you from?” – if you find yourself in a foreign country, this will most likely be one of the first questions people ask you. Finding out about your cultural background and your cultural identity seems to give people a general framework within which they get to know others. But what is this cultural identity and how do we get one?

Cultural identity is often defined as the identity of a group, culture or an individual, influenced by one’s belonging to a group or culture. A developmental psychologist,  Jean S. Phinney, formulated a three stage model describing how this identity is acquired.

The first stage, unexamined cultural identity, is characterized by a lack of exploration of culture and cultural differences – they are rather taken for granted without much critical thinking. This is usually the stage reserved for childhood when cultural ideas provided by parents, the community or the media are easily accepted. Children at this stage tend not to be interested in ethnicity and are generally ready to take on the opinions of others.

The second stage of the model is referred to as the cultural identity search and is characterized by the exploration and questioning of your culture in order to learn more about it and to understand the implications of belonging to it. During this stage you begin to question where your beliefs come from and why you hold them, you are ready to compare and analyze them across cultures. For some, this stage may arise from a turning point in their life or from a growing awareness of other cultures and it can also be a very emotional time. This is often the time when high-school students decide to go on an intercultural exchange program, such as the one provided by AFS. This kind of a program can satisfy a growing awareness of the world around you and the desire to learn more about culture.

Finally, the third stage of the model is cultural identity achievement. Ideally, people at this stage have a clear sense of their cultural identity and are able to successfully navigate it in the contemporary world which is undoubtedly very interconnected and intercultural. The acceptance of yourself and your cultural identity may play a significant role in your other important life decisions and choices, influencing your attitudes and behavior. This usually leads to an increase in self-confidence and positive psychological development.

Educational goals are the basis of AFS exchange programs, and they help guide our participants through the different stages of acquiring cultural identity. By developing on a personal and interpersonal level, participants in AFS exchanges become more interculturally sensitive and more knowledgeable about global issues. This helps them form their own cultural identities and reach the the self-confidence presented in the model described above.