I was invited on a short notice to fill a gap in a panel discussion on “intercultural interaction in teaching environments”. The main focus being on “identity” and how teachers could support young people who are still figuring out their identity.

While preparing for the panel, surprisingly I found out that I didn’t really have a clear understanding of what identity actually means. It seems there is a lot of different and partly very complicated definitions for  it. In the context of “intercultural living”, the term is mainly used to determine the “inner coherence” or “characteristics” of a person or a cultural group of people, which makes it easier to sort people into categories for administrative purposes.

When researching the Latin origin of the word I discovered that it refers to something “repetitive”, something that happens over and over again (identidem), which I found very helpful. Basically, I would describe identity as an “assemblage” of repetitive behaviors, experiences and thoughts (including for example our name, regular phrases we hear, prayers, habits) that ultimately form into behavioral and thinking patterns, physical skills and the like.

Something like what Charlie Chaplin shows here in his movie Modern times, the factory scene.

There seem to be 2  important determining factors for erecting an identity:

  • One is “acceptance”. Without acceptance no identity. All these often repeated phrases or behaviors are accepted by us for one reason: we have come to believe that they are useful and will ensure our survival and success (even a chronic sceptic is convinced that scepticism is useful). What we learn to accept is influenced by our family, the society, the language, natural environment including climate, life experiences etc.
  • The second is “identification”, the belief that “we are” these behaviors and thoughts or that they are an inherent part of us. Somewhat similar to an actor who becomes his/her role and forgets that it is a role; forgets, that, who s/he is, is the person who is playing the role, not the character they play.

Now, when we take people out of the environment where their “identity” was conditioned and transplant them into a new environment (as it happened to me), it’s like trying to fit a puzzle piece into the wrong puzzle. The more accepted the “identity” was and the more “identified” a person is with it, the more difficult it gets.

Even if we realize that what we have learned doesn’t work anymore, change of identity can be a tedious process, as not only do we have to learn new strategies, but we also have to unlearn old strategies, the latter sometimes being much more difficult than the first. Old habits die hard, as they are backed up with the full authority of a parent/child relationship, long practice and past “successes”. The general tendency seems to be to defend them, trying instead to resurrect the environment where we developed our identity (which is why you can buy German food and find “german ways of doing things” wherever Germans visit on a regular basis).

In the panel discussion it turned out that for most people, their professional identity had become most important. While it appears that people with international career paths are more  flexible, they actually are just as conditioned by their jobs, in need for a specific work environment so that their professional identity fits. This is may be one reason why cities, office buildings, work places all over the world start to look the same.

Helpful for me when faced with identity crisis after relocation to Finland was the historical  approach that the Finnish people adopted  after Finland was annexed by Russia, became a Grand Duchy and received the order from the Tsar to raise to the challenge of forming a nation.  Eino Friberg coined the Finnish approach brilliantly in the preface to his translation of the Kalevala:” [a] way of reasoning to self-identity by a process of elimination of alternatives“. In plain text this meant that Finns in trying to define who they were could merely say :” we are not Swedish; we can never become Russians; let us therefore be Finns

I have taken the same approach to solve my identity issue:  “I am not really German anymore, I can never be a Finn, so let’s be me”. 🙂


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