International Business | Diversity and Migration

When It Comes to International Business, Not All "Biculturals" Are Alike

Fast Facts:

  • “Biculturals”—people who possess the mindsets of two different cultures—play an important role in promoting economic engagement between their country of residence and their country of origin.
  • Biculturals who feel that their two cultures are very distinct from each other but not in conflict are especially well-positioned to contribute to cross-border business activities by using their social networks.

It’s not surprising that “biculturals”—people that possess the mindsets of two different cultures—make unique contributions to economic activities between their country of residence (where they live) and their country of origin (where they or their parents came from). This is because they have knowledge about and connections with the two countries that are advantageous for conducting or promoting cross-border business.

But not all biculturals are alike. Rosalie Tung, the Ming and Stella Wong Professor of International Business at SFU’s Beedie School of Business, teamed up with Associate Professor Masud Chand of Wichita State University to study the experience of one prominent group of biculturals: the Indian immigrant population living in the US and Canada. With the growth of trade and investment ties between India and North America, the Indian diaspora in North America is quite important economically. Tung and Chaud wanted to know if different types of Indian biculturals contributed differently to economic ties and business activities involving India and the US and Canada.  

The researchers focused on two aspects of biculturalism: “cultural distance,” which is the perception that two cultures are distinctly different from each other, and “cultural conflict,” which is the idea that two cultures clash with each other. What they found is that biculturals who come from two cultural backgrounds that are highly dissimilar yet experience low cultural conflict—that is, people who embody two cultures that they feel are very different but do not see those differences as a source of conflict—make the greatest contributions to economic engagement between their two countries. This is because such people tend to have multiple, non-overlapping social networks in both countries, which allows them to move smoothly between the two cultures, and to help others do the same. Tung and Chaud call these biculturals “cultural boundary spanners.”

A Silicon Valley IT executive who moved from India to the U.S. for her undergraduate degree two decades ago explained how belonging to different social networks contributes to business: “The two cultures (Indian and American) may be different, but I do not have a problem in integrating them. In my work and professional life I try to stick to the more American culture, but in my personal and family life I tend to be more Indian. … I often exchange information between the two groups, such as talking about Indian products to my non-Indian colleagues, and talking about work opportunities with my newer Indian friends.”

For others, the connecting role involves providing a successful example for others. A Toronto-based entrepreneur and commodities trader noted, “My non-Indian friends tell me that they really weren’t thinking seriously of doing business in India until they heard first-hand about the success of my cross-border business.” 

One important implication of Tung and Chaud’s research for MNCs is that not all biculturals are equal when it comes to working internationally. The most effective expatriates tend to be those that know two (or more) countries well, have business and social networks in both, and see cultural differences as complementing each other rather than being in conflict.