I have always been amazed at how well my Italian grandparents were able to adapt and make a beautiful life for themselves in Canada without really knowing much about the country at the time or even how to speak English. It turns out that a big part of that success might relate to the strategy they used to adjust to this new and very different cultural environment.
Researchers use the term acculturation to refer to the process of cultural and psychological change that happens when two cultural groups interact. On an individual level, there are many psychological changes that can occur when someone enters a new cultural environment that might involve differences in their attitude towards cultural change as well as shifts in their own cultural identities.
Challenges in the way someone adapts to a new culture reflect the extent to which that individual: (1) seeks to maintain their heritage culture/identity, and (2) seeks to have interactions with people of other cultures in the larger society. Although the strategy one chooses differs person to person, research seems to suggest that the particular strategies we use to adapt can have an important impact on our mental health.
According to Berry’s model of acculturation, there are 4 main acculturation strategies that describe how people might adapt to a different cultural environment:
Strategy #1: Assimilation
Assimilation refers to when individuals do not wish to maintain their heritage culture, and instead seek to become fully involved with the culture of the larger society. An example of assimilation might look like this: Momoka is Japanese but has immigrated to the United States. She is no longer interested in maintaining her Japanese roots and instead has chosen to culturally identify herself as an American and has become fully immersed with American culture. She speaks English most of the time, keeps up with American pop culture (TV shows, books, etc.), holds American values and spends most of her time with her American friends.
Some studies suggest that this strategy might have beneficial effects on mental health, Other researchers, however, suggest that assimilation involves the denial of one’s cultural roots, which may be associated with identity crises and, in turn, increase one’s vulnerability to depression. Interesting, yet other studies have found that assimilation is linked to lower levels of depression, it’s possible that by becoming more involved in society and seeking out interactions with those within it, individuals find themselves with a newfound social support system and sense of belonging in their community. Importantly, this sense of belonging can provide a valuable buffer against depressive symptoms.
Strategy #2: Separation
Separation occurs when individuals place high value on holding on to their heritage culture and, at the same time, wish to avoid interacting with the culture of the larger society they are in. Using the hypothetical example from above, if Momoka employed the strategy of separation, she might try to hold on to her Japanese culture and reject American culture by refusing to speak English, spending most of her time with other Japanese acquaintances/family members, and avoiding engaging in American activities as best she can.
Research has found that this strategy can increase the likelihood of experiencing anxiety-related symptoms. Although maintaining a connection with one’s heritage culture can help buffer and reduce some of the negative effects of immigration-related challenges and discrimination, being shut off and separated from the larger society can make it quite difficult to thrive occupationally and socially.
Strategy #3: Integration
Integration is when individuals wish to maintain their heritage culture and also aspire to be fully engaged in the cultural life of the larger society. Using our hypothetical case, if Momoka employed the integration strategy, she might culturally identify as Japanese-American, be bilingual, maintain her Japanese traditions/values when she is around her family, and also immerse herself in American culture and spend time with her American friends.
Compared to all other acculturation strategies, integration seems to have the most positive effect on the mental health of immigrants and is shown to lead to the most favourable outcomes for individuals adjusting to a new culture.
Strategy #4: Marginalization
Marginalization refers to when individuals have minimal interest in maintaining their heritage culture and in connecting with the larger societal culture. It is essentially the opposite of integration. Compared to other acculturation strategies, marginalization is associated with the worst mental health outcomes. In fact, marginalization appears to triple the likelihood of anxiety-related symptoms compared to integration.
There are various reasons why migrants might choose to shut themselves off from both cultural groups. For example, if one’s entry to the host country is not legitimate, they might reject their heritage culture and avoid connecting with the dominant culture for self-protection.
One of the reasons why rejecting one’s own cultural identity can lead to worse mental health outcomes is because culture and ethnicity offer opportunities to develop valuable relationships with others (particularly in minority communities) and having this social support system can help immigrants cope with difficult and stressful situation. By rejecting both heritage and host cultures, immigrants may end up forfeiting a sense of identity and belonging to either community.
The acculturation strategy people use may differ between the private and public areas of their life.
For example, an individual might reject any connection with the host culture (i.e. separation) in their private life at home but then choose to adapt to the host culture (i.e. integration or assimilation) in public parts of their life. There are also environmental and situational factors (like familiarity with the language or travelling with family) that can impact the type of acculturation strategies used and how advantageous they might be.
The jury is in…
Generally speaking, integration is the strategy that works best for adjusting to a new cultural environment. Staying connected with your heritage culture while also choosing to actively interact with the larger culture will likely lead you to the most successful outcomes. Most importantly, it provides you with a sense of belonging to both communities – a key ingredient to good social health.
To read more about what cultural acculturation in the workplace looks like, check out Nurau’s original research on the future of the workplace and the role culture plays in the mental health of the next generation here!