Turning ethnic similarity traps into social advantages

[Guest post by my former PhD student and co-author Shea Fan. In this post, Shea shares our discoveries on how ethnic similarity can negatively affect social interactions and which strategies individuals can use to turn similarity traps into similarity advantage.]

I am fascinated by how people’s multiple identities are perceived in the eyes of the people they interact with. After publishing several studies on the role of identity in the interaction between expatriates and local employee, I am excited to introduce our latest findings on the social challenges caused by ethnic similarity, published in Organizational Dynamics.

Fan, S.X.; Harzing, A.W. (2021) The double-edged sword of ethnic similarity for expatriates, Organizational Dynamics, in press, Available online... - Publisher's version - Related blog post

When I collected the field data for my other studies, I talked with many overseas Chinese working in China. What surprised me was that many seemed to be troubled by their colleagues’ expectations originating from their shared ethnicity, a characteristic that was immediately observable. Under the halo effect of ethnic similarity, they felt that their real thoughts and feelings were neglected by their colleagues. Although ethnic similarity is supposed to bring these individuals a lot of advantages - such as having a psychological connection with the local culture, and being able to grasp the local culture or language quickly - the “negative side” of ethnic similarity seemed to affect them more seriously.  

Ethnic similarity traps

In this article, we revealed three ethnicity-based similarity traps, or unwanted ethnicity-based categorizations, in the context of expatriate-host country employee interactions.

Double standards: ‘You are one of us’

Host country employees formed expectations based on one of the expatriates’ identities (i.e., their shared ethnicity with locals) but ignored or neglected their other identities. For example, when overseas Chinese and Western expatriates spoke Mandarin at the same level, host country employees were more impressed by Western expatriates. The latter’s language ability exceeded their expectations, whereas the language ability of overseas Chinese expatriates was taken for granted. Overseas Chinese might thus be disadvantaged at work because of double standards.

Ethnicity-based comparison: ‘You are not different from me’

Again, the shared ethnicity is used as a point of reference for social comparisons. Host country employees compared themselves with overseas Chinese expatriates but not with Western expatriates. These comparisons usually resulted in overseas Chinese expatriates feeling more social pressure than Western expatriates.

Expecting in-group favoritism: ‘You should support us’

Host country employees saw overseas Chinese as ethnic in-group members based on their shared ethnicity. They thus expected them to support the ethnic in-group, but neglected to consider that overseas Chinese expatriates might have alternative views based on their other identities.

Identity management strategies

What excited us was that we have been able to identify identity management strategies that expatriates deployed to cope with these similarity traps.

  • Passing: do not address identity ambiguity, or conceal identity information. This is a passive strategy that involves avoidance. It could be an appropriate strategy when the relationship is weak or in non-critical relationships, such as in one-off or initial interactions.
  • Clarifying: claim the preferred identity or disclose it indirectly. This is an active strategy aimed at challenging the ethnicity-based categorization. When used appropriately, it can reduce identity ambiguity and facilitate interpersonal understanding.
  • Re-directing: focus on a non-ethnic identity, such as a professional identity. It aims to direct the focus away from the identity based on shared ethnicities and actively brings other identities to the fore.

Managing our multiple identities is an art

Mindfully understanding others’ identities is a socially responsible practice. We hope the insights of our research can help both counterparts in the interaction to interact with each other more effectively. We were delighted when reading the comments from an anonymous practitioner who reviewed our article:

“After reading this article, when I find myself in these situations, I can confidently say what I am experiencing is either identity ambiguity or not conforming to people's mental expectations. I can clearly articulate whether these experiences are manifesting as double standards, social comparison, or expectations of in-group favoritism, and this article clearly provides tools (strategies) for dealing with the issue.”

Our research is only the tip of an iceberg regarding the complexity of multiple identities in social interactions. We hope that our research will stimulate your interest in understanding multiple identities. In the following media stories, the protagonists clearly have multiple identities. How were these identities perceived by others? How did the perceptions challenge or enhance their job? What strategies did they use to manage their identities?

The controversy caused by the moustache of Harry Harries, US ambassador to Korea, who has a Japanese mother and American father and works in Korea.
The racial discrimination faced by Naomi Osaka, a successful tennis player who is half-Japanese and half-Haitian and holds dual Japanese and American citizenship.
The first woman USA Vice-President, Kamala Harris whose multiple identities can inspire different groups of people.

Drop us a line...

Have you observed a similar phenomenon at work? Our article may serve as a means for you to understand how people can turn their identity traps into identity advantages. If you would like to share your stories with us, feel free to contact us.

Related blogposts