Please allow me to introduce you to Marielle de Spa – a mover and shaker in the global mobility field and a kindred spirit who values the collective family experience. She carries an important message for families in global transition that I would like to share with you. Read on to be inspired and empowered.

marielle de spaOriginally from Belgium, Marielle de Spa has lived in ten countries and made 12 international moves. Currently based in Madrid, she is a global talent advisor and strategist, specializing in international and third culture executives. She has spent the past 16 years living abroad with her French husband and three Third Culture Kids (TCK) as part of a Third Culture Family (TCF). Marielle introduced this terminology to the world at the 2017 Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference and highlighted the important role TCF members have to play in 21st century society.

As a mother of two TCKs, yet not having grown up in that lifestyle myself, I have always struggled with finding a way to define my family unit’s globally mobile experience. There are terms for individuals such as Cross Cultural Kids (CCK), Third Culture Kids (TCK), Missionary Kids (MK) and Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCK) but not a term for the family unit, moving between cultures, together. As Marielle de Spa began her presentation, I realized I had found someone who valued the collective family experience as much as I did. Marielle explained, “I was trying to find a term for my own family experience. I felt having a term would help us in identifying our family experience over time.” She hopes the TFC term will create a sense of belonging and purpose for other families in similar situations, just as it has for her own family.

What is a Third Culture Family?

“A Third Culture Family or TCF is a family unit leading a long-term globally mobile lifestyle, from one or multiple passport countries but with no plans to go back to that country (or countries) of origin,” says Marielle. The TCF term is inclusive. It is not just referring to the children or the adults but the entire family and may include a couple, a couple with children or someone who has gone through several sequential transitions over time, with another loved one. These are not families who have a plan to return ‘home’ like many expatriates, because in their case, there is no one ‘home’ to which they can return. Perhaps the parents are from different cultures or the family is unable to return to their passport country.There is no clear line that determines when a family living abroad becomes a TCF but after two or three moves, “it starts becoming who you are,” says Marielle. As she went on to explain, far from being a problem, there is a lot of good that can come out of this lifestyle.

TCF Mindset

“Every single tribe has its own mindset because of the circumstances and the journey they have lived,” says Marielle. Through the accumulation of experiences, multiple transitions and the possibility of never settling anywhere permanently, TCFs develop a unique mindset, which is built upon over time.

Individual members of a TCF can positively impact the world through their mindset, which includes:

  • Expanded worldview
  • Builds/ adapts/ starts over
  • Crisis manager
  • Mindful
  • Tolerant
  • Short term planner
  • Autonomous
  • Socially Savvy
  • Envisions opportunity
  • Flexible
  • Curious
  • Resilient
  • Multilingual
  • Prone to change
  • Adventurous
  • Spontaneous
  • Confident communicator
  • Intensity in relationships
  • Open to possibilities
  • Empathetic

TCF Concept of Home

 Reflecting elements of the mindset long before her TCF revelation, Marielle told us a personal story about her wedding preparations. As she and her husband-to-be were looking through suggested poems and verses for their special day, they were both captivated by a poem about a turtle who carried his home on his back. At the time, the symbolism was lost on them but in hindsight, it was clear those 15 years earlier they both had the same concept of home.

family unity 1

‘Home’ for TCFs is temporary, mobile, international and adjustable. Their sense of identity and belonging is not centered around a place but around relationships. “The people give us what we become,” says Marielle. They understand what a mindful relationship is – being present with that person in the moment because they never know when one of them will move on. Host country families take the place of extended family and they each fully invest in the relationship for the time.

TCF and Extended Family Relationships

 Similar to many globally mobile families, the immediate family unit is the nucleus whilst extended family relationships are “a joy and a struggle for TCFs,” says Marielle. Both children and parents are used to developing and maintaining relationships with their extended family via video chat platforms and bonding during brief face-to-face episodes. Time together becomes about quality not quantity and this pattern of relationship building is ‘normal’ for TCF children. There is no denying a sense of guilt associated with lost moments and the routine of family gathering rituals for TCF parents but these are often created within the family unit and with other host country families.

TCF and Friendships

 Friendships are pivotal for TCFs but they look and feel different from friendships that are more sedentary. Developed between other host country families, they are often spontaneous with a “priority for depth rather than longevity,” says Marielle. Friends come from diverse backgrounds, exposing TCF members to different cultures whilst developing and displaying a high level of tolerance. TCF friends become more like family and many of those friendships continue to develop across borders due to the mobile nature of the TCF lifestyle.

The TCF Tribe

Globalization has seen many families from different origins, crisscrossing the globe and sharing the same value system and experiences outlined by Marielle. These like-minded individuals make up the TCF Tribe, which becomes “part of our identity, our social DNA,” says Marielle, “and our home.” That sense of identity and belonging was almost tangible in the room, as some participants connected with Marielle’s subject matter and recognized, for the first time, that she was describing them.  Comments such as ‘this is me’, ‘this is my family’, ‘thank you so much for giving me a vocabulary to describe our lifestyle, my tribe’, exemplified Marielle’s hope that the TFC term would create a sense of belonging and purpose for other families in similar situations.

Why do TCFs matter?

 Given the transient nature of the TCF lifestyle, the mindset it creates and the relationship developed with people and the world around them, Marielle is convinced TCFs have a vital role to play in our society – a purpose and a mission.

 To illustrate this, our attention was drawn to Canadian President Trudeau’s first address to the UN General Assembly in 2016. “We see diversity as a source of strength not weakness. (We are) strong not in spite of our differences but because of them… every single day we need to choose hope over fear, diversity over division,” he said. TCFs bring this diversity, strength and hope to the table, to the world. They have a human responsibility, a critical role to play and a global influence. “TCFs are uniquely positioned to defend their value system and to show the world that there is a better way,” says Marielle. Once TCF families acknowledge they belong to the TCF Tribe, they can find a purpose and a mission amidst the constant change.

TCF purpose

“Each member of the TCF Tribe needs to act now to make a difference,” says Marielle, to build a legacy, to gain a sense of purpose, to advocate for an inclusive view of the world, to secure their children’s future in a globally minded society, to bring hope to the world and reconnection on a human scale.

TCF mission

Marielle identified five steps TCFs can take to accomplish their purpose thus bringing diversity, strength and hope to a world in need.

  1. Affirm our TCF identity
  2. Communicate and stand for our value system
  3. Promote our skill set and competencies
  4. Inspire our children and others
  5. Support global and local communities

Through her work, Marielle is making it her mission to promote the skill set of TCF individuals and to make sure that skill set is noticed by corporations, government and global organizations. She is bridging the gap between the employment world and the globally mobile world and highlighting the important contribution TCFs can make across the globe.

Marielle concluded with a quote from Apple CEO, Tim Cook, giving hope to all globally mobile families and our 21stcentury society.

“As I’ve said many times, diversity makes our team stronger. Apple is open. Open to everyone, no matter where they come from, which language they speak, who they love or how they worship. Our employees represent the finest talent in the world and our team hails from every corner of the globe. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, ‘We may have all come on different ships but we are in the same boat now’.”


 Marielle de Spa’s website

Third Culture Family website

Connecting with other Third Culture Families

This article was originally published in Insights and Interviews from the 2017 Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference – Building on the Basics: Creating Your Tribe on The Move



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