How do groups shape our identity? Founder of Fit Across Cultures and Cultural Intelligence expert, Susan Salzbrenner discusses the impact of groups on social identity.

Do you mock people that are showing up in their favourite team jersey the day after a victory? Or those with a bunch of bumper stickers telling you all you need to know about their life? Think twice next time! Did you know that cheering publicly for a team is a great boost for your self-esteem? …Well, given the fact that they are winning (minor detail, I know).

Psychologists call the phenomena of people wearing their team’s jerseys after a successful match/game “basking in reflected glory (BIRGing)“. It means that you associate yourself with the successful group that is “team X (insert favourite club, group or team, heck even a band, if they just won the grammy)”. Because of that association and identification as a member of that well-reputed group, their success magically becomes yours. Boom, more pride and self-esteem, because YOU just won the NBA Championships (if you happen to be a Spurs fan recently, for example). It actually goes as far as to affect your physiological state, through the production of hormones (e.g. Testosterone). Crazy right? You’ve done nothing more than watching them do the work, but you feel better afterwards!

It all stems from the concept of our social identity as the portion of our self-concept that comes from the perceived membership of a relevant group (Turner & Oakes, 1986).

Groups that we belong to are huge when it comes to shaping our social identity. Just think about this question: “Who are you?” Often times, we answer by listing our VIP membership list. “I’m a mom, a social entrepreneur, an athlete, a German”….Noticed? All groups, at different levels, but undoubtedly groups.

When you pack your bags and suitcases to move to a new country and culture, you are of course taking your social identity with you. Or at least how you’ve previously constructed it, with all these great groups you belong(ed) to. Unfortunately, you’ll soon find that many of these groups do not mean a thing abroad. HEC? Huh? Pardon, MIT what? Eagles Scouts, never heard of that bird!

There goes the self-esteem!

In case they do know the groups you identify yourself with (your nationality should ring a bell…I say should, since we never know who we come across!), the reputation and association with that group could be VERY different to the one you made back home. Let’s just say that all of the sudden, you find yourself in a culture where your nationality is not gloriously well received but rather negatively stereotyped. What research found is that we then engage in an activity called CORFing (or Cutting Off Reflected Failure, Cialdini & Richardson, 1980). Depending on how deeply you are committed to the group that is attacked, you’ll either distance yourself from it (“I never said I liked them.”) or attribute external causes to their failure (“Yes, but with that referee, we didn’t stand a chance”). But the most common response to an attack of a group we deeply value (like our country, e.g.) is BLASTING the attacker. We become defensive, criticize and counter-attack. Why? Because, our identity is partially based on the membership to this group. The deeper we are connected with it, the more an attack will have an effect on our self-esteem and value system. Makes sense, right?

But the good news is that living abroad comes with an immense opportunity to enrich your social identity. That’s right! Go out, and find yourself some new groups to belong to. (No, I’m not saying change your nationality, but incorporate other parts of your new life into your identity). Teams to root for, organizations to support, bands to go to concerts to. And do put on that jersey the day after their or your match/game, to show that you are part of this group. It’ll feel good, I promise!

In the spirit of the Football World Cup (or soccer, depending on where you are), let’s check out the cheering in different countries for their respective team’s victory:

Looks and sounds quite similar, right? These people all went home happy and confident, because their team just won. And who are we to make fun of that, knowing what we now know?!

Stay interculturally fit,


About the Author

Fit Across Cultures founder, Susan Salzbrenner, has experienced first hand what it means to establish yourself in a new culture, overcome communication hurdles, and reach targets while feeling lost and misunderstood.

With a background in organizational and clinical psychology (M.A.) and a certification as intercultural trainer, Susan trains, coaches and writes about intercultural communication, sports psychology and how culture and diversity affects performance.

She started her passion for sport at the age of three with gymnastics and ballet, and was introduced to basketball during an exchange year in a U.S. high school.

She has lived and worked in six different countries (Germany, USA, Australia, Denmark, China and France), traveled extensively around the globe, learned (and failed at) many languages, and played basketball along the way. She is currently based near Paris, France.

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