Cultural differences: Dutch directness and beyond
Sarah Welling, from UvA Talen in Amsterdam, gives us the lowdown on the often talked about "Dutch directness".
The Dutch are famed for their direct way of communicating. Of course, stereotypes are not the whole story and not all Dutch people are direct at all times.
There are specific contexts and situations that call for a less direct way of communicating, even among the Dutch. As these often relate to the world of work and bureaucracy, these are very handy to know about when trying to find your way in Dutch society. Find out when a little indirectness is called for, even in the Netherlands.
It’s the culture, stupid!
Stereotypes don’t arise out of thin air, of course. There is usually some kind of basis to them, or we wouldn’t still be making jokes about them after all this time. If we look at personal experience, the directness of the Dutch is something most longer-term visitors from other countries experience quite regularly.
Just think of a scenario in which a Dutch colleague or neighbour asks you “So, how do you like the Netherlands?” So far, so direct. What’s important to realise here, and what people coming to the Netherlands don’t always grasp in the beginning, is that what you say next is going to be taken at face value.
Unlike in other cultures, it is not as common to be diplomatic or tell a white lie. In other words: from a Dutch point of view, it is more honest to be up-front than to protect the feelings of the person you are talking to.
It’s not (always) personal
This kind of situation can, of course, lead to misunderstandings. That is why it is useful to be aware of such cultural differences in communication styles. This allows you to see that what you are communicating in the framework of your own culture may be interpreted differently in another cultural framework.
Looking at things this way, it becomes clear that misunderstandings are not always a question of different personalities (“she is really insincere, why can’t she just say what she thinks”) but rather a question of cultural conventions and frameworks.
I is for individuality
Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist who has done research into qualifying cultures along a number of dimensions. According to his index of cultural dimensions, one aspect Dutch culture scores high on is individuality. This means expressing your personal opinion is valued and even expected of you within Dutch society. The “I” is valued over the “we”, you could say.
On the other hand, the Netherlands is also a country of consensus building, where people have traditionally come together to achieve common goals (such as constructing dykes). So these two dimensions coexist within the culture.
One context in which the Dutch aren’t as direct or individualistic as you might think is in written communication. Did you know that it is a Dutch convention never to begin a letter or email with “I”? Putting yourself front and centre like this is considered “not done”. This is handy to know when you are writing a job application letter to a Dutch company – even if you are writing in English!
Passive and active
Compared to spoken communication, written Dutch also uses more passive forms (“The decision has been made to” versus the active form “We have decided to”). And the more formal and bureaucratic the communication, the more passive forms you can expect (think taxes and permits)! These are less direct formulations that also allow you to “hide” the agent who is doing the deciding, for example.
On average, written Dutch makes more use of passive forms than written English. Again, this is something that’s handy to know but goes against the general stereotype of directness. It won’t make it any easier to understand letters from the Tax Authority but at least you will know what to expect.
The famous Dutch directness can be refreshing as well as disconcerting, if it’s not something you are used to in your own culture. But, as we have seen, there’s more to the culture than meets the eye, and even the Dutch will sometimes take a less direct route.
Sarah Welling works for UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam. Their fast-paced courses help students make rapid progress in learning English, Dutch and ten other languages. Visit their website or follow UvA Talen on Facebook for more information.