Dutch honesty & cross-cultural conflict

Dutch honesty & cross-cultural conflict

Cross-cultural conflict can be a huge challenge even when travelling abroad, and when living in a culture that is not your own it can be particularly intense - and difficult to deal with.

When it comes to discussing cross-cultural conflict, often the best way to illustrate it is to offer an example.

Cross-cultural conflict in practice

On a flight to Frankfurt I sat next to a Dutch man who was returning to his German wife.

We bonded over the best traits of Dutch people: their enthusiasm and humour, and sometimes their audacity. We also concluded, however, that they are often opinionated, which can even become offensive due to a remarkable lack of empathy.

It was a lack of empathy that caused this man and his wife to leave the Netherlands. They had tried to settle in Amsterdam and his wife had quickly made a good Dutch friend in her maternity class.

That was what she had thought, until her Dutch friend emailed her to say that given her busy social life, she could not continue the friendship. Even though they got along really well, she said, she preferred to dedicate her scarce free time to her long-time friends and was ending all contact.

Dutch honesty

Yep, brutal Dutch honesty. And the sudden end of a friendship. My airplane buddy had shaken his head in consternation. The email had really hurt his wife, but more so it had been an eye opener for both of them and was one of the reasons why they relocated to Frankfurt.

Whether it is a Dutch defriending you, or rather never really letting you into his inner circle, or a Dutch wedding invitation stating expressly that you shouldn’t bring your children... What the Dutch call refreshing honesty may leave the non-Dutch offended and hurt.

Cultural adaptability

Professor Geert Hofstede was the first to study the simultaneity of cultural adaptability and distress on a broad scale. He developed a graphic that shows clearly why values ("brutal" honesty or the concept of politeness are values) are not flexible.

dutch honesty culture conflict

The diagram developed by Hofstede represents humans as onions. The outer layers (Symbols-Heroes-Rituals) reflect external practices. Those are modefiable.

To explain, wearing orange on Dutch holidays (Symbols/Rituals) or admiring the Dutch soccer players (Heroes) are external practices that are fairly easy for expats to adapt to.

Hofstede discovered that Values and etiquette, on the other hand, are programmed according to one's own culture. To come back to the onion-comparison: values are at the core and thus internal. They can not be seen and they are not prone to change.

If they do change, that will only happen after an expat has allready adapted to external practices.

That’s why if expats internalise foreign values at all it will have taken very, very, very long exposure to that culture.

Personal values & interpersonal conflict

A lack of compatibility in values or etiquette can often lead to conflicts, but because these things are not visible to the eye, the collision is often difficult to detect.

It takes a skilled intercultural mediator to unfold that either conflicting values are at the heart of a conflict, or that an existing conflict escalated out of proportion when etiquette or other values weren't met on either or both sides.

If you don’t want your intercultural relationships (whether professional or private) to end because of a non-compatibility of values, it is very important that you realise that values are hidden from the eye and are specific to every culture.

How to deal with intercultural conflicts

The best way to deal with such a conflict should it arise is to let the person you are dealing with know that what he or she does conflicts with your values or idea of etiquette.

 Be conscious of your values

When you tell someone how you are feeling, be aware that these are your values you are expressing, predicted by your culture. There simply are no universal rules of politeness, or any other values for that matter.

 Give precise feedback

It's best to start your feedback by saying "I feel..." and to stick to your observation. In other words, describe what you heard or saw the other person do and describe how that made you feel.

Be specific: the other person does not know your cultural background well and is probably not aware of the depth of your feelings.

 Stay calm

Also make sure to cool off before you start such a conversation. Only then will you be able to educate the other person about your feelings and values, while at the same time staying away from either moral judgement or an attempt to persuade the other person to agree with your values.

Agree, disagree, move on

Having this conversation will not enable you to change the other person’s values, because as the above diagram shows, values don’t change easily, and often not at all.

What you will achieve by having this conversation is that you’ll be able to agree to disagree in a way that does not leave you hurt or frustrated.

What experiences of cultural conflict have you had? How did they make you feel? How did you resolve them? Share in the comments!

Louise Dancet


Louise Dancet

I am a multilingual Belgian who fell in love with a beautiful Dutch man and traded Brussels for Amsterdam. As a legal professional with soft skills I specialise in cross-cultural...

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