Friendship or networks in the Netherlands - Part 1

Friendship or networks in the Netherlands - Part 1

This article is the first in a two-part series on the difference between friendships and networks on a personal level in the Netherlands. The second article is "Friendship or networks in the Netherlands - Part 2".

Are friendships and social networks the same thing? Whether you experience them as combined, separate, or as a dilemma, may depend greatly on your culture. But what is culture?

Culture is communication style

Culture is the way you speak, you move, you approach or react to others. In short, the ways you communicate yourself. Culture is "embodied" in you. Let’s make it clear with two stories.

Eleni’s story

Eleni recently moved from Greece to Holland and works for a company in Amsterdam. She eagerly told me her story:

One day, at the end of their working hours, Eleni asked her colleague Dirk in a cheerful and lively way, "Shall we go for a coffee afterwards?"

To her great surprise Dirk replied in clear discomfort, "Sorry, but... I’m married!"

"Unbelieveable!" she still repeats in astonishment, "what I meant was just a chat after work." Obviously, what Eleni experienced as an "offensive rejection" was not just due to the Dutch custom of early dinners.

Esmeralda’s story

Esmeralda comes from Spain. Upon arriving at her workplace, a large international IT company in Amsterdam, she whispered to Petra, a colleague whom she was hoping to befriend,

"You look awful today, heeeii!! Didn’t you sleep well?"

"Oh no, no I am fine", answered Petra, clearly irritated by this remark.

"I thought we were somehow closer", is what Esmeralda, years later, relates about this episode. For a Spanish person, making a personal, teasing remark to someone she considers close, displays a caring attitude that can be a prelude to friendship.

The other side of the same coin

In these true stories, the two ladies, contrary to their expectation, experienced disengaging responses. Yet, all parties ended up being irritated. Both Dutch colleagues, also contrary to their expectation, experienced it as intimate behavior, especially at work.

Hence, no wonder that Dirk interpreted a personal proposal as flirting. For Petra, in addition, a comment phrased negatively - but meant positively - obviously came across as confusing and clashed with her values of directness and honesty.

For the Dutch culture, separation of personal and professional life is widely shared. "Undesired touching" at work can be considered "sexual intimidation" and is even protected by law.

But, in Southern European or other less individualist cultures, barriers between work and personal life are not so sharp, and physical or emotional intimacies feature regularly in people’s behaviour.

These examples are not just a misunderstanding of the other’s intention, but a miscommunication arising from culture-specific values.

Culture is values

Joseph Henrich, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, explains that people from WEIRD societies (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) are often highly individualist: seeing themselves as independent from others and enthusiastically "investing in new relationships outside their kin, ethnic or religious group."

Less individualist people (often from non-WEIRD societies) are inter-dependent to each other and, importantly, appreciate long term relationships of "kith and kin", such as loyal friendships.

In cross-cultural psychology, the distinction between societies is of course schematic, but it can help us identify cultural differences. One of the most reliable ways to do so is to compare how individuals describe "self" in relation to others.

It has been demonstrated, for example, that self-confidence of Asians and Latin Americans increases when among good friends, which is not observed with Dutch or Americans.

Differences in the friendship value and comparisons with the Dutch

Friendships which provide stability and loyalty are strongly valued in less individualist cultures such as in Southern Europe and Asia.

A young girl, who lives in Greece, writes in a high school e-magazine: "...True friends help us deal with any problem we face. When we suffer they will share our pain and when we are happy they will share our happiness and will not be jealous. So what makes an acquaintance turn into friendship is... the development of mutual trust."

It has been found that Southern European adolescents in the Netherlands appreciate sharing their most personal feelings with, and receiving emotional support from, friends significantly more than their Dutch counterparts. (Also, and irrespective of culture, the same holds for women as compared to men.)

At the University of Utrecht we conducted a study to compare such aspects of friendship between Dutch and Greeks (representing Southern Europeans). The questions were partly inspired by the pioneering work of psychologist Harry C. Triandis, and from my earlier interviews.

Participants were asked to evaluate statements such as:
1. You should never betray your friends.
2. You can’t live without real good friends.

The study found that Dutch individuals endorsed these aspects of friendship much less strongly than the Greeks. The diagram below illustrates the significant differences:

The main goal of this investigation was to study how expats, who endorse these aspects of friendship, feel about it when living in the Netherlands.

Adjusting behaviour to new cultures

Confrontation with disengaging responses, as experienced by the two ladies at the start of the article, makes one think twice before showing the same behavior again.

Behaviour and communications style learned in home culture is not only constrained by the desire to avoid rejection by others.

Expats more or less realise that what represents an "ideal" friendship for them is much less likely to flourish in the Dutch context.

Stability, loyalty and mutual emotional support can be less of a priority in Dutch relationships. Such traits may even be associated with an unstable personality.

Expat attitudes over time

Interestingly, expats who have lived in the Netherlands for an average of 10 years, did not change their ideas about friendship (Question One), regardless of their degree of integration.

However, they also answered that friendship no longer counts in their life as much as it used to when living in their own culture (Question Two).

The questions thus remain:
What forms of relationships do Dutch people appreciate?
What kind of relationships work in the Dutch context?
What should expats do to benefit from the Dutch reality?

The answers to these questions will be explored in "Friendship or networks in the Netherlands - Part 2".

Katerina Pouliasi


Katerina Pouliasi

My first "collisions' with Dutch culture, transformed into a strong curiosity about the nature of cultural differences, have led me to in depth research on "Culture, Self-understanding and the Bicultural...

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