Rules of the cultural game

Rules of the cultural game

Do you like living in the Netherlands? Living abroad can be fun, but also challenging. Every country has its own unique culture and the Netherlands is no different.

What is culture?

When we talk about culture, many people think of food, the arts, music, dress, etc. However, culture goes a lot deeper. It effects how we think, act, communicate and how we view the world.

Culture influences what we see as "right" and "wrong," "good" or "bad," "professional" and "unprofessional," "efficient" and "inefficient" etc.

Living and working overseas is like playing a card game, except in this cultural game everyone is playing by different rules, and no one has a clue what rules the other players are playing by!

Here are some examples:

 Dutch neighbours

Do you think your Dutch neighbours unfriendly if they don’t introduce themselves when you move in? In the Netherlands it is customary for newcomer to introduce themselves to the neighbours, and not the other way around.

 When the Dutch say "no"

Suppose you’ve asked a Dutch person to do something for you and the reply is "no;" very direct and abrupt.

You may find this rude. It is not meant personally, however, they are simply stating it as is: they cannot or do not want to do what you ask. Your culture may interpret their behaviour as impolite or rude; theirs does not.

 Dutch colleagues

Or maybe you find that your Dutch colleagues behave inappropriately towards the manager when they openly disagree about how something should be done and suggest a "better" way?

In the Netherlands there is a very flat hierarchical structure and everyone is allowed an opinion. Employees are expected to show initiative. Your culture may define this behaviour as inappropriate, but not theirs.

 Dutch managers

Or maybe you’ve just received some (not very nice) feedback from a manager on a report you produced.

You thought you had a good relationship with her and are feeling a little offended.

The feedback given is on the report you produced, and, not on you as a person. It is not personal and is not intended to offend.

Judging based on the "rules"

Not being aware of the "rules" makes it hard to know what is going on, yet we still judge others and their behaviour based on our own cultural norms.

The next time someone says something you think is rude (or offensive or unprofessional or inefficient or...) ask yourself why you think it is rude. You may find that it is your culture which defines the behaviour as rude.

Judging the Dutch and the Dutch way of living (and working) on our own norms is pointless and inaccurate and can often lead to feelings of resentment and unhappiness at living here.

Recognise & Respect

Recognise the role culture plays in everyday situations. Respect that the culture here is different. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.

You do not always have to agree with it or like it, you just need to be open and respect that it is different.

Try it for yourself and see what happens!

Caitriona Rush


Caitriona Rush

Caitriona has spent 18 years living and working in 9 countries around the globe. She works as a cross-cultural consultant and provides workshops, trainings, consultancy and one-to-one sessions to both...

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