Column published in the Observant, Maastricht
I’ve just landed at Schiphol airport. Near Arrivals, I spot one of those stands holding free advertising postcards. I like colourful things – and I love free things – so I take a handful to browse through in the passport control queue. There’s a photo of an absurdly attractive couple in head-to-toe H&M. Close-ups of grinning mouths with shiny dental veneers. And: on a plain black background with red and white font: ‘I Heart Niggers’. Suddenly, I’m next in line. “Welcome to Holland”, beams the immigration officer.
Four years later, I get it. It’s not a question of racism. It’s just a different interpretation of political correctness. Here’s the thing about Anglophones: We’re obsessed with politically correct language. ‘The elderly’ have become ‘older people’. The ‘short’ are just ‘vertically challenged’. The N-word? Don’t even think about it.
But the Dutch are altogether more chilled out, even when it comes to personal questions. I’m always being asked “Is it Miss or Mrs?” My boss gets annoyed when British job applicants don’t put their birthdate on their CV: “It’s only got their skills and experience!” Well, yes – that’s the point.
The Dutch don’t even seem to be troubled by sentences like ‘The student must pay his fees’. This use of his (not to mention he and him) has been unacceptable in English for decades. It’s considered sexist by the United Nations, the European Commission, every government in the English-speaking world, and virtually all universities too.
So what’s the big deal? Some people still claim that this is a ‘generic’ pronoun that includes both men and women. But since the 1970s, researchers have consistently found that it in fact evokes a male referent. Meaning: when you read a supposedly ‘neutral’ sentence referring to he or him or his and then try to draw what you have read, you will invariably draw a man. Even if someone explicitly tells you it includes women too, your psyche will disagree. And because this so frequently refers to people in important positions (‘The professor’s salary depends on his experience’), it implies that a woman being in such positions is somehow deviant.
But my Dutch colleagues aren’t bothered at all. Is this because the same ‘generic’ pronoun is used in Dutch? Are English speakers just oversensitive? Will Dutch eventually follow suit? Or are you just laughing at us, with all this worry about words but pitiful systems in place for maternity pay and equal treatment? Perhaps we should be the ones to follow suit, after all.