Battle of the sixes

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

It’s not as readily apparent as Geert Wilders’s hair or, you know, the orange stuff everywhere. The zesjescultuur is subtler than that. It won’t hit you over the head like a glass of Heineken. But it’s there.

For the uninitiated, the ‘sixes culture’ is a sort of complacency, apparently the spawn of the Dutch educational system where you only ever need a grade of 6 to pass. Time spent studying for anything above that, so the theory goes, is time wasted.

Here in Maastricht, nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the culture clash – sorry, integration – between students at UM. In the red corner, you’ll find the German students. They’re known as strebers: pushy careerists who’ll fight tooth and nail for every half-grade. In the blue corner, you’ve got the Dutch students. Toss them a 6 and they’ll be in seventh heaven.

But the zesjescultuur is not just the elephant in the classroom; it also rears its head in the workplace. Given the unionisation of many professions in the Netherlands, you could do nothing but pick your nose all day and you’ll still get decent pay and more leave than you can squeeze into your schedule. You could bring a rocket launcher in to work and you might get hit with two weeks of counselling – if you’re unlucky.

This is all well and good, but it doesn’t exactly promote performance drive. I’m speaking comparatively, of course. Not many countries are as welfare-oriented as the Netherlands. Here, you have the stress of the citotoets at the age of 12 to decide on your high school stream. But your next – and only other – government-sanctioned stress will be to watch half your salary vanish in taxes.

This means you miss out on many of the dubious joys experienced in countries elsewhere. Where your university admission hinges on your final school grade, so you must do well. Where you will pay the price of a small house in tuition fees. You will need a proper job to pay off your debts the minute you graduate, so there’ll be none of this faffing about with internships. And when you do get hired, you could just as easily get fired.

Now, the idea of a cushioned existence giving rise to the zesjescultuur may be a theory half-baked. But it certainly might explain the rotten table service: after all, Dutch waiters don’t need tips to survive. And it might explain why competitiveness in the Dutch workplace is viewed distastefully. But know this: your foreign colleagues aren’t trying to be aggressive. They’re just fighting for survival.

Moi? No. I’m just a streber.

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