Column published in the Observant, Maastricht
We’re having lunch at a café, a Dutch friend and I. The waiter brings out the food. Thank you, I say as she sets it down in front of us. Thank you very much.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Far too many thank yous, according to my Dutch friend. What am I supposed to say to a waiter? Not a damn thing, says my friend: a genuine Cloggie (granted, he doesn’t use the term Cloggie) would just sit in silence and watch the food be delivered.
I’m flabbergasted by this and still not convinced my friend isn’t just pulling my leg. But then, it is indeed widely said that niceties like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are used far more profusely in English than in Dutch. This, of course, is not to say that the Dutch are rude in their dealings with one another; it’s just that oh-so-many pleasantries would simply be seen as bootlicking.
But I do wonder how far this famed Dutch ‘directness’ genuinely goes. One day I was trying to change my address at the bank. The woman serving me decided she’d need to consult with a colleague – this was naturally far too complicated a procedure for a solo effort – and in the meantime waved a finger in my face and instructed me to ‘Wait. WAIT. WAAAIT’.
This is how I’d speak to a dog, on a bad day. Would this have been typical between Dutch people, I wondered, or was she so abrupt only when faced with a foreigner?
I recall a meeting I once had with a pair of Dutch managers and a fellow foreigner, herself only newly arrived in the Netherlands. We had the meeting in English. To the new arrival, the Dutch higher-ups prefaced the meeting by saying smugly, ‘By the way, Dutch people are known for being very direct when it comes to business. Don’t take it personally – it’s our culture, you see’. They then reduced her almost to tears with their criticism.
I’ve seen this supposed ‘directness’ being held up as some sort of national trait countless times – usually before some serious rudeness is about to be unleashed. But as the vast majority of Dutch people are as tactful and sensitiveas anyone else, I can’t help but feel that this supposedly ‘national’ characteristic is a beat-up by certain individuals keen to turn their personal propensity to rudeness into some sort of cultural virtue. In other words, this is a column about what I think is not typically Dutch: You’re nice people, really. Stop letting arseholes hijack your cultural discourse and pretend you’re not.