Dutch directness – How to deal with the Dutch?

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You might have heard that the Dutch can be noisy, love their money or even can be quite rude sometimes.

Also, that the Dutch say what they think, even if it can hurt your feelings. Or otherwise, that they remain silent when you would expect them to apologize.

We wanted to know: is this true?

Dutch directness

Something that comes up with most foreigners in the Netherlands pretty quickly is Dutch directness

What does this mean – Dutch directness?      

What the foreigners in the video experienced was that in the Netherlands you can say what you want, to anyone you want.

Examples of Dutch directness: expect anything

When you invite new Dutch friends to dinner, don’t be surprised if you get critical feedback on the dinner that you serve. Or what about being given advice on the clothes you are wearing? The Dutch don’t often hesitate to state their opinion on how you look. And also in the workplace, feedback can be shockingly honest.                                                                             

In a lot of cultures, it is quite common be less direct in order to be polite or formal. In the Netherlands you might get the reaction, ‘’What do you really want to say?’

So don’t make it nicer than it is. This counts for just about anything.

Example of Dutch directness: don’t be embarrassed

Foreigners experience that the Dutch look at privacy differently. They are not at all embarrassed to have intimate conversations in public. You could be sitting on a ‘terras’ (outdoor café) with a friend and he starts talking about his medical problems.

Not only that, but they can be also loud. Dutch people just don’t see any reason not to talk about it.

Is the Dutch directness a bad thing?

The students, who come from among other places, England, United States, Poland, feel this as a very positive aspect of the Dutch culture.

For some people it even feels like coming home.

Others needed some time to adjust, they do experience culture shock!

Dutch directness: it can be a bad thing

For some, this Dutch directness can be a bad thing. For example, when foreign businessmen come to the Netherlands, sometimes things don’t always go well. Dutch people regularly forget to take into account the culture and courtesies of our business partners.

Another example of the negative side of this is that people really get shocked or offended.

A survey of three hundred international students of the Utrecht University showed that 42 percent had heard negative jokes or comments about their nationality.

The Dutch like to tell ‘hard’ or offensive jokes. So it’s not uncommon to make jokes about someone’s appearance

Dutch directness influences you!

Like the foreigners in the video, there is a good possibility that this ‘Dutch directness’ influences you. They became a bit more Dutch themselves. For example, when going home or talking with family on the phone, their relatives felt that they had changed.

Some examples from students:

“Now I can get things done more quickly.”

“The Dutch are not only more direct in their communication; they also dare to stand up for themselves more.”

“This Dutch directness may seem selfish, but it makes it easier to live. You get where you want to be faster.”

Where does this directness come from?

To answer the question: what’s the origin of Dutch directness we have to look to the past.

There has always been less hierarchy in the Netherlands

Since long before the French Revolution, which was, among other things, about equality, the Dutch had a culture with less hierarchy. For example, the nobility didn’t have much influence here. And the people who became the ‘elite’, got there through being successful in business.

Another factor promoting equality was the water. On the one hand the people had to take care of themselves, mainly because of the threat of the water. On the other hand, people had to work together. The entire community had to contribute time and money to the construction and management of water works, and all citizens were held accountable for this.

This equality was expressed by directness and openness.

Calvanist mentality

This was also combined with the Calvinist mentality. In Dutch there’s an expression that relates to this mentality

  • Niet lullen maar poetsen.
  • Don’t bullshit, just clean.

 Since around the 16th century this is a big influence in the way the people lived in the Netherlands. You can see the difference with this mentality if you look at the south of the Netherlands. Historically this is the Catholic part of the Netherlands.

The Catholic south is less direct

Until the 1950s and 60s the hierarchy of the Church was really important in the Southern provinces like Noord-Brabant and Limburg. The priest was the most important person in the town. And there was more of a sense of politeness.

Foreigners who come to the Netherlands nowadays feel this difference.

They get the sense that the people in the south are less direct.

How to deal with the culture shock

How do you survive in the Netherlands?

Be prepared. Don’t think that you can change a culture. You are the new one here and that’s how the Dutch will view you. But there are things you can do.

First be open, accept that this is the way Dutch people are. It’s important to communicate. If you feel that the directness is something you have to get used to, ask questions. Don’t be afraid, because in general the Dutch are open to talk about the differences between cultures.

Learn the language to deal with the culture shock

Of course, you can get a long way with English, but if you really want to integrate, then the best thing to do is learn the language.

For most of the foreigners in the video, integration is not compulsory. They do not have to take the civic integration exam.

Nevertheless, they have all come to the conclusion that it is only through the language that you can really understand the Dutch people and Dutch culture. Learn the language and you will integrate better.

Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School