Dealing with the Dutch

An introductory crash course on adaption

By Petra Meijer

Last Thursday, foreign students were invited to a crash course on life in the Netherlands: “The Dutch complain about everything – about the weather, about politics, about their income!”

Dutch babies are born holding a diary. To a Dutchman, every hill above sea level is a mountain. If you fly to Amsterdam Airport, you actually land in a lake. The more important you are, the harder you try to appear normal. Top-level managers queue politely with their employees in the canteen and politicians go to work on a bike, because the Dutch swear by the motto: “Just be yourself, you’re daft enough as it is.”
It was inevitable that there would be some exaggerating at the workshop “How to deal with the Dutch” during Leiden’s Orientation Week (OWL). “Obviously, not all Dutch are the same; there are all sorts of subcultures besides their individual differences, but generally speaking, there is a certain impression you get”, says Wilfred Ploeg. Ploeg helps dozens of international students learn to cope with the Dutch. “So you think you know the Dutch already? I’m Dutch too!” After this revelation, most of the students are afraid to comment, except to say that most Dutch seem very blunt.
“Do you know what it is about the Dutch?” says Ploeg in a conspiratory whisper. “They complain about everything – about the weather, about politics, about the fact that their disposable income is shrinking! But shall we start by taking a look at the real situation in the Netherlands? The Better Life Index, which examines employment, education, health, the environment and income, ranks the Netherlands in eighth place so actually the Dutch don’t have it so bad.”
According to Ploeg, if we really want to understand the Dutch, we need to know more about their on-going struggle with water. “You’re not safe here: we have to fight to keep the sea out”, he warns the foreign students. A map appears on the beamer. “The green parts are all under sea level. You’ll be safe when you reach Utrecht. And beyond that, there are the ‘mountains’”, he scorns, and there’s some laughter.
“The Dutch love their schedules, checks, regulations and procedures and that’s why we don’t like anything unexpected. We plan our holidays a year in advance and always eat dinner at six o’clock.” Ploeg adds that the Dutch also tend to be very pragmatic. He shows the students a picture of a bookshop in a former church. “Old churches are often converted into apartments too.”
The foreign students will be particularly unnerved by the Dutch bluntness. “Yes means yes and no is no. We won’t hesitate to tell you that you can’t go out with that hair-do. Not because we want to hurt you, but because we care about you”. Kathleen from Australia knows what he’s talking about. “I have a Dutch boyfriend and I’ve heard his relatives at his house tell each other that a certain item of clothing made them look fat. That would be inconceivable in Australia.” OWL Board members Claudia Yanez and Joy Chen recall how they needed to get used to the Dutch directness. “But in some ways, it helps. You immediately know what to expect”, remarks Chen.
Ploeg claims it might be difficult to become acquainted with Dutch people because Dutch society is divided up into different “boxes”:“Someone from the ‘colleague box’ doesn’t move to the ‘friend box’ very easily, while it’s quite hard to make real friends because everybody’s diary is always full.”
The second workshop is a Dutch crash course given by Nico Langeweg. “The word ‘Yankee’ is from the Dutch name Jan Kees and a ‘cookie’ was originally a Dutch koekje. So you see, this proves how important Dutch is as a language.”
The students learn to count and spell in Dutch in next to no time, but the “G” proves problematic. Langeweg demonstrates “Gggggg”, “But be careful. If you try too hard you might get a sore throat.”
Langeweg discusses the difference between the two forms of address “u” and “jij”, personal pronouns and verb conjugation. “If you don’t speak any Dutch yet, this workshop is a bit too difficult.’”, says Kathleen. “But the ‘G’ is not a problem for me because I speak Arabic.”
Ploeg and Langeweg wish the international students all the best in the Netherlands and give them the final and most important tip for dealing with the Dutch: “Be yourself.”

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