S.O.S.ocial Graces

29th November 2006, Comments 0 comments

A revolution is gathering pace in Dutch society as the nation re-examines public behaviour in a 'reluctant' norms and values debate. But how much change can we really expect?

The other day, I stopped for an elderly man wobbling on his bike in front of a crosswalk who looked like he was going to lose his balance and topple over. I was amazed that the Dutch drivers in front of me hadn't even blinked, not to mention halt for a man clearly struggling to control his bicycle.


I realise we are living in a 24/7 society but still … As we have seen during the former Dutch Cabinet's term of office, it's not just expats and other foreigners who raise their eyebrows when it comes to Dutch behaviour. Dutch natives have also raised standards and values as a valid issue to be discussed.

But is there hope? And will the next Cabinet actually pull through and continue efforts to improve common decency among the Dutch? I have my doubts, but a contemporary history professor at the Vrije University in Amsterdam, James Kennedy, thinks the Dutch are headed in the right direction.

In his article, Reluctant Revolution (Schoorvoetende revolutie, De Volkskrant), Kennedy claims that change is in the wind.

This is despite the fact that the past 50 years haven't exactly been glamorous: "You could even say that the lack of common decency on the part of the Dutch in the year 2006 doesn’t differ much from that in 1956".

There are noticeable differences though. Over the years, the Dutch became more prosperous and began to expect more from life. Therefore, it's logical, according to Kennedy, that they became more impatient and more easily irritated when confronted with 'undesirable' behaviour (hopefully not to the extent that people aged beyond 80 should learn how to balance themselves on bikes better).

With the disappearance (over time) of old kinds of 'social control', the Dutch were able to organise their lives the way they wanted to. They became more emancipated, but at the same time didn't feel that they should be held accountable for their deeds.

As Kennedy explains, the Dutch are now asking themselves a fundamental question: "How do you motivate people to do what they should do?" This question hit the Dutch political agenda back in 2002. 

It's a reluctant revolution which started around the millennium, says Kennedy. For the first time in half a century, the Dutch have tried to capture in words what good behaviour really is. And the Dutch expect that these standards of good behaviour should be lived up to by everyone.

Partly as a result of government influence, the Dutch are currently re-experiencing the introduction of (house) rules (cafés, train stations) in the lives. At high school, kids are learning how to respect others who think differently and have another cultural background. Common decency is being taught.

But I am going keep my eyes peeled on that crosswalk. I am very curious whether my fellow drivers will radically change their zebra crossing attitude. For pedestrians who find crossing the street safely a challenge, I certainly hope so.

November 2006

[Copyright Expatica 2006]

Subject: Life in Holland, norms and values, Dutch behaviour

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