Two great minds

22nd July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Want to understand the Dutch? Then get to know Calvin and Erasmus. The Expat Toolkit 2001 explains the profound influence of these two great minds.

Calvin and Erasmus


In his time, Protestant theologian and reformer John Calvin (1509-64) accepted the newborn capitalism and encouraged trade and production, at the same time opposing the abuses of exploitation and self-indulgence. Industrialisation was stimulated by the concepts of thrift, industry, sobriety and responsibility that Calvin preached as essential to the achievement of the reign of God on earth.

These and many more Calvinistic beliefs have come to be an integral part of the Dutch personality.

But Calvin wasn't the only person who profoundly affected the Dutch psyche. Dutchman and humanist Erasmus deplored the religious warfare of his time because of the rancorous, intolerant atmosphere and cultural decline that it induced.

It is believed that he is largely responsible for the Dutch "policy of tolerance".

Dutch food philosophy

The Dutch serve you one cookie with your coffee: there is nothing wrong with wanting something sweet - one cookie should do the trick.

A big official business luncheon consists of cheese sandwiches, with ham sandwiches thrown in for excitement. Many Dutch employees get up 15 minutes earlier and meticulously prepare their own cheese sandwiches to bring to the office - or worse, they prepare them the evening before, so that the sandwich has already somewhat blended together into one gooey mass.

To go with these lunches, they eat salads and yoghurt. It all sounds very nourishing and health-conscious, but the underlying principle is in the not being excessive rather than in high-fibre, low-cholesterol meals.

Business dinners are seldom offered, and if they are, the cheque is split and if the meal is not an Indonesian rijsttafel it is more often than not a sober meal. People seldom go out for a business dinner because on the one hand lunches are cheaper (a cheese sandwich will do, in their eyes) and because on the other hand the Dutch simply prefer to be home for dinner. Business should be done in the boss's time and not in their own.

All these are Calvinist-inspired points of view. As is the one cookie that is offered with a cup of coffee.

Act normal and you'll be acting crazy enough

Punctuality can be considered another aspect of Calvinism, and arriving late is given a whole set of underlying meanings, none of which you probably ever had any intention of communicating: disinterest, lack of commitment, lack of discipline, irresponsibility, lack of preparation, etc. - as well as being considered inconsiderate and a waste of everybody's time.

The Dutch do not particularly like emotion in the workplace: they applaud rationality and an overall air of being cool, calm and collected. Also undeniably Calvinistic is the old adage Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je gek genoeg (act normal, and you'll be acting crazy enough - meaning that you should not try too hard to be noticed) and the general point of view that no one should think of themselves as being any better than anybody else.

Calvinism is also seen in the outward appearances of the Dutch people: not owning excessively expensive cars or suits, but on the other hand making sure that the car and suits are impeccably clean and well-preserved.

Other manifestations of Calvinism are: not having a huge office, but keeping your office space orderly and, when leaving the office at the end of the day, leaving the desk behind empty and all the doors to closets and cabinets closed.

The key words in describing the followers of Calvin in the 17th and 18th century are simplicity, a sober attitude, zeal, courage, faith, steadfastness, severity (J.H. Huizinga, Dutch civilisation in the 17th century) - especially the simplicity, sobriety, steadfast-ness and severity are recognizable but so are the zeal, courage and faith.

The Dutch approach their tasks with enthusiasm and dedication and a firm belief in their own capacity. Sometimes the Dutch have an overdose of belief in their own capacity - thinking they have an answer to all the world's problems, but most of all, having an opinion on everything and being convinced that everyone wants to hear it.

The Dutch are very critical of their own politicians and of the manner in which society takes care of its people as well as of the politicians the world around. The abovementioned historian described the preachers of the Calvinist age as preachers who judged but also condemned state and society - clearly a habit the Dutch have not lost.

The roots of Dutch tolerance

But it goes without saying that the Dutch are not only Calvinistic. There was a great mind who should also get some credit for contributing his beliefs to the Dutch you encounter today - Erasmus.

For instance, you may already know that the Dutch approach problems rationally, look for solutions and consensus, speak their opinions and how they are willing to break the rules if this results in a fairer treatment of the people or the employees.

Many, many people who come to live in the Netherlands speak of the great, almost excessive, tolerance of the Dutch for all that is different.

The Netherlands has a centuries-long history of providing a temporary or permanent home for those who have fled their home countries (mostly for religious reasons - such as the Pilgrims). The Dutch have a very loose legislative approach regarding drug use, and have coined the phrase gedoogbeleid (the policy of tolerance) which governs their attitude towards such wide-ranging topics as prostitution, abortion, euthanasia, squatting, and other areas on the edge of the law.

Compare this to the following key words in describing the changing attitude of the Dutch in the 17th century and described as being "Erasmian": greater tolerance, forbearance, mildness, the acceptance of reason as a standard of life, and a very strong sense of justice - and you will see that Erasmus made his contribution in shaping the Dutch mind and way of life.


Please click here for more information about The Expat Toolkit 2001 -- A Guide to the Dutch Workplace, edited by Ruud Blaakman, Stephanie Dijkstra and Rina Driece.

Subject: Calvin and Erasmus

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