Want to meet for coffee? Whip out your agenda and plan a date three weeks from now. Benny Lewis sheds some insight on how to live with the Dutch.
Are the Dutch really tolerant, why does it seem hard to make friends, and why is an agenda necessary just to have coffee? Benny Lewis shares six cultural observations on living with the Dutch.
1. On that famous Dutch tolerance
I was told that 30 percent of Amsterdam is foreign; it’s one of the strongest expat communities I’ve ever seen in almost a decade on the road. So much so that you can (and people do) live in the city for years and learn no Dutch or make no Dutch friends. The vast majority of other foreigners I met were content in their English speaking ‘bubble’ and had created full lives within it.
The Dutch have no problem whatsoever with this. In fact, they almost encourage it. A large part of Dutch history has involved welcoming foreigners to the Netherlands and allowing them to continue living lives as they choose (in old times this being freedom in religion; nowadays in cultural background, sexual orientation, etc). Today the Dutch are famous for how tolerant they are.
Such values surely inspired those who aspired for similar things in the New World, as the first pilgrims for America sailed from Leiden, not far from Amsterdam, towards what is now New York, which was called New Amsterdam for quite some time.
Even to this day I find the Dutch sense of samenleving (community/living together) gives great respect to an individual’s freedom to live life as he or she chooses — much more so than in other countries, including those that claim to be the freest in the world.
2. On just letting people be
But there’s one consequence to this open-mindedness: To allow people to do as they please, sometimes you should leave them to it. This other side to rDutch espect creates a big divide between the Dutch and the foreigners in the city, creating huge communities of foreigners that almost never interact with the Dutch beyond necessities.
Throughout Dutch history there was no pressure on foreigners to learn Dutch, both officially (to live there) and in social interactions. To give people total freedom, it seems you have to take away any encouragement to integrate.
This means that many Dutch people have no problem speaking to you in English. Some foreigners misinterpret this to mean they won’t speak to you in Dutch, not realising it’s entirely their own fault and that if you try a few things you can encourage them to help you learn their language.
There’s a strong tendency among foreigners to stick together and never make local friends, a cycle that propagates itself. There’s a great balance in Amsterdam, and it’s working, so people keep it up. The Dutch are used to not interacting much with foreigners, and the foreigners are used to not interacting with them.
3. On living apart, together
When the Dutch and foreigners interact, they may not get any further than superficial pleasantries. But it goes deeper than that.
Dutch people are incredibly friendly and would always ask me with genuine curiosity what I was doing in the Netherlands. asking many interesting and intelligent questions. They helped me with their language, never switching to English when they saw how invested I was in speaking to them, despite my poor level at the start.
And then, unfortunately, most of the time it would end there. They would look at their agenda and see they had no time if I requested to meet up that week again. Moreover, after showing me respect and hearing I would be leaving soon, it just seemed impractical to try to create a deeper relationship. Why would you if the person is just passing through?
When you think about this, I suppose it makes sense. It’s hardly something to criticise but it was frustrating for me. Someone suggested to me before I went to the Netherlands that the Dutch were not so friendly – but I disagree. They’re just more practical than other cultures.
4. On a different approach to being social
While it had serious disadvantages for me personally as a passer-through, I saw how this could be a smart choice – you have a select number of friends whom you hold very dear and with whom you meet frequently and have very deep relationships. I personally don’t relate to a way of life that excludes being open to making new friends easily, but it’s not my place to judge others.
While I can complain and whine about the Dutch being ‘closed off’, I don’t like to travel to new countries to complain about why they aren’t like other ones. I prefer to see the positive in everything and I can indeed see that in the Dutch.
Despite the difficulty in making friends with them, I’d actually argue that the Dutch are more social than most of us, which is encouraged from an early age.
One thing I found quite strange, for example, was that while my flatmate left the front door open so he could move things in and out, some neighbourhood children I’d never seen ran in and up the stairs, barged into my room and demanded I gave them some sweets. Amazingly, this has happened twice.
A fear of strangers just isn’t Dutch. They’re encouraged to get out of the house and do things as much as possible. As a result of this, they’re generally more at ease in social situations than other cultures and are great at making conversation in a relaxed manner.
5. A word on the Dutch agenda
The Dutch are so social that in fact they need to organise themselves to ensure they can fit everyone into their active weeks. This leads to the agendas issue that drove me so crazy. Perhaps the rest of us are ‘less’ social so we have room to be spontaneous and meet up with someone immediately, but the Dutch that I met had social events, dinners, coffees, walks, clubs, excursions, sport, family events, nights out, and everything else after work programmed in advance. When you have so much to do, you live life to the fullest.
This is great and it’s something I feel I’ll take a little of with me in the future, as I finally embraced the agenda lifestyle out of necessity to socialise on their level. I admit I did eventually (grudgingly) arrange to meet people several weeks in advance so we could hang out.
There’s a certain advantage to being organised in this way. It forces you to be more social and interact more than most of us in the Western world do with TV nights in, hours wasting time online and lack of coordination with those you want to see properly. Although, I also have a great love for serendipity and spontaneity, so I’ll always try to leave my immediate calendar open when I live among other cultures.
6. How to get on a Dutch person’s agenda
It was quite a struggle to have the Dutch squeeze me into their agendas, and I went as far as coming up with unique ideas to get some ‘Dutch practice time’, like going on 25 speed dates. In case you’re wondering how it turned out, I eventually got three jas, many email exchanges, and one that finally agreed to a second date three weeks from then.
But once I stopped fighting the idea of agendas and advanced organising – and learned to go with the flow and use a calendar app – I did get put into their agendas. I had to work hard to convince them I was worth getting to know but I was successful, and through this I can now call several Dutch people good friends of mine.
While the lack of spontaneity killed my social life a bit, the fact that they were true to their word and invited me out if they said so and talked to me with direct frankness meant I had a greater chance to build on the few relationships I started having with locals. They were always straight and honest with me. This stood out quite a lot.
Speaking the language definitely enriched my experience. It showed them I was serious about getting to know them, and if I made that investment in them perhaps it was worth investing to find out more about me, too.
In many places, people casually say we should meet some time; numbers are exchanged, but it’s not always serious. With the Dutch, when someone was my friend, they really were one. It’s a sort of extreme where superficial and deep friendships are in much greater contrast to most places I’ve lived in.