The Dutch Attitude

This essay started in metro 53 while going home via central station. I just had the pleasure of being a guest at drink and a few martinis later an idea took hold. Lately I thought about being Dutch. I am born Dutch and I have had a Dutch upbringing. I am Dutch enough to genuinely like cheese and to have a bicycle. I can still remember walking on clogs. How this all relates to the Dutch attitude for me is simple. The Dutch attitude I came to know through the years is both strange and familiar for me and refers to the Netherlands in North-West Europe. The Dutch attitude I know is partially shaped by my personal experience and partially by the people around me.

One of the first typically Dutch attitudes to life is seems so simple it is completely unexpected. In Dutch one can say “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je gek genoeg”. The Dutch “gewoon” can be interpreted to ‘normal’ thus “just act normal, then you act crazy enough”. This expression can be interpreted by assuming that acting as your normal self is enough. When you are different you are different. Thing is this attitude does not necessarily indicate tolerance. Sometimes Dutch people do not care yet they just let you be.

Another Dutch way of looking at things is expressed in the expression “wat kan het mij schelen?”. “Schelen” is a verb that can be interpreted as ‘to make a difference’. Interpreted to English one would say “how does that make a difference for me?” in a completely or partly rhetorical tone. When I say this to someone I can say two things. First it could mean I either want out yet I still care due to personal interests or second I do not want to know about the issue and I leave. The most confusing aspect about this Dutch expression is that it can combine both options as an act of cognitive dissonance. As I am used to the Dutch accent from Noord-Holland and Amsterdam the speaking tone is often quite flat and monotone thus I dare not to address irony, sarcasm and cynicism. Dutch people can express many things with very few words.

In expressing discontent the Dutch have many ways with words. Cursing with swear words, names of genitalia, adjectives and diseases is part of life. So much so that even the Dutch police have stated that there are limits to cursing and name calling to police officers on the street. The immigrant minorities in the Netherlands are also sensitive to the language of dissatisfaction. It is understandable as cursing is normal for many Dutch people yet in certain positions and cultures it causes conflicts based on others feeling offended and misunderstood. As a native Dutch speaker I say get over it while as a person I am willing to spare someone else the verbal foulness at request. A good bout of cursing helps to blow off steam sometimes.

The Dutch and normalcy also need to be addressed. Normalcy is what is considered acceptable behaviour in the context of given a situation. Sometimes someone can say “Doe (eens) normal!” to someone. It means nothing more than “Behave (and shut up)!” in most situations. In general Dutch people do not like overly loud and boastful people who do not let others speak. It goes back to what is considered to be “gewoon” and acceptable. The normalcy issue boils down to what is often called down to earth behaviour. As it is subjective to ones environment there are definitely roots in the old Catholic, Protestant and community cultures through the ages. One factor in particular, the struggle against the water united all people from all ranks to survive. Normalcy is a bit complex.

There is a word called “degelijk” sometimes referred to as “betrouwbaar” or “goed”. Inherent to what is normal there is the expectation that one behaves in a way that unites organisation, structure and reliability. That expectation is united in the word“degelijk”, in English called “sturdy”. Otherwise “betrouwbaar” meaning “trustworthy” or “goed” meaning “good” is used. The biggest compliment one can receive in general in Dutch is “hij/zij is een man/vrouw van zijn/haar woord”. In English one would say “he/she is a man/woman of his/her word”, in short “he/she keeps his/her promises”. In Dutch culture being reliable and delivering on promises are highly valued traits. It is reflected in the Dutch emphasis on forms, administration and appointments in all activities of life. Being there and being effective are much appreciated.

Dutch directness and honesty are often the biggest surprises for foreigners and immigrants in the Netherland. Understandably some people find it rude and offensive. What originally made native Dutch people this direct and honest to an extent is something I am not sure about. The Netherlands started as mostly water and swamps. Several tribes lived here, most notably the German tribes from which old Dutch language originated. The location of the Netherlands accommodated trade, fishing and a bit of agriculture. For centuries the Netherlands region was very self-sustainable and highly independent. Charles the 5th and Philip the 2nd of Spain gave up on the region after too many setbacks while the V.O.C. became feared as it acted as a trade, pirate and navy fleet. Maybe after centuries of struggling to survive and fending off religiously fanatic rulers the Dutch collectively decided to stop saying yes. As if to say “Fuck off, now go and let us live!”. I am not sure. What I am sure of is that due to my upbringing I appreciate directness and honesty. People can agree to disagree and move on.

Regarding tolerance there are many things that do apply to the Netherlands. The moment Philip the 2nd of Spain gave up on the Netherlands the region became a relatively safe haven for people who were not accepted elsewhere in 17th century Europe. The Jewish community from Antwerp fled to Amsterdam and since then the wealth started to accumulate. Additionally the V.O.C. fleet acted in the interest of the then Seven Provinces by activities in trade, piracy and naval battles. Dutch society adopted Protestantism while allowing other religions to discretely co-exist. Looking at the developments I described it appears that tolerance in the Netherlands is based on national identity, interests in relatively free trade, international trade and freedom of conscience and religion while sharing one small region in North-West Europe. In Amsterdam of 2014 one is allowed to purchase semi-legal soft-drugs for personal use. Just do not bother people in public spaces. Tolerance and the Netherlands seem to have a pragmatic nature while being rooted in old values.

There is no such thing as a typical Dutch attitude. I find that there is no such thing as a typical Dutch attitude or man or woman. Physically native Dutch people might have some particular traits. Apart from that the Netherlands consist of twelve provinces. There is the Holland region on the west coast and the northern region with Friesland and Groningen. In the south Zeeland, Brabant and Zuid-Limburg border on Flanders. What remains are the central region of Utrecht and Gelderland and the eastern provinces. There are several sub-cultures, languages, dialects and calendars per region. What everyone has in common often depends. What most Dutch people agree on is that down to earth behaviour and being “betrouwbaar” are preferred. In general even the Dutch royal family presents itself as part of society more than acting as the symbolic rulers of the country. The Netherlands are a melting pot of cultures and people with a unique background.

Whether there is such a thing as a Dutch attitude depends. When there is a need to categorise the behaviour of Dutch people in general I see there is an emphasis on down to earth behaviour and being able to deliver. When looking at Dutch people think of what is considered “gewoon”, interesting and relevant, the cursing, normalcy and “degelijk” or “betrouwbaar”. Take into account that native Dutch people can be very direct and honest and tolerance is a complex phenomenon. What is typically Dutch also depends on where the Dutch person comes from and lives. For me there is no such as a typical Dutch attitude. Ironically in multicultural company I refer to myself as half a cheese-head. I find it a lazy practice to typify people based on nationality. I am rather stoic about it as I grew up in a multicultural family where a flexible attitude was required.


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