Saskia Maarse | July 10, 2023
Like many countries, the Netherlands has several subcultures. You can look at the Netherlands and the rest of the world from many different cultural points of view. However, there is a worldwide general image of the Netherlands, just as Dutch people have their believes about the Germans, Americans, Japanese, Russians etc. What do people form other countries find typical Dutch?
Based on interviews with 60 entrepreneurs and managers form 30 different countries.
One of the first things people notice when they come to the Netherlands is the structured society. “Everything is well arranged”. The roads are well maintained and the traffic signs are clear; the trains leave on time; the shops have a wide product range and are clean; the law and rules are stable; information is easy accessible and transparent. Both people from abroad and the Dutch that return home after being away for a long time notice this. However, the perception of ‘well arranged’ can change over time.
The law and rules
The Netherlands is made by humans and not by nature. The people made land out of water and developed a system of dikes, windmills and dams that allows them to live below sea level. To keep that system alive, we need collaboration. Besides the consensus culture the Dutch came up with several laws and rules, with one goal: avoid wet feet and chaos within this small country with so many citizens.
The Dutch are also seen as very pragmatic. For centuries they have been solving problems with nature on both land and water. They are known for being focused on the solution, rather than the problem and know how to tackle these problems. This mentality has a downside: when it doesn’t go the way they want it to, Dutch people often start complaining. When something is broken and can’t be fixed immediately, they get annoyed. In cultures that live in harmony with nature, broken things are a part of life. They can always fix it later. For Dutch people that live abroad it can be difficult to see that problems and conflicts don’t get fixed right away.
The need and desire to redesign every piece of land, building and house is deeply rooted within the Dutch. People that visit the Netherlands are often surprised by the flowers in the window and the clean wiped streets. Even the toilet is styled with creative decorations and pictures on the wall. Ofcourse you can discuss whether these decorations are stylish or not.
‘Act normal’ and equality
In Dutch there is a famous saying “just act normal, you are crazy enough”. During the interviews this saying kept coming back because people noticed it is not always appreciated in the Netherlands if you show off your success.
Although the Dutch easily approach something or somebody, this “just act normal” mentality also brings along a certain carefulness: “The Dutch just go with the flow, copy each other, and hardly show off their successes and achievements. Even when you’re successful, you will be most loved if you “just stay normal”.
Because of this urge for equality, the power distance between a boss and his/her employees is very limited in the Netherlands compared to other countries. An example of this is that the manager takes a bike to work or eats a cheese sandwich for lunch, which is hard to understand for people from abroad.
The Dutch directness is also often mentioned. Besides the common discussion about what you can say and what you can’t, many of the interviewees explained that they witnessed two kinds of directness. You can be direct in the way that you speak and you can be direct in the way you give feedback.
The Dutch score very high in both forms of directness. First of all, they believe that the most efficient way of communicating is simple, clear and explicit. Secondly, they easily give (negative) feedback. This feedback mostly concerns the working environment. As traders they have believed for centuries that honesty and transparency are needed for doing business in an effective way. In most other countries, negative feedback is seen as rude.
The Dutch don’t necessarily want to be right. The Dutch directness is used because it’s practical and can help to make deals quickly and reach an agreement.
A deal is a deal
In the Netherlands most people perceive time as a linear concept: time is limited and deadlines are important. They execute plans step by step. The agendas and schedules determine the order of our activities. In the business environment this is highly appreciated by people from other countries. You can plan your day in an efficient way. However, in private life this mentality is found to be strange: check your agenda to meet your family?
Everything is about money
The Netherlands is a task-oriented country, which means that in The Netherlands trust is based on knowledge and skills when it comes to work relationships: “You are delivering great work, you are always on time, so I trust you and would like to work with you.” If something goes wrong with a business deal or work contract, The Dutch apply to layers and the law department.
Most other countries are relationship-oriented countries, like e.g. Brazil where doing business is based on personal relationships. Before doing business, you first get to know the other person. Only after you have built a personal relationship, you can make deals, or you start working together.
The Dutch way of networking is often seen as superficial and artificial. Many of the interviewees said: “In the Netherlands people want to know what you do rather than who you are, so they can figure out how they can be useful for one another. Especially in a business environment”
It often takes a while before people from other countries get used to the Dutch sales-oriented way of doing business and networking. Eventually it can have some advantages as well. You get to know a lot of people in a short amount of time without any social obligations.
In collectivistic cultures like Greece or Indonesia, kids learn to care about the group as a whole and stay in harmony with the people that they live, work and study with. Within these countries there are more social and financial obligations that apply for the whole family (including uncles, aunts, cousins and nieces). Every family member can count on support from the rest of the family. During family rituals like weddings or funerals, everyone will be there.
Dutch managers are often surprised when their foreign employees use family emergencies as a reason not to come to work. Within the individualistic societies, like the Netherlands, family is also important, but this is more focused on the core of the family (parents and the kids). Contact with other family members is usually planned. That’s why the Dutch value the idea of ‘family days’.
Despite their generosity when it comes to charities, the Dutch are known for their sales hunting and thrift. An example of this is the stamps you can save at grocery stores. On top of that, the Dutch are one of the most insured people in the world. The average Dutch spends yearly thousands of euros on insurance. The Dutch urge for independence also brings along another fear. The fear that no one will help you out if you are in trouble when you could have insured yourself. Thrift, independence and self-sustainability are core beliefs of the Dutch culture.
Despite the kindness and open mind-set, the Dutch usage of agendas and their individual character can come across as distant and inhospitable to outsiders. Without feeling ashamed, the Dutch can easily say things like “It doesn’t suit me” when visitors come from far away for a spontaneous visit. In many other countries this is not done. If people unexpectedly visits you, you will do everything you can to make the guests feel comfortable and spend time with them.
Separation between work and personal life
Within the Netherlands there has been a clear separation between work and private life. Which areas are private or public can differ per culture. For many Dutch their house is private. That is why they will almost never invite business relationships to their homes or to parties. In other countries it is very common to invite colleagues into your home.
The Netherlands has a feminine society, just like Norway and Sweden. In a feminine culture people work to live – and not the other way around like in many masculine cultures- and are less sensitive to status. That is why many Dutch people are less performance oriented like in masculine countries: In countries like the United States you will be honoured if you are performing well. If you come from a masculine country, your confidence during a job interview can be seen as bragging. Praising yourself and showing off success is not done in the Netherlands. On the other hand, the Dutch might miss out on certain opportunities abroad because they can come across as too modest.
Meetings, discussing, consensus: everyone’s opinion counts
Many entrepreneurs and managers from abroad experience the endless amount of meetings as annoying: “The Dutch always want to discuss everything first”. This will take time! Consensus (polderen) has a biologic reason: to make land out of water, Dutch people needed to work together. If one of them didn’t maintain his dikes, the country would be filled with water and everyone would suffer. This is how they got their so called ‘consensus culture’. In the late medieval times, this started by putting together regional water authorities. These meetings were joined by everyone, from farmer to merchant. Together they would make the decision about the water systems. In these times the Dutch learned to come to a decision together. They had to –and still do- figure it out together.
Culture is relative
What people think of other cultures depends on their own culture. When you ask the English man what it is like to work with the French, they will probably say that the French are chaotic and always late. If you would ask the same question to someone from India, they will probably say that the French always stick to their schedule and can be very inflexible. When it comes to the Netherlands, you will usually get the same answer to these questions.
Many of the people that I interviewed for my blogs and books agreed on the typical Dutch characteristics, no matter their background. When I started researching how these characteristics started, I usually found the same explanation, no matter the subject.
The Dutch directness, the urge for independence, freedom and equality, the ‘just act normal’ mentality, the many rules, the progressive approach, the innovativeness, the trading mentality, the endless discussions, the complaining, but also the Dutch openness, kindness, the bikers, the many cups of coffee, the term “gezelligheid” (cosiness), the dikes and the polder roads. Almost all of is it caused by the location near the water, the lives beneath the sea level.
For her books Tutti frutti and Onder de zeespiegel Saskia Maarse travelled through the Netherlands to interview 60 entrepreneurs, managers and CEO’s (with roots) from 30 different countries.
Half of these interviewed world citizens came voluntarily to The Netherlands as an adult; for love, study or work. The other 50% joined their parents at a very young age to find a better future in The Netherlands. The remaining interviewees were born in the Netherlands, but had parents from another country. All these people lived everywhere in The Netherlands, both in big cities and small villages.
One of her questions to the interviewees and to the participants of her intercultural workshops was, and still is: “What do you find typical Dutch?” Based on the answers to that question Saskia made this overview of the most typical Dutch characteristics, habits, norms and values.
About Saskia Maarse
Saskia Maarse is an intercultural speaker, trainer and author. She writes and speaks about Dutch culture in both business / professional and social life. In her blogs, books and professional talks and workshops she uncovers the origins of deep-rooted Dutch characteristics. Saskia also explains what we can learn from and about other cultures – in areas like communication, leadership and human behaviour.