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“Very interesting…” - about the cultural differences between the UK and the Netherlands

Saskia Maarse | November 15, 2020

The United Kingdom is just an hour away by plane from the Netherlands. You would expect we wouldn’t have that many cultural differences when working together. Dutch are known for their fluency in English and are similar in their kind of humour. Unfortunately, mistakes still happen, for example in doing business. Because why can’t the English just say what they mean?

Whether the message is received or not does not only depend on the language, but also on the communication style. The British usually have quite an indirect and polite style of communicating. On the other hand, Dutch communicate in a more open and direct way and can perceive the British as long-winded.  At the same time, the British sometimes perceive the Dutch as rude and short-answered.

  • “Dutch are rude, they often skip the line and interrupt others.”
  • “They say what they think, even towards their boss. They have little sense of hierarchy.”
  • The Dutch ask personal questions, even if they barely know the other person.”

Communication differences
The Netherlands has a low context culture. This means that their communication style is very explicit and direct. They say what they mean and mean what they say. Honestly and transparency is very important. The British have a middle to high context culture. Their communication is more indirect, being diplomatic and discrete are highly value.

When doing business with the British, many Dutch make the mistake of translating the English too literal. They miss the understatements and irony. The most common mistakes are:

  • The English response “interesting” usually means “no way!”
  • “We will think about it” is a polite way of saying “it’s not going to happen”
  • “Not bad” means “very good”.

How can you improve communication with your English colleagues so as to prevent misunderstandings? Language coach Anneke Drijver has five tips:

  1. Listen to more than just words
    Pay attention to, not only the words, but the context as well. Body language, facial expressions, and the tone of voice are crucial communication methods. More often than not, the message is hidden between the lines.
  2. Include nuance in your speech
    If you don’t understand a Brit or you want to interrupt them, begin with the magical word “sorry”. For example, “sorry, but can I just say something here” of “Sorry, but I don’t really agree.”
  3. Stay away from negative words
    Most people respond best to positive words, even if the message isn’t very nice. Instead of saying, “I think that’s a bad idea” try “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
  4. Be sympathetic
    If you show that you are paying attention and actively listening they are more inclined to accept your opinion.
  5. Don’t be too direct
    Try not to use “you”, instead focus on “I” or “we”. “You don’t understand me” could best be said as “perhaps I’m not making myself clear.”

Besides our communicative differences, we as “North Sea Neighbours”, also have things in common. We share a common history, both complain about the same grey weather, and both have extensive experience with multiculturalism. All in all, we’re not that different when it comes to culture in a professional setting.

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.

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