Friday, October 20, 2006

iets maakt een knarsend geluid!

(Jacob Vossestein, Dutch cultural expert)

This morning we had a “lecture” (Power Point presentation) on Dutch culture and the Dutch character by Jacob Vossestein. Mr. V usually gives these lectures to business people from abroad who are going to work with Dutch people/companies. The presentation consisted of segments such as history, geography, work ethic, politics, tolerance (and the recent intolerance toward Islam), drug usage, and family structure. The overall picture that Mr. V painted of the Dutch was that they are very direct, love discussions and asserting that their opinions are correct, believe in doing things for themselves, and don’t believe in being overly polite.

Comparisons between Dutch and American cultures inevitably sprang up, and this led to a rather interesting discussion. Apparently Americans have a "can do" attitude that the Dutch would rather do away with altogether. For example, instead of offering encouragement to complete a task, they offer “constructive criticism” in order to ensure that it’s done correctly the next time. I think this illustrates well what Mr. V was trying to emphasize as the main difference between the two cultures: the Dutch don’t believe in wasting time making pleasantries with people that they don’t know, while Americans usually try to be polite to the random people they encounter. One reason Mr. V gave for this difference is that in the Netherlands, workers are paid better than in the US, and thus they don’t receive tips, and thus they don’t have to be polite. Now, while this might explain why retail/restaurant workers are overly friendly in the US, it doesn’t explain why Americans in general are usually polite (I guess I should also state that “polite” is a relative term, and that not everyone in the US is polite; believe me).

This discussion got a little awkward when the question of how can one make assertions about an entire people based upon assumptions, generalizations, and stereotypes was raised. Mr. V was quick to point out that some stereotypes are in fact true, or are at least based on some sort of reality. I think that the issue of assertion based on assumption is an extremely slippery slope to navigate, and I’m sure that anthropologists struggle with it all the time. While I realize that such assertions are necessary to gain at least some sort of insight on a culture/people, and that oftentimes they are fairly accurate reflections of the culture, I am still apprehensive about broad, sweeping generalizations. Maybe this is naive, but I don’t like to group people of one country/region into one large lump. I wonder: if each person is an individual, how are generalizations possible?

This discussion was quite the informative experience. Not only did I learn about Dutch culture, but I also heard firsthand about the Western European opinion of the US. And since the Dutch are such a direct people (...), Mr. V was very clear in his sentiments. At first, I felt that Mr. V was a bit abrasive, but after a while I realized that it’s better to know these opinions than to ignore them. Especially as the decisions that the US makes have an effect that reverberates around the world (according to Mr. V).


Blogger Dave said...

"One reason Mr. V gave for this difference is that in the Netherlands, workers are paid better than in the US, and thus they don’t receive tips, and thus they don’t have to be polite."

This raises the question why the Dutch don't care to encourage politeness financially.

The catholic south is a bit more friendly then the calvinistic (etc) north. But these generalizations (stubborn, closed, rational, only in it for the money) were allready mentioned in early writing from long before calvinism.

Being dutch myself, please allow me to make a remark: Though I was pleasantly suprised by the politeness of most of the americans I met, I feel uneasy if people are too polite. I guess the sheer fact that one may feel that someone is acting too polite, is really determining the behavior of the dutch. I wouldn't hire, let alone tip, someone who's really super polite, it would get on my nerves within a day. Being overly polite is being perceived as weak or untrustworthy.

12:21 PM


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