Colleen Geske, Canadian expat and founder of the well-known blog Stuff Dutch People Like, gave a lecture to us exchange students about her adjustment to Dutch culture. I gave her a call for this piece and, despite her 15 years in the Netherlands, she was still very Canadian-polite. Geske said it took her years to get used to Dutch directness.
“One of the first experiences I had in a very Dutch office was right before I was going home to Canada to get married,” she said, already laughing. After she cut and dyed her hair, she asked a staring co-worker -- an acquaintance at best -- if she liked the new look. “She said ‘No! I really don't!’ But her body language was so positive that I thought she was saying yes.” The co-worker proceeded to gather other employees to ask if they liked Geske’s red hair and fringe, which they didn’t.
To the Dutch, the truth is productive. Honest feedback changes your perspective on yourself and the situations around you.
Now comes my favorite anecdote of all. When Geske was nervous about going into labor, her Dutch doctor took her to a window, pointed at a woman, and said, “Look at that woman over there. Does she look overly intelligent? No. Even idiots can have children.”
Just as there are tons of theories about why the Dutch are so tall (e.g. their milk-laden upbringings, a lowlands technique to stay above sea level, etc.) there are countless theories surrounding the phenomenon of their brutal honesty. History buffs believe it probably has something to do with the spread of Calvinism to the Netherlands in the 16th century. I’ll spare you the five points of Calvinism, because the Dutch people are far removed from, say, the belief that Jesus sacrificed himself for his flock and will bring salvation only to these worthy elect. But it may very well have contributed to a country-wide belief in the values of cheap living, hard work, and yep, verbalizing opinions.
Predictably, the Dutch definition of “hard work” is a bit different than ours. “I had a Dutch boss who asked me why I was working so late,” Geske told me. “I would be one of the last to leave the office and he told me, ‘You know, you don’t have to work this late. It doesn’t make you seem like a better employee. Actually it just makes people think you’re inefficient and can’t get your work done on time.’”
I snort-laughed at this story because I work in New York and the Empire City grind is real. In Amsterdam, I’d get teased for working too hard on a project. In New York, while nobody pressures me to work harder, it’s not not admirable to stay well into the evening. But to the Dutch, putting in too much effort, or trying keep up appearances to look busy and hardworking, just comes off as stupid.
And if the boss of a Dutch company suggested that people should stay later, it's unlikely that complaints would trickle silently to HR. Geske says that, compared to North America, there is almost no hierarchy in workplace culture. You can basically tell your boss to piss off if he’s being irrational, because voicing your opinion is considered productive, and feeling intimidated by your boss is considered, well, pathetic.