When I was little, my parents had certain inviolable rules when it came to entertaining. The ones I remember most vividly had to do with pickles and cheese. There was always a pickle tray, laden with gherkins, pickled beets, and pickled onions. There was also a cheese tray populated with cubes of white cheddar, yellow cheddar, and — how exotic! — a small wheel of Gouda (pronounced goo-dah.)
I spent last week in Gouda, The Netherlands, where the eponymous cheese isn’t the slightest bit exotic and the locals pronounce it how-duh. (Fun fact: when said with an initial throat-clearing sound, it’s Dutch. Without, it’s the Mandarin word for “okay” or “good.”)
I was there primarily for work, but I was also on a rudeness reconnaissance. My covert mission was prompted by Karen (aka Miss Footloose) of Life in the Expat Lane. (By the way, if you aren’t familiar with her blog, you should check it out. She tells fabulous stories about her funny and sometimes bizarre expat experiences.)
Just before I left for The Netherlands, Karen wrote a post about the famed bluntness of the Dutch being misconstrued as rudeness and unfriendliness. As a Nederlander, she was understandably aggrieved by this slur against her national character.
I’ve been in The Netherlands several times and I work for a Dutch company, so I’m well aware that the people are very direct. As a nice Canadian, this took some getting used to. I’m more accustomed to skating around an issue, whereas the Dutch don’t beat around the bush: they tell you what’s what in no uncertain terms. I’ve grown to appreciate the bluntness — it saves time, and you always know where you stand with a Dutch person.
So direct, yes. But rude? Unfriendly? Puh-leeze. I was there six days, in both Gouda and Amsterdam, and I can’t remember a single instance of antisocial behaviour. Nobody invited me back to their house for a home-cooked meal, but without exception everyone was pleasant. Transit staff, restaurant servers and shop assistants were polite and helpful, and even random citizens who had nothing to gain by being nice to a stranger were courteous. A few, like the young man on the train who good-naturedly answered my questions — with a smile — were an absolute delight.
I think the perception of the rude Dutch boils down to differing cultural norms. In Canada, and especially in the US, overt friendliness among strangers is fairly normal. This is especially true in the service industry. Every time I go out for dinner, some bright young thing bounces over to the table and chirps “Hi, my name is Jenni, and I’ll be your server today.” I don’t believe this has ever happened to me in Europe, where it goes without saying that knowing your server’s name has no bearing whatsoever on the level of service you’ll receive. Her job is to supply you with a meal, not to be your friend. As long as the food is good and the service is efficient, why would a diner want more?
It’s not just friendliness that causes confusion — the concept of friendship itself is far from universal. In many cultures, the North American habit of collecting friends is considered superficial. In Korea, for example, where social patterns are influenced by strong ingroup tendencies, the norm is to have a small circle of friends who remain your friends for life. In Canada and the US, friendship is a more fluid construct. Friends come and go, and even the notion of “friend” has many shades of meaning. In contrast, I’ve noticed that my Korean friends (note automatic use of the term) are more discerning when it comes to the F-word. I often hear them refer to someone as a “known person” — a term that falls somewhere between “acquaintance” and “friend,” and for which we don’t have a satisfactory counterpart in English.
So maybe this idea of Dutch rudeness stems from a mismatch of expectations. You won’t get North American-style openness and effusiveness in The Netherlands. Instead, you’ll get respect, courtesy, and from what I understand, some damn fine cheese. (This is something I can’t swear to, of course. You may remember that I don’t like cheese.)
Below I’ve posted a slideshow of photos from Gouda and Amsterdam. Further down is a 30-second video I shot from the car on the way to a restaurant, just to give you a glimpse of what Gouda looks like.
Note: This video was originally quite shaky (cobblestones aren’t very forgiving) but the magic elves at YouTube smoothed out most of the bumps. Unfortunately, they seem to have added a couple of strange warp-y effects in the process.