How to communicate effectively doing business in The Netherlands – 10 tips for dealing with Dutch directness
One of the interesting things about living and working in a foreign country is that you expand your horizons and learn about a different way of living and working. Sometimes the similarities and differences are very clear, sometimes you discover them over time.
This article aims to give you an outline of what to expect in the way of communicating with Dutch people in the workplace. For this article I spoke with several people from around Europe and overseas about their experiences, and added them to my own.
1. When you first meet Dutch people at work, it is customary to shake hands, say your first and last name and look each other straight in the eyes. This is considered by the Dutch as part of the open and honest way of communicating, and establishing contact. Additionally, it is interpreted as trustworthy, having nothing to hide, when you make eye contact frequently and intensely.
2. Perhaps the best known difference between the Dutch and many other cultures is that they are very direct in their communication, both in praise as well as criticism. The Dutch tend to “say what they do, and do what they say”. This is considered clear, honest and reliable. For Dutch people it has the added advantage of making good use of time: heading straight for the goal of the conversation takes the least amount of valuable time.
3. The Dutch are masters of using their time effectively. Good planning and efficiency is considered a virtue, both in the work place as well as in private lives. Dutch people may get impatient (or even suspicious) when a conversation is too polite or if it takes a long time to establish personal contact.
4. During work meetings everyone is asked to participate in discussing options, scenarios and solutions. Everyone is encouraged to say which decision they would favour, as long as it is in line with the goals and vision of the organisation. Everyone can have equal input into the conversation, even though the final decision is made by management. Because this is a custom, most people have an opinion, even if they are no expert on the subject. When you hear the phrase: “my door is always open”, usually the meaning is: “Please share your concerns, questions and ideas freely with me.”
5. In line with this, if you want something (more salary, a permanent contract, a computer to work from home), you have to ask for it. It will not automatically be offered to you, even if it is company policy.
6. When communicating in the English language, you may not come across this. In the Dutch language there are two different ways of addressing the English word ‘you’. There is the formal way, the polite way, which is the word ”U”, used towards someone who is higher is status, a teacher, elderly or to whom you wish to show respect. Then there is the informal word of ‘jij’, also meaning you, but used with friends, equals, and colleagues. Far sooner than you would expect in some other countries, the Dutch will use ‘jij’. It is considered a sign you are accepted into the group, treated as equals. Generally in conversations between a manager and a subordinate they will address one another with ‘jij’.
7. It is also customary, in conversations where you are not sure, to discuss the way you will address one another with the previously mentioned Dutch directness. “I propose that we address each other with ‘jij’, is that all right?“
8. The Dutch are proud of the fact that they speak many languages. In school it is compulsory to study both Dutch as well as English, and up to 4 different languages may be optional: German, French, Chinese and Spanish are often taught these days. The grammar and expressions in the English language may not always be used correctly by the Dutch, however, they get by very well and as long as there are no major misunderstandings, they expected to be forgiven for that. Sometimes they estimate their level of English slightly higher than it actually is by objective standards.
9. Two tips from the people I spoke with before writing this article: “It is best to adapt quickly, if you don’t adapt yourself, you may be considered ‘soft’. So if you want to communicate effectively: adapt to the Dutch way.” Another phrased it like this: “Prepare to go against your Dutch boss’ opinion in clear and polite language”.
10. In conclusion: It may take a bit of getting used to the directness of the Dutch way of communication, however, they are generally very helpful. When you don’t speak the Dutch language or do not understand what is going on, they will answer you in English and explain to you what is going on, just as easily, with the same Dutch directness.
I wish you a very pleasant and prosperous time doing business in The Netherlands.
Trainer – Jacqueline van ’t Spijker
Jacqueline van ‘t Spijker is trainer for personal growth in business communication. She is trainer, industrial psychologist and her expertise is to observe and strengthen contact and cooperation. In the past 25 years she has designed and facilitated training both in the commercial world as well as not for profit sector. Jacqueline is convinced that contact is the best basis for cooperation in the work place. She strives to help her participants experience success and make them realise that they are capable of doing more than they are aware of.
Jacqueline is a bilingual trainer in both Dutch and English. She trains and coaches individuals as well as teams in the Co Creation team associated with Projob.