The Dutch are famous – or rather infamous – for their directness and critical attitude. Unlike most other cultures, they do not bother to paraphrase their words. They talk straight to the point and expect the same from their conversation partners. For people not used to this straightforward communication style in the Netherlands, the Dutch might come across as harsh, impolite or unfriendly. Where does this straightforwardness come from, and how should you as a foreigner deal with this – maybe unfamiliar – way of communication?
For the Dutch, directness is the only way to communicate effectively. They even have a proverb that praises it: Dutch like to cut “straight through the sea” when speaking. Of course, this saying comes from their seafaring tradition. “Straight ahead” is the fastest way to reach your destination.
Moreover, most Dutch are unaware of how they come across to somebody not used to their level of directness. While many cultures paraphrase their words or like to use flowery language, for the Dutch, “yes” means “yes”, and “no” means “no”. The concept of “losing face”, a permanent threat in Asian cultures, is unknown in the Netherland.
Be prepared that your Dutch business partners will most likely scrutinize your actions or proposals, ask critical questions and then give their honest opinion or feedback or enter a discussion. So please remember for any business communication in the Netherlands: There is no need to obscure or disguise your words to sound polite.
So, Dutch people talk very much to the point, and they are not interested in creating a good atmosphere by doing small talk. They don’t feel that they have to like you to do business with you.
In many cultures, for example, in the Arabic world, getting to know the person first and then deciding if you want to engage in business with them is the only way to success. However, in the Netherlands, who you are dealing with is not that important. The most relevant thing is the task at hand, and this is reflected in the way your Dutch business partners communicates. They focus on the factual level. Your background is more or less irrelevant to them when it comes to business.
In many cultures, people mask their criticism using euphemisms like “Not very good” or “quite interesting”. The Dutch, however, barely conceal their disapproval. If something is bad, it is “bad”. Honest criticism is preferred over beating around the bush.
Not only do the Dutch refrain from masking their criticism, they even consider it something positive to give their honest opinion. For them, criticism means that you are involved with the person you are talking to. A disagreement means that their conversation partner is important enough to enter into a serious discussion. Mere small talk is nothing the Dutch are very fond of doing.
Although the Dutch like to voice critical attitudes and strong opinions, they do so preferably in a rather non-emotional manner. Many Dutch find a short and clear word quite enough to voice their criticism. For example, the words “fout” – wrong, mistake – or “waardeloos” – worthless, useless, lousy – are often used among colleagues and friends to give feedback. Pretty harsh, isn’t it?
Compliments and praise
The Dutch are also not very fond of paying or receiving compliments. In fact, they don’t expect to receive compliments, and if you praise them for their achievements, you likely make them feel quite embarrassed. If you want to pay a compliment, a simple “prima” – fine – will do. You better avoid superlatives like “great” or “wonderful”.
Good advice is also rendered quite frankly. From a Dutch point of view, a word of advice is not given to embarrass or lecture you but to help you to be the best version of yourself. If your Dutch conversation partner is interested in you, they want to help you improve yourself. Imperfection needs to be overcome from a Dutch perspective, be it business or personal matters.
Lost In Translation
A foreigner’s view of the Dutch being harsh or even rude might come from a linguistic misunderstanding. Although most Dutch speak English almost perfect, sometimes meaning gets lost in translation. For example, the Dutch language uses several terms to “soften” harsh opinions or requests. For example: “toch”, “maar”, “even”, “gewoon”, “een beetje” don’t carry much meaning. However, many Dutch people don’t know how to translate these softening remarks into English. So they just omit them. The actual outcome may sound far blunter than the Dutch speaker intended it to be. Another example is the word “please” that can be omitted in Dutch without sounding rude. However, if you translate a Dutch request into English, omitting “please” might sound harsher to foreigners than to the Dutch.
React To Criticism
Many foreigners come to actually appreciate the Dutch directness once they got used to it. At least, with the Dutch, you always know where you stand. If you have not yet reached this appreciating position, it would be best if you developed a thick skin when talking to your Dutch business partners. Try not to be offended if the Dutch directness gets to you.
Remember what we said earlier about the Dutch using criticism and advice as a means of showing their fondness: They will only speak with you frankly and directly if they take you seriously! They will only criticize you harshly if they feel that you are interested in a serious exchange. So, before you feel hurt by the supposedly rude way of communicating, keep in mind that criticism is a way of interacting with you in a meaningful way for Dutch people.
Maybe you can even try to adopt a similar directness and straightforwardness when it comes to Dutch business partners. They won’t be offended if you speak freely, but instead, you might gain some respect for coming across as a no-nonsense business partner. The Dutch may even let themselves be carried away and compliment your honesty to be “recht of de man af” – “straight onto the man”.
As you might have guessed by now, there is no need to read between the lines or watch out for non-verbal signals when communicating in the Netherlands. There are no hidden signals, so don’t try to interpret any and don’t expect your Dutch partners to read you! You will need to express anything verbally to be understood.
Moreover, the Dutch are not keen on displaying their emotions openly. They seem to be very serious in public, and you will seldom hear loud laughter in an office corridor. Expressing feelings too openly in a business setting would embarrass Dutch people. A Dutch saying perfectly depicts how you should handle yourself in public: “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je gek genoeg” – Just act normal, that is strange enough.
What does this mean? When it comes to communication in the Netherlands, try to avoid big gestures or being too emotional. Keep things professional and moderate. Conformism is better perceived than exaltation.
You should also remember that in the Netherlands, it is not customary to smile and acknowledge people unless you know them. And apart from a handshake, please refrain from patting your business partner’s back while speaking or touching them in any other way. Although this is customary, for example, in South American countries, it is considered highly inappropriate in the Netherlands.