Dutch People are not direct, my Portuguese wife said. Well, as a Dutchman, I found that a pretty direct statement. And, as I know her, this did not come as a surprise to me. I was interested in her thoughts, of course. She said that Dutch people are good at having an opinion and sharing what they think, but when it comes to how they feel about these things, they have more difficulty.
So, when a Dutch person meets you for the first time, they might tell you that they are going through a divorce, they went to jail, or they don’t like what you are wearing. However, when they need to answer how they truly feel about this, it is more challenging.
So, Dutch people are not only direct, just like the French are not only difficult, the English are not only polite, the Germans are not only stiff, Southern Europeans are not only lazy and Scandinavian people are not only closed off. I can imagine that while you read this, you might feel resistance, laughter or anger.
People have strong emotions when it comes to culture, not only because it touches the hearts of everyone’s existence, but possibly also because it feeds into experiences you’ve had.
We cannot see things clearly when we are in our own bubble
Usually, the problem is that we cannot see things clearly when we are in our own bubble. This is a general pitfall when it comes to cultures. The famous saying that “the sea was discovered by someone, but we know it wasn’t the fish”, is the typical core of cultural bias.
When you are inside this bubble, it is hard to see yourself. I would add one more thing to this: when you are inside as an outsider, and you just repeat and believe what other people are saying, you join other people’s bubbles, and are not open to new insights or different perspectives.
The problem with stereotypes
Obviously, we are talking about cultural stereotypes. There are three main problems that come with such stereotypes:
Firstly, they are often said because others have said them, and people repeat after each other like parrots. Everyone says so, so I will also say the same and then I experience that because my filter is already biased. In this case, it becomes more difficult to see something different about the culture or see something different about the person and the personality that someone has. I mean, in every culture you have extroverts and introverts, for example.
Secondly, stereotypes are superficial. For one thing, this is because they put all the people of this culture in that box, but most importantly, the possible truth, which is always subjective, doesn’t look deeper into the core values, behaviours or other elements of a culture, like important signs and its history. There is a lack of study of cultures and the differences and therefore judgements become the truth in stereotypes.
Thirdly, stereotypes are an overly generalised belief that has nothing to do with culture, but everything to do with beliefs installed by others which are no longer challenged. Sometimes, this is because it is easy and we don’t want to believe something else anymore, other times this is because of experience.
Create your own experiences and look for different perspectives
How to get a different perspective
The question is how to acquire different perspectives. In my view, you first have to study culture. Examine sustainable scientific studies with stable results, explaining the behaviour that you are seeing more in-depth.
This helps you understand beyond the stereotypical “Dutch people are direct”, and creates meaning that can provide you with a different perspective, possibly a more positive one, so you can stop judging.
The study I personally love most is by Prof. Geert Hofstede. He talks about dimensions like Power Distance, which is the way in which power is distributed and the extent to which the less powerful accept that power is distributed unequally.
If you are a manager from India with a high Power Distance score and you come to the Netherlands to manage Dutch people, who come from a culture of low Power Distance, you can imagine that there is going to be a difference in management style.
If there is a lot of stress and pressure present, and there is no understanding of this difference, it can lead to frustration on both sides. In this case, directness from both sides can be interpreted in completely different ways.
If the Indian manager says something and just expects their instructions to be executed because that is their way of caring for a project, and you have people who are used to challenging instructions, because that is part of how they care for a project, you may have a big conflict on your hands, despite both parties only having good intentions.
Create your own experiences
Another important element, in my opinion, is to create your own experiences and look for your own and different perspectives. Don’t believe what everyone is saying to you and accept that as the truth.
There are already too many people with opinions in this world. With platforms like social media, the world has seemingly become a jungle where people can just openly start judging whoever and follow other people in their example. First start with your own experiences, create your own beliefs and challenge these as much as possible.
When I was working in Italy, I saw how effective a top-down management style can be. That doesn’t mean I liked it, or that I believe in it in all contexts, but I saw how effective it could be for certain situations.
Last year, I was at a fair giving a presentation about cultural dimensions and a woman came up to me saying that she didn’t think managers in the Netherlands were inclusive and open to opinions. Her experience was very dominating, so much so that she did not have any room for different opinions. Of course, every situation is different, and this is an example of when stereotypes should not be followed.
Whoever you think you are, you are always more than that
Personally, I believe you should move away from unhealthy situations or environments that are not good for you, no matter what culture. Personal health and wellbeing are always important to keep in mind. Try to practise reframing, which means giving different meanings to events, behaviour, people, situations, culture, emotions, values and so on.
You can say this is positive thinking, or you can say this is thinking differently, or you can provide any other meaning to this. As human beings, we continuously give meaning to what is happening in our lives. And if it helps you, fine: be happy and live your life. But if it doesn’t make you happy, you can move physically or inside of your mind and body. Just make sure you move—you are not a tree!
One of the phrases that I love in this context is “Whoever you think you are, you are always more than that”. For me, this means that I can redefine myself every day and that I am even more than that. I’d be interested to hear your opinion on this statement.