Understanding the Netherlands (better)

The aim of this course: to avoid misunderstandings and to be able to better understand and categorise Dutch work contexts.

Welcome to this mini-course

This mini-course does not only contain practical tips – some background knowledge is also part of it. It is important to us that you also understand how certain cultural differences have developed historically. This will give you a deeper understanding of Dutch culture and, perhaps incidentally, of your own behaviour.

We kindly ask you to use the e-mails about the mini-course only privately and not to forward them, as this is against copyright law. After the end of the mini-course, you will not receive any more e-mails from us. However, you can subscribe to our newsletter for more tips on German-Dutch cooperation.  Do you have any questions? Then we look forward to your message or your call.

Tomorrow morning you will receive the first e-mail with information worth knowing. We wish you an enjoyable read and a pleasant learning experience for the next 9 days!

PS: This course is written from a German perspective. You might have been living in Germany for many years and adapted to the “normality” in this country. You might as well be curious how living and most of all working is like in the Netherlands – compared to Germany, but also in a broader scope. Stay tuned and let us know if you have any suggestions via info@youregion-emr.eu


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Day 1: What is normal ...

You notice as soon as you cross the German-Dutch border: The windows are open and have no curtains or shutters, and also the homes themselves do not look quite the same. You crossed the border without noticing, but you do notice that there is another normality in this other country. Even though a lot of things feel familiar at first glance, they are quite different at second glance – or vice versa. The reason for this lies in the culture.

What exactly is culture? 

There are many definitions of “culture” as well as countless metaphors to describe cultures. They all have one thing in common: they assume that only a small part of a culture is visible. These include, for example, the open windows, different fashion or the cyclists who ignore a red light. The far larger part of a culture, however, is invisible: the norms, values and attitudes. So why do people show their private life so openly, without shutters? And how about working life? Culture has historically grown. Values and behaviours are deeply rooted and passed on – consciously and unconsciously – from generation to generation. They are therefore learned, not innate. These factors influence how we perceive the world around us and what we do. And: they feel so normal and natural that we are not even aware of them. This only changes through contact with people from (yet) another culture – for example, when you take a job in the Netherlands. The upcoming parts of our mini-course try to help you understand, cope and finally enjoy the differences you face – and to take the chance to learn something about yourself.

As with an iceberg, only a small part of a culture – our behaviour – is visible. The much larger part – our norms, values and attitudes – is invisible, but influences the visible part.

Out of the comfort zone, off into the unknown

Getting to know another culture is like a little voyage of discovery: A new, unknown challenge awaits you at every turn. However, what is perceived as entertaining in this mini-course can sometimes be exhausting in real life. Experience shows that it takes a while for the unfamiliarity with other behaviours to subside. During this time you may feel insecure, confused or stressed. “Culture shock” is the name of this scientifically researched phenomenon. But don’t panic: It’s nothing to be very worried about! It happens to everyone who goes abroad to work and/or live.

Culture shock – rollercoaster of emotions

A culture shock can be divided into 5 phases, which are usually depicted as a curve.

Rose-coloured glasses: In the first phase, the honeymoon phase, everything is great. You are looking forward to the new job, maybe to the new life in the other country. You have high expectations and look at everything through rose-coloured glasses.

Broken glasses: In the second phase, the culture shock phase, things start to go wrong. The first communication difficulties arise. One feels increasingly insecure, irritation turns into frustration.

Repainted glasses: In the third phase, the recovery phase, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Experiences are put into perspective and the high expectations of the initial phase become more realistic. One begins to adapt to the other culture.

Intensively rose-coloured glasses: In the fourth phase, the adaptation phase, everything becomes good. You feel more and more at home in the other culture and integrate the new culture into your everyday life.

Two pairs of glasses: The fifth phase is the own-culture shock phase or return-culture shock phase, which occurs when you return to your home country, e.g. when you take a job in Germany again after some time. Then the four phases repeat themselves.

The actual course of this curve is individual and depends, among other things, on what intercultural experience you already have, how familiar you are with the other culture and whether you move to the Netherlands or go back home to Germany in the evening. If you are a cross-border commuter and only work in the Netherlands, your social environment will remain the same and the culture shock will “only” be limited to the work area. If you move to the Netherlands and send your children to a Dutch school, for example, you will be confronted with more changes, so the curve can be more pronounced. In all cases the following applies: It usually passes again or, as they say in the Netherlands: “Het komt allemaal weer goed” (literal translation: “It comes all again good” – at least language is quite similar to both German and English).

See you tomorrow (day 2) for another section!

Day 2: Role and impact of hierarchies

Among all cultural difference, the flat Dutch hierarchies are most visible to people from Germany and other parts of the world. As the first step of understanding Dutch (business) mentality, today we will talk about the influence of the flat Dutch hierarchies on the way that people interact with each other.
 

Flat country, flat hierarchies

In the Netherlands, official channels are short – and hierarchies are flat as much as the country is. The pronounced egalitarianism means that people deal with each other informally and respectfully at the same time. Business partners, superiors or colleagues – across all levels, people are quick to address each other by their first names and the informal “je” or “jij”. Unlike in German, there is no ritual to offer calling someone “you” the informal way. It just happens, and quite often right from the start. However, this does not mean you became close friends immediately. Above all, it corresponds to the way people in the Netherlands communicate at eye level and maintain a harmonious relationship. You will notice that although many Dutch people know that people in Germany normally use the formal “Sie” for people higher up in the hierarchy, they find it difficult to adjust to such a hierarchical way because of their own cultural background. Our tip: Take the “je” or “jij” lightly and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere.

Just do normal – “Doe maar gewoon …”

The year is 1949, and two high-ranking US officials are visiting the Netherlands to check whether the Marshall Aid money is being used appropriately and properly. Due to a delay, the gentlemen do not arrive in the Netherlands until Sunday. The ministry is closed on this day – as usual – and the then Prime Minister Willem Drees thinks it would be a pity to open and heat it especially for this visit. He therefore invites the delegation to his home, a quite ordinary home that could host a working-class family as well. When the diplomats and gentlemen arrive, there is initially a misunderstanding: they think that the man who opens the door for them is a butler. However, it is the Prime Minister himself! A little later, “first lady” Mrs Drees presents tea with plain biscuits. As the officials leave, one turns to his colleague with the historic words: “In a country whose prime minister lives like this, our money is well spent.” The Netherlands could keep their Marshall Aid. 

This well-known anecdote is exemplary – both for the frugality of the Dutch and for their lack of status consciousness. This applies to outward status symbols – clothes, luxury equipment, cars – as well as to the use of academic titles or professional vocabulary. It is often difficult to distinguish from superiors from their employees, clothing is quite alike. People slip less into a professional role at work but are as authentic as possible and show their personality. “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg” (in German: behave normally, it’s already crazy enough) is the motto. As with the iceberg, this visible top is based on an underlying lot of norms and values that emerged over a long time.

Background knowledge

In the Netherlands, people have cultivated a relaxed approach to hierarchies for many centuries. This goes back to the fight against water: in the flat and water-rich Netherlands, everyone gets their feet wet at high tide. That’s why people roll up their sleeves together, without distinguishing between rank and status. Developments such as a strong middle class and Protestant Calvinism have reinforced this. Calvinism goes back to Calvin, a French-Swiss reformer who had the greatest influence in the Netherlands. One tenet of his teaching was that all men were equal before God – possibly he himself was deeply impressed how everyone sits in the same boat or “Polder” in case of floodings. This principle fitted in perfectly with the already egalitarian structures and, although the effect has since been softened, still shapes them today. Actually, people in hilly South Limburg do not sit quite in the same Polder, as they are far beyond sea level. Indeed, this more “exotic” part of the Netherlands is sometimes perceived more hierarchic. But in comparison to nearby Germany and Belgium, hierarchies are very flat even in the “Dutch Switzerland”.

Whatever landscape you face at the place you currently read, enjoy your tea with a biscuit and see you tomorrow (day 3)!

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Day 3: Meetings and decision-taking

Some people say: People in Germany have meetings when there is a problem, in the Netherlands they have meetings until they find a problem.

After we already dealt with flat hierarchies yesterday, today we will go a little deeper into this “flat” topic. We do so because the effects have a significant impact on the Dutch work culture – and therefore also on the way people hold meetings and make decisions.

Decisions by consensus

The boundaries between competences are more fluid in the Netherlands, compared to a quite rigid separation of workload normal in Germany. Decisions are preferably taken in consensus with the team. Team members are expected to take the initiative and think for themselves. This type of decision-making sometimes takes a little longer, but it has one big advantage: the sustainability of a decision is greater, every opinion is heard and every one feels respected.

A technical expert has decision-making authority more quickly than in Germany, even in negotiations. So don’t be surprised if you can decide on issues you would have never had in Germany. This also means, that you as a top-manager might deal and negotiate with technicians without an official rank. In the Dutch context this is perfectly normal and not a sign of lower esteem.

Meetings – plan plenty of time!

The flat hierarchies and the striving for consensus mean that every voice wants to be heard. That’s why meetings are often called “overleg” in Dutch. In this, one recognises the German word “überlegen”, i.e. to think things through again. Incidentally, thinking things through together does not mean that everyone necessarily wants to be right! In fact, it is about collecting all opinions with the aim of achieving the greatest possible agreement. So plan enough time and keep one thing in mind: a decision once made is not always final as you learn in the following paragraph.

Continous learning: “voortschrijdend inzicht”

Are you used to decisions once made being set in stone and only reversed or adjusted in extreme emergencies? Then you will have to make some adjustments when working with Dutch people. Because in the Netherlands, the so-called “law of newly acquired knowledge” or in Dutch “de wet van het voortschrijdend inzicht” is often applied to projects. It is a special rule – a kind of “law”, yet not in any lawbook. It simply means that plans and decisions are readjusted if the old plan or decision has been overtaken by current developments. So be prepared for your Dutch business partners or teammates to want to come back to a decision at the next meeting – it’s not called “overleg” for nothing, and you can even take a “heroverleg”, another “thinking about”.

By the way …

You might have guessed it by now: In meetings, Dutch working culture is usually a bit more relaxed than in Germany. Although there is also an agenda in the Netherlands, the way it is handled is somewhat more flexible. And the seating arrangements do not necessarily reflect the hierarchical positions.

Have a nice day and see you tomorrow (day 4)!

Day 4: Leadership in a maritime nation

Sit down, enjoy a cup of coffee or tea – let’s continue your discovery tour of Dutch work culture. Today it’s all about the topic “Leading and being led”.

To get in the mood, answer the following questions for yourself in your mind:

  • How do you address your manager: with “Mr.” or “Mrs.” plus surname and title, if applicable, or with first name?
  • Do you expect your manager to wear an expensive suit or fancy dress? Or should she appear more casually dressed in the office?
  • How would you feel if your boss came to work by bicycle instead of in an Audi A8?
  • Do you expect your boss to give you freedom to work independently or do you feel more comfortable with clear instructions?

Your answers do not only depend on your personal preferences. They usually also have something to do with your cultural imprint.

Managers or coaches? 

The boss sits at the same table during the lunch break and has a relaxed conversation with the employees – an unusual thought? In the Netherlands, such a situation is completely normal. It is not unusual for a manager to come to the office dressed casually and on an old bicycle. Boss and employee meet and communicate at eye level, and less frequently do the bosses sit in the building’s seperatedly in a distant top floor, something that Germans call the “Chefetage”. When in Germany, you would often have to cross a “Vorzimmer” with a secretary to talk to your superior, in the Netherlands you will be more lucky at the common coffeemachine. In contrast to Germany, the Dutch work culture is much more egalitatrian. This does not mean that hierarchy does not exist! Hierarchies also exist in Dutch companies and organisations, they are just flatter and less visible, especially at a first glance and with the parameters you would be used to from Germany.

Dutch managers are mostly generalists with few technical and more strategic tasks. They hold the team together and provide the framework within which employees can work independently and without constant consultation. For technical details, they are therefore dependent on the expertise of their staff – and then also expect them to speak up when necessary. The management style in the Netherlands tends to be coaching. Managers take care to inspire employees and to develop them according to their talents and ambitions.

Different understanding of leadership – different expectations

Dutch managers have a certain expectation of their employees: they should be independent, mature and show initiative. Conversely, Dutch employees expect their managers not to constantly look over their shoulders, but to give them the feeling that they can make their own decisions. The understanding of roles is equal – and this also has consequences for communication. More on this tomorrow.

Whether it’s leadership style or another topic: different expectations are among the most frequent sources of misunderstandings. This is true within your own culture, of course, but even more so when working with people from other cultures. If something seems strange to you, first check your own expectations. What is it that irritates you, and what is your understanding of “normal”?

Have a nice day and see you tomorrow (day 5)!

 

Day 6: Communication and irony

are you ready? Today we will look at the topic of communication, i.e. the way we speak to each other and convey messages. You probably guessed it already: Dutch are different, and so are Germans.

Hidden messages

When we speak to each other, we convey messages. We ask for an object, we ask for directions or we want to point something out to someone. We convey messages not only through words, but also through facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice. We call the concrete message the factual aspect, e.g. the water bottle we want to be handed. However, something else resonates in the way we ask for it: the social relationship with the other person. This is called the relationship aspect.

Let’s stay with the example of the water bottle. A purely factual request would be: “Pass me the water bottle”. A question that includes the relationship aspect would be: “Would you be so kind as to pass me the water bottle? 

In Germany, it is often sufficient to add to the purely factual request “Please”: “Please pass the water bottle over to me”. From a German perspective, this literal translation is a polite sentence. That’s all it takes to ask someone for something or – in the workplace – to give someone an instruction. Generally speaking, German culture is considered to be very matter-of-fact or fact-oriented, whereas Dutch culture is a bit more relationship-oriented in comparison.

In a sentence like “Pass me the water bottle, please”, the relationship aspect is missing from a Dutch perspective. For Dutch people, the relationship aspect is somewhat more important, also in the work environment. Therefore, a supervisor who asks his employees to act with such sentences has bad cards in the Netherlands. He is immediately accused of using a commanding tone and showing no respect. Part of the equal understanding of roles (see Day 4) is that employees want to be asked if they can do something.

Conversely, employees can be alert when a Dutch manager says “Do you think it would be a good idea if we had a quick look at your presentation tomorrow? This is not an invitation to a pleasant chat. Translated, such a friendly-sounding request means rather “I am not satisfied and would like to talk to you tomorrow about points for improvement”. The initial trust given to the employee was replaced with a more rigid – yet still friendly – doublecheck.

The different tone is very important for successful communication with the Dutch and it is important to know and understand this. On the other hand, a criticism that might sound harsh to your ears is often meant constructively, and not as a personal attach: “I think the second part of your presentation was unnecessary” is a critique that does not prevent sender and receiver of continuing a constructive work relation.

Break the ice with a little humour

During work and in business life, Dutch people slip less into a professional role than in Germany, but remain as authentic as possible. Jokes are therefore not only told in private life, but also at work. Self-irony is important here: people like to make fun of their own person or of people with (alleged) status. This is less frequently met in Germany. For those that understand German, find a video snippet from the dramatic film “Das Leben der Anderen”. German culture became quite egalitarian, but mentality is still shaped by traumatic experiences in totalitarian societies of the 20th century.

The entry of the Dutch Rabobank into the German market was accompanied by a commercial with many clichés and self-irony about the Netherlands. A daring undertaking for a bank – in Germany, after all, the epitome of an industry associated with tradition and respectability. However, the commercial was well received, probably because the Dutch have a reputation for being somewhat unconventional at times.

In the Netherlands, jokes are often used to break the ice. Still remember, that self-irony and even self-mockery is different from mocking others, especially in an international context. Calling the Netherlands a “super tiny country” might not win great sympathy, especially when coming from the larger neighbour. And don’t be fooled: Even if you start business negotiations with a coffee and a casual chat, Dutch people are and remain skilled and tough negotiators. 

Have a cuplet or mini coffee and a biscuitlet?

Dutch people are known for being very direct and not mincing their words. To compensate, so to speak, and to keep things ‘cosy’ on the relationship level, they like to use diminutive forms and understatement. At lunchtime, you eat a “broodje” (roll) and drink a “glaasje” (glass) of milk or buttermilk with it. Then you make a “telefoontje” (phone call) to a business partner or have a “onderonsje” (private conversation) with a co-worker with whose work you are “niet zo blij” (not so happy, that is dissatisfied). To Germans, this often comes across as rather “cute” and not serious. For Dutch people, however, this expression is perfectly normal. So don’t expect a mini-coffee when you are offered one. On the other hand, some foreigners are surprised to learn that having a biscuit can really be reduced to one biscuit only. This is not a sign of disrespect, but to avoid ostentatious waste. In the southern provinces of Limburg and Brabant, lifestyle can be more “borgondian”, though, especially when joyfull carnival is celebrated.


Day 7: Dealing with rules, structures, and authorities

Congratulations, you have already completed more than half of the course! Today it’s all about the topic “Dealing with rules, structures and authorities”.

Stay flexible

Is only the best good enough for you? Or is a “good” just good enough? In Germany, one usually strives for the best result. To achieve that, structures and rules are considered helpful. Underlying is the need for clear and reliable orientation, for control over a situation, for risk minimisation, and for the elimination of (possible) disturbances and sources of error. Many things are clearly and explicitly regulated – you just know where you stand.

In the Netherlands, the need for structures and risk minimalization is less pronounced. Of course, there are structures, control and a striving for optimal results in the neighbouring country as well. But they deal with it more pragmatically and flexibly, especially in business. Go back to Day 3 and read what is written in the paragraph under “vooruitschijtend inzicht”. It says, among other things, that “plans and decisions are readjusted if the old plan or decision has been overtaken by current developments.” It is not uncommon for Dutch people to start a project, even though it may not have been thought through to the last detail. In this respect, Dutch people are more willing to take risks and are also more open to new developments. One area where this is particularly clear is digitalisation.

Think digital

Digitalisation is very advanced in the Netherlands. Numerous processes and systems are digitalised, including in schools, healthcare and public authorities. Dutch people inform themselves online more than Germans and have been used to digital communication by and with companies, organisations and authorities for years. The same applies to topics such as “electronic banking” – one reason why there are hardly any bank branches left in the Dutch street scenery.

Internet use in the Netherlands – even among older people. So, from the Dutch point of view, the advantages are obvious: communication is possible at any time, data is stored and can be viewed at a central location, costs are reduced. However, this also means that the personal contact person or the clerk at the tax office or the bank has long since been dispensed. Instead, there are – also at public authorities – central telephone numbers, electronic contact forms or sometimes even a WhatsApp number to which one can turn with general questions. The fax machine, a familiar companion in many German authorities and companies, has long since become a museum piece in the Netherlands.

Stay relaxed when the contact person changes

If you now think that there is less bureaucracy in the Netherlands, we unfortunately have to disappoint you: The Netherlands are also quite a bureaucratic country. However, people in the Netherlands are usually a bit more flexible when it comes to complying with competences. It is quite possible that you will have to deal with different contact persons, even at the authorities. Of course, in Germany too, colleagues take over tasks when you are on holiday or sick. However, responsibilities in Germany are usually more strictly regulated than in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, if possible, people work together – the main thing is to get the matter sorted out.

Have a nice day and see you tomorrow (day 8)!

Day 8: Dealing with feedback

The 9-day mini-course is progressing at a rapid pace. Have you by now identified one or more aspects that are new or different for you than you had thought? Today the focus is on the topic of feedback or “expressing criticism”. This is a sensitive area where misunderstandings can quickly arise due to misinterpretation.

Lower readiness for conflict

Even though Dutch people are known for their directness, they often try to soften statements somewhat so as not to jeopardise the relationship orientation. Criticism is expressed directly, but usually not in front of the whole team. In addition, supervisors try to wrap up critical comments in a nice and relaxed tone and take care not to impose any rules (see also Day 5 under “Hidden Messages”), but to explore development potential together. On the other hand, critique can be surprisingly open – and is meant in a constructive way and not at all as a personal attack. 

Personal development plans

Staff appraisals take place at least once a year with the aim of improving both the employee’s performance and cooperation. Although mistakes are addressed and the tone can also be very direct, the focus is on developing existing potential. These can be summarised in a Personal Development Plan (in Dutch: Persoonlijk Ontwikkelings Plan, abbreviated POP). As already mentioned on Day 4 under “The role of managers in the Netherlands”, the Dutch management style tends to be coaching-oriented and geared towards developing talent and motivating employees.

A culture that can cope with errors

Do you know the saying “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”? It is also a well-known saying in the Netherlands (“waar gehakt wordt, vallen spaanders”) that you can hear regularly in the workplace, whenever someone has made a mistake. In general, dealing with mistakes in the Netherlands is a bit more relaxed than in Germany. It is assumed that mistakes are not made on purpose and can just happen. It is important not to try to cover up mistakes out of fear, but to deal with them honestly and learn from them so that they do not happen again. From a Dutch perspective, fear and the tendency towards perfection misses great chances or just brings too much extra work. Dutch working culture just assumes that everyone is doing their best and take a pragmatic approach when mistakes happen.

Have a nice day and see you tomorrow (day 9)!

Day 9: Congrats to the birthday of your son!

Fantastic that you are still here! Hopefully you have already been able to take away a lot of valuable information for your interactions with Dutch people. Today we’ll shed some light on what contact opportunities you have outside your (physical) workplace.

Network!

How can you tell if someone is Dutch or German at a networking meeting? Dutch people stand at a high table, actively approach each other, talk to each other and exchange business cards. Although they have only known each other for five minutes, the atmosphere is – you guessed it – relaxed and easy-going: There is a lot of laughter and – of course – people are on first-name terms. Many Germans, on the other hand, are reserved and often wait until someone approaches them[1]. The conversational atmosphere among Germans is also often more formal than among Dutch people. So if you have been a rather reserved networker so far, overcome your shyness when contacting Dutch people and approach them actively. You will find that you quickly make new contacts this way.

Social Media

In the Netherlands, the business social network is LinkedIn, the (still) dominating Xing in the German-speaking countries does not play a role. Also, do not be shy to set up a LinkedIn profile so that you can also be found by your Dutch business partners or team colleagues and actively contact them yourself. Twitter is also widely used in the Netherlands and is popular for business purposes. You can’t reach your contacts faster than in 140 characters!

[Headline] “Borrelen” on Friday afternoon

It’s a tradition in many Dutch companies: on Friday afternoons people have a drink together and end the week in a relaxed way. In Dutch, this phenomenon is called “Borrelen”. Not only is a (non-alcoholic) beer or something else drunk – fried snacks such as “Bitterballen” (small, round balls filled with meat ragout and deep-fried), cheese or snacks are also served. It is a nice and uncomplicated opportunity to get to know colleagues and managers better. You should definitely take advantage of.

Celebrating Dutch birthdays

Once a year it’s that time of year: a man or woman celebrates a birthday! Colleagues are happy about a piece of cake and collect money for a present or a voucher. If you have made friends with a nice colleague at work, you may also be invited to a private birthday party. You should definitely accept such an invitation, but be careful: There is a danger of the “expectation trap”. Because Dutch birthday parties have their own peculiarities …

It starts with the fact that in the Netherlands you don’t just congratulate the birthday boy or girl, but also the family members, relatives and friends who are present. It sounds like this: “Happy birthday for the birthday of your wife/your father/Jan-Willem, etc.”, for example. The Dutch are probably the only people in the world with this special tradition! You are also expected to make the rounds and congratulate everyone present. You can take the round literally, because the guests usually sit in a circle of chairs. The circle grows larger or smaller during the course of the evening, depending on the occasion. In addition to a piece of cake – and it usually stays with this one piece, modest and anti-pompous Calvinism sends its regards! – appetisers. Somewhat similar to the “Borrelen” on Friday afternoons and not always enough to bring you towards saturation[2] In short, Dutch birthday celebrations are a rather pragmatic and not very elaborate affair, where the focus is on a cosy get-together. You are not usually invited to a (propper) meal or a lavish buffet or barbecue – dinner in the Netherlands is very much a private affair.

But when it comes to a present, everything remains the same: Just like German birthday boys and girls, the Dutch are also happy to receive a bottle of good wine, an original voucher or similar.

Have a nice day and see you tomorrow (final day 10)!.


[1] And this is even true for working contexts with Germans from the Rhineland – stereotypically the most easy-going and relaxed Germans, but not necessarily used to such a tone in the work environment.

[2] Festivities in hilly (Southern) Limburg tend to be more „Borgondian“ and extensive, also in terms of food. Maybe this is why there is a saying that Limburgian funerals are more fun than weddings in Holland.

Day 10: Deep dive

The last day of the mini-course has arrived. It is time to round off this mini-course. So far we have dealt with what culture actually is and what cultural differences there are with Dutch people. Today you will learn a method that can help you in everyday life to put yourself in the other person’s perspective and to question your own assumptions. The method is called DIVE. This abbreviation stands for:

  • Describe
  • Interpret
  • Verify
  • Evaluate

How can you use this method? Imagine the following situation: You have been working as a manager in a Dutch company for some time and have a secretary who works for you. However, the cooperation is anything but smooth: From your point of view, she constantly contradicts and simply does as she pleases. Recently there was trouble again because of an important presentation. You came to the office in the morning and asked your secretary to check the room for the presentation immediately. She also had to check immediately whether the laptop and beamer were available. The secretary replied that she would finish something first and then take care of it. What cheek! They’ve gone off the deep end…

So much for the description. A German manager would expect a secretary to do what he or she is told: leave her own work and immediately check whether the room is properly prepared. Since she does not do this, you assume that the secretary is arrogant and unsuitable for the job. In your eyes, the secretary’s behaviour is like refusing to work – grounds for dismissal or definitely a warning.

Now consciously change the perspective, then you can ask yourself what other interpretation there could be. Maybe you remember the relationship orientation (Day 5) and consider that in the Netherlands the tone makes the music. You might also consider that Dutch employees have an equal understanding of roles and therefore would like to feel they have a say in decisions (Day 4). You may also remember that working independently is very important in the Netherlands (Day 4) and that employees therefore already know how to organise and complete their work.

In the next step you try to check these interpretations. You could ask other people for an assessment and ask how secretaries are usually communicated with and dealt with. All this can change your assessment of the situation: If you assume that your secretary is arrogant and unsuitable, you will probably be annoyed and no longer invest much in the relationship. However, if the other interpretations lead you to the conclusion that your Dutch secretary would like to be perceived as a human being, is used to working independently and already knows how and when to do her work, then you see the situation (and your role as a manager) in a different light. You might just try asking nicely next time if she would have time for a room and technical check, and that this would help you a lot given the importance of the presentation.

Our recommendation: In any misunderstanding situation, first assume a positive intention on the part of your interlocutors and consider whether cultural aspects could play a role. Then try the DIVE method and observe what insights you can gain.

This brings us to the end of this mini-course (“mini” only because we talk about a Dutch context, where people like to make things smaller and use understatement). We hope are not too exhausted and could gain useful insights. For the sake of clarity, we sometimes described the Netherlands and Germany as quite to opposites. Even though the focus of this mini-course was on cultural differences, both neighbouring countries share a lot. Talking about substantive differences might even seem ridiculous for some people looking at both from a greater distance. No matter how much you zoom in or out, Germany and the Netherlands are sometimes very similar, for example in the areas of work mentality, punctuality or organisation. If you suffer a – hopefully only slight – culture shock at the beginning, looking at the similarities can help you regain your bearings and your footing.

And now: Let’s hear it for you! You have stayed on the ball until today and have learned a lot about the Dutch way of working and communicating together and have acquired the corresponding understanding. That is greatly appreciated!

We wish you every success in the Netherlands and say “Tot ziens” from Aachen!


Old bridge Maastricht. Photo by Michael Gaida on pixabay

By Ingeborg Lindhoud for GrenzInfoPunkt at Regiona Aachen Zweckverband, all rights reserved .

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