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Dutch Communication

May 11, 2012

I was considering joining a course offered through the church where I work called Werk en Balans (Work and Balance). Guest speakers from professional job coaches, successful businessman-gone-minister, psychologists and others would be giving lectures on seeking this coveted balance.

Seeing as my residence is attached to my workplace, you can imagine that I struggle with keeping my personal life and work life in proper balance. It seemed that the course might have been designed just for my situation. Except that it wasn’t. And it was in Dutch. And it was offered at my place of work. And I’m probably too busy to take on a course right now. But on the other hand, it could be interesting. And, it would push me out of the simple Dutch I use every day and into a language level needed for discussing deeper concepts. I state the obvious when I say my earnest interest was mixed with a healthy dose of reservations. Thus I did what I always do when I’m on the fence about something–talk about it.

I shared my thoughts with the course organizer, expecting some sort of discussion, but her rather curt response surprised me; “Well, you can always take it next year.”

That wasn’t the response I expected at all. I expected her to give me reasons why I should take it, encouragement even. Or, seeing as she is someone I interact with on a weekly basis, to perhaps confirm my suspicion that the course may be too difficult for my current level of Dutch. “You can always take it next year” seemed like being un-invited. Was this the case, or was I experiencing the subtle differences between Dutch and American communication styles? I decided to investigate.

The Dutch like to go for long walks. So the next time I was out with a Dutch friend walking from one small town to the next, I shared the scenario and asked if she thought I was being uninvited.

“Absolutely not,” my friend assured me. “The last thing a Dutch person wants to do is push someone into something, or try to change their mind. Because if I convince you to do something you expressed reservations about, then I suddenly become responsible for your happiness. We don’t like to put ourselves in that situation. We figure you know what is best for you, and we usually leave it at that.” Strange thing is, my husband had given a similar account of the Dutch perspective.

The conversation went further. I admitted that I was used to friends debating with me about an idea and even pushing a bit. You know, responses like this:

It will be a good challenge for you.
Just try it. It couldn’t hurt.
Perhaps you’re meant to take the course.
Oh, come on. Live a little.

Yeah. You’re busy, but you always ask a busy person when you want to get things done (is this backwards compliment just an excuse to guilt an already busy person into another responsibility?)

When I shared these types of responses with my friend, she became animated.

“A Dutch person would never say those sort of things. Those are definitely very American responses that would make many Dutch people uncomfortable.”

When I signed up for the course, I was warmly welcomed–well, as warm as a Dutch welcome gets on native soil. And the course did challenge and excite me. And I was too busy, but I did it anyway, and enjoyed the three out of four lectures I was able to attend. As you can see, it was I who convinced me in the end, using all the tactical methods to which I am culturally accustomed as an American.

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