I’ve lived in Holland, or The Netherlands, for four years now. It didn’t take me all that time to recognize the smile, but now that I have seen its many permutations, I feel its about time to write about it.
The Dutch are used to being straight forward. Its one of the traits you will read about in any manual on getting to know the Dutch culture. But surprisingly, The Smile is not always intentional. And what they do with it, once it has come, is very telling.
It first appears in the eyes of a native Dutch speaker during conversation, indicating that they have noticed something. And then, as this small realization settles more firmly into their conscience, the puppet strings of the mind attached to the corner of the Dutch mouth tug upward, pulling their lips into a smirk. They can no longer concentrate on the conversation underway, as they must ask the question.
The more refined members of the population delay the question out of courtesy to the conversation unfolding. They know the question lingers, but they focus on the exchange of information between two people, setting the question aside, or even choosing not to ask it at all. They are golden; ambassadors.
Others forget their manners and blurt out the question after your first few words. And then there is the group that doesn’t even ask the question, but chooses the statement form, to show some sort of Sherlock Holmes ingenuity–as if I was trying to fool them and got caught.
“You’re not Dutch.”
The tone and word choice of my answer are influenced by a number of factors including my mood, their age and the demeanor of their smile.
“No shit, Sherlock!” (Sarcastic response appropriate for someone your age or younger, who is not a client, a member of the government, or the person about to make your sandwich.)
“No. I’m not. I’m from America.” (Polite response to be given to clients, people older than you, a member of the government, the person making your lunch and old people with hearing problems).
The problem with this “You’re not Dutch, are you?” question/statement is that the non-native speaker is then caught on a precipice of internal debate. Did they make this comment because of my foreign accent, or did I make a huge, grammatical error? Wrong verb tense, wrong word order? Shit shit shit! This sort of internal dialogue is like throwing a bucket of ice-cold water on the libido of conversation; the chances of peak performance shrivel up rapidly.
Because if you were carrying on a conversation in your native language with a fellow native speaker, no one is going to interrupt the conversation mid sentence to question you about your origin. And if they do, it has nothing to do with your proficiency in the language, but with their curiosity about your cultural background.
The following step in the dialogue is rather insightful. The Sherlock types seem to stand a bit taller, the smile becomes a bit shrewder and they take liberties to correct you at the slightest error, their eyes gleaming with a sense of domination, teaching the simple non-native the finer points of Dutch intercourse. If you encounter this type, don’t bother to talk with them further. They are a waste of your time and energy.
The ambassador types, which seem to be prolific in The Hague, are used to an international environment. They are quick to praise you for your ability to speak Dutch and the efforts you make to use their native language despite the fact that most Dutch are quite fluent in English. And most importantly, their smile, which glints across their face, is one of encouragement, not condescension.
I know you all can’t help the smile. I’m sure I do it too when I hear you speak English. When you all say “He learned me this” instead of “he taught met this”, or the way you all sound when you sing English songs; the way the words are clipped off at the wrong places; I get it. It is smile worthy.
I realize there is a cute factor, but in general, there are not many adults that appreciate being thought of as cute when they are talking to you–including you!
So, with all due respect, unless you can learn from the ambassador types described above, get that damned smile off your face Sherlock, and realize that 1) Dutch is a very difficult language without much practical use outside of your very small country 2) most foreigners don’t even bother to learn Dutch, as they can get along just fine with English here. So those of us that are taking the time and interest to learn your language are doing so out of interest in you. You don’t need to laugh at us. 3). I’m not nearly as angry as you think I am. I enjoy learning your language!