Dutch snowflakes

The Dutch like to say they are a “direct” people, in the same way (I assumed) that Americans and Israelis are “direct”

I don’t think so. In some circumstances (e.g., splitting the bill, commenting on your timeliness, or in “getting to the point”), they are direct — and I like that.

But when it comes to criticism (no matter how objective and/or useful it might be), they are less happy with direct.

I was told once that it was fine to be direct, face to face, but not in a public (e.g., meeting) setting.

You can see elements of this one-thing-in-public, another-in-private perspective in Dutch culture:

  • Gedoogdheden (“tolerances” — read my post on Dutch vs California “tolerance” — but here meaning “not being too strict, for the general good”) are when something is illegal but allowed. In this category, you get the ongoing practice of the [formally forbidden] Catholic faith in the 17th century, a willingness to host various blasphemers, the open trade in soft drugs (and not-soft drugs), and various tax dodges.
  • Variations on racism (from Zwarte Piet to the kindertoeslagaffaire), hypocrisy (anything where agriculture/industry meets sustainability), and corruption (there are many “interesting” relations between companies and politicians; the Royal Family).
  • Intense internal debates, discussions and fights that are not shown in public.

Now let me be clear that the Dutch are not really that bad (the NL is in the top of 10% of countries, IMO), but the problem here is perceptions, i.e., that the Dutch as direct when they are not… always (or consistently).

It’s a good time to note that my background combines Silicon Valley, academics,  economics, the port of San Francisco, and years of independent travel. So I am pretty direct.

… and most people are not, which means they are probably “fine” with the ways of the Dutch. OTOH, some people are not OK, because they get a different experience than they expect (the bullets above will help you guess what’s surprised and upset people).


Aside: Why are the Dutch (and many other cultures) this way? One factor is that people who are “stuck with each other” tend to put a lot of weight on giving and saving face, as they need to get along, and it doesn’t always help to criticise someone who you may later need for help. In “not-stuck-with-you” cultures (where there’s a lot of migration and change, such as “settler countries“, the academic world, ports, the places frequented by travellers), it’s much easier to say what you think, because the worst outcome is going away, which most people there often do. So, when it comes to “exit, voice, loyalty,” The Dutch (and others who can’t exit) stay silent rather than speaking up (voice) or obeying laws (loyalty). I’m sure this factor deserves more thought (please comment on any part of this post!), but it’s a start.


My one-handed conclusion is that you should be careful in accepting or understanding the Dutch when they claim they are “direct.” You don’t need to ask for examples; you only need to speak in ways that are direct without threatening “face.” In other words, don’t melt the snowflakes.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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