Many Expats look up to me as a kind of land bound, better-dressed version of Christopher Columbus, and have asked for my advice on navigating the choppy and uncharted waters of relations with the Dutch. With tears on their keyboards, they have written to me and asked “Shallow Man, we’ve lived here for years and still have no Dutch friends, why is it so difficult to get to know them on a personal level?”
Indeed many Expats live here in the Netherlands in a kind of social purgatory, trapped between heaven and hell. They can see all of Dutch daily life going on around them, but are not quite involved due to lack of any meaningful friendships with the locals.
Being the selfless person that I am, yet again I will step into the Intercultural breach and this time provide advice on how to befriend the Dutch and reach that desired state of integration Heaven – having Dutch friends. This will no doubt be controversial in some quarters, and yet, like Miley Cyrus at the VMA awards, I will twerk my perfectly formed bottom at my critics, even if it means being locked in a room by angry Dutch people and forced to listen to Andre Hazes’ greatest hits while watching TV shows featuring Linda De Mol. The things I do for my readers!
The two of them have even paired up to bring you this beautifull example of the Dutch music culture
Over the years, the Shallow man has wandered through the Dutch wilderness, from Hoorn to Harderwijk, Den Bosch to Zwolle, from Utrecht to Maastricht, and from the Bijlmer to Rotterdam Zuid and has gathered much experience in dealing with our denim-clad, brown-shoe- wearing hosts. Following my wandering in the wilderness, I have returned with the official ‘Guide to making Dutch Friends’.
Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me
A common question asked by Dutch people is “What do you think of Holland compared to your own hell -hole –of- a -country -that -is –not- the- Netherlands?” A character trait I admire in the Dutch is the willingness not to allow a complete and utter lack of facts get in the way of a good lecture of the pros and cons of a country they have never lived in. When asked this question, always reply how much you love this country compared to your own, and how much better the quality of life is here; that will immediately score you some despite -being -a -bloody –foreigner- knows -his –or- her- place brownie points.
Doe Effe Normaal
As I’ve posted elsewhere, being smartly dressed, for example wearing black shoes, heels, make up, not wearing denim and taking care of one’s appearance is generally frowned upon. If you dress in a way that is outside the “Normen en Waarden”(i.e. Norms and Values) of Dutch society, you will be labeled as someone who thinks too highly of themselves. If you want to get on, dress as if you are going to pick up some plants from the local garden center. This will make you less suspicious to the locals who will relax and might even involve you in a conversation.
The Language Death Spiral
Here is an interesting conundrum. If you speak Dutch with a local the response you’ll receive will invariably be in English. However, if you speak in English you’ll be asked “How comes you don’t speak Dutch?” Breaking this vicious cycle without causing offence will require the delicate diplomatic skills of a UN negotiator. If your Dutch is good enough, then politely insist on speaking Dutch as you wish to improve your skills. I’ve known fluent Dutch speakers who’ve lived and worked here for years that still get spoken to in English by the locals.
Be persistent and, even if they respond in English, continue speaking Dutch. This should hopefully wear them down and have them speaking with you in their language. The effort you make in speaking Dutch should, with most reasonable people, play in your favor.
For the “How comes you don’t speak Dutch?” question, don’t get defensive. Simply reply that you’ve tried to learn the language but found it too difficult. This will often go down well and give them a warm feeling of superiority and a chance to show off their English skills. Do not under any circumstances tell the truth which is that as hardly any countries of global economic importance speak Dutch, and, since you only plan to stay here for a couple of years, it’s not worth your while to bother learning it.
Speaking of Dutch friends…
In most countries in the world, the invention commonly known as curtains is still widely used. Here in the Netherlands, with its open society, such things are not regarded as necessary. To befriend the locals, it won’t help if you make sarcastic jokes about looking through people’s windows and watching them eat Frikandel while counting their money due to the lack of curtains. When in conversation with the locals, compliment them on the financial astuteness of not having to waste money on unnecessary dry cleaning.
Why Expats Can’t get Dutch Friends
If you work in one of the larger cities in the Netherlands, such as Amsterdam or Den Hague, you’ll find that most Dutch colleagues who have children will live well outside the city, in smaller towns where housing prices are cheaper. As much bonding and friendship often starts with drinks after work, this often excludes local Dutch colleagues who have to rush off home to their demanding partners, or to collect children from daycare. What then transpires is that the only people who tend to socialize regularly outside work are the expats who often, at least to begin with, are on their own.
As Dutch people, they already have a circle of (local) friends and don’t want to expand their circle with Expats. The view is often: “ Why should I make new friends when I have them already?” Some might say that’s a selfish, anti-social and narrow minded point of view, but it’s certainly one I’ve heard mentioned by Dutch colleagues over the years.
Enter the Circle of Death
If you do somehow manage to overcome all of the obstacles mentioned above, you will not only become friends with a Dutch person, but also end up being invited to attend a “Party.” Many cultures have their own ideas of what constitutes a party, but may have never experienced what those of us in- the- know describe as the Circle of Death. This is a slightly surreal experience. A group of Dutch people will sit together in a circle. Alcohol is often not served. Hapjes (tiny hors d’oeuvre), small bites of bitterballen, cubes of cheese and that exotic delicacy- crisps in a bowl- are provided.
The gathering then sit together and talk, with much use of the word “Gezellig” coming into play. It’s an interesting experience to say the least. If you experience this, then you’ve arrived and have a genuine Dutch friend.
There’s an old saying that I firmly believe in: “I would never want to join a club that doesn’t want me as a member.” This is particularly true when it comes to making friends, regardless of the nationality. There has been a nationalistic movement in this country of which Geert Wilders is now the flagbearer.
The doctrine spouted by these people is that foreigners who live here should want to be Dutch, in other words resistance is futile and assimilation is the only option. It was a strange mentality that believes, when you move to another country, you should strip away your national identity and want to be something else, and become a cardboard cut out Dutch person that doesn’t really exist. This may seem strange, because integration does not mean assimilation.
Thankfully such views are held by a relatively small (I hope) subset of people in the Netherlands. By and large, I’ve found the Dutch to be pretty open minded, fair and friendly people. It is difficult to make friends with them and I would say that they are actually less open than for example the Germans and even the French, but that’s just my personal experience.
People should accept you for who you are. If they don’t want to be friends with me because I’m not from some small village in the Netherlands, so be it. I’ve made some good friendships with Dutch people and we’ve bridged the language gap without much of a problem. Keep an open and positive mind and only good things can come of it. This is a wonderful country and I’m happy to be here, and to people who can’t appreciate the value of a friendship with someone as they are not from the Netherlands I say: Hou right Op!
*No Dutch nationalists were hurt during the writing of this article.