Dutch People Are Dicks. Here’s Why Americans Should Try It.
“The Dutch are dicks,” I kept hearing before I left to study abroad in Amsterdam. The Netherlands embraces a culture of bluntness that could be described to an American as “You, but after three drinks with your least-favorite co-worker” -- that sort of plainspoken bordering on harsh criticism that, in the moment, feels like a favor to the person on the receiving end. Or at the very least, a joke too good to pass up. For the Dutch, this is the default setting.
It took a few days in Amsterdam before this filterless phenomenon struck me, via the Tinder scene. My date mentioned something about the app’s true purpose: facilitating hookups. Perceiving an opportunity to segue into playful meta-analysis, I leaned in.
“Yeah, are we going to do it or what?” I asked, twirling my straw around the glass.
“I don’t know,” he responded with a blank face, followed by something like: “Of course I want to have sex and you seem pretty nice but, women sometimes get very involved, and I don’t know what your expectations are. What are they?” This moment was, for lack of a better pun, straw-dropping.
Literal interpretations of my flirtatious and light-hearted banter prevailed throughout my six months on the lowlands dating scene. A Dutchman I was seeing regularly once thanked me for buying our meal, to which I responded, “I owe you, don’t I?”
He nodded humorlessly. “Yeah. I paid for drinks last time, and the time before, you forgot your card.”
These exchanges made me squirm -- until I tried being a dick right back.
I thought maybe I just attracted a certain type: obliviously blunt, literal to a handicapping degree, basing life’s decisions on estimated ROI? But my date wasn’t an anomaly. During a phone interview with a Dutch company, the recruiter immediately asked how much money I wanted and then responded, “Oh, yikes! You have no experience and we would pay you maybe half of that.”
These exchanges made me squirm -- until I tried being a dick right back. Slowly but surely I phased out my say-a-positive-thing-before-a-negative-thing conditioning. Amsterdam culture granted me permission to roast in a way America never could. It reminded me of the movie The Invention of Lying, when one character says, “This is the most amazing night of my life,” and the other responds, “Think how amazing it would be if you didn’t smell like vomit.”
Being honest and direct, even straight-up rude to people felt incredibly freeing. And it made me realize upon coming home just how much we Americans fuck ourselves over -- in our relationships, in the workplace -- by pretending to be so damn nice all the time.
Turns out, cutting the crap makes it easier to connect with peopleDuring my last week at university, I met with a professor about why I’d almost failed the course. “The class was boring for me,” I said, practicing the Dutch art of directness. ”I don’t think philosophy is my thing.”
She laughed. “More students should realize philosophy is not their thing. Instead they say a lot of bullshit.”
That’s when I realized the magic behind a culture that encourages honesty; it won’t necessarily make you an instafriend, but it will undoubtedly connect you with others in a more authentic way. Who would have thought that saying how you actually feel about something would lead to a) someone else knowing how you feel about that thing (!), b) them not thinking you’re a swine, and c) them being honest and open with you in return?
This made me reflect a ton on connection in general (okay, yes, I was smoking a lot of weed. It’s Amsterdam). We were all on the same ride, I realized, and it was silly to keep up pretenses, or maintain unspoken boundaries, or spout a lot of bullshit excuses when, for instance, I could just say “Hey professor, I failed your course because I think the class (and your life’s work) really blows.” She already suspected that I disliked her course. And she respected that I didn’t treat her like an idiot. We had a good laugh and I went on my merry way.
The Dutch aren’t necessarily trying to be rude -- they’re trying to be helpfulWhen pissed off, Yanks and Dutchies tend to express their rage in different but equally, uh, creative ways. When Americans get cut off in traffic, they have a dictionary-load of school-bus cusses to spew at the guilty party. In contrast, the Dutch sometimes wish illnesses on people that saunter into their bike lane. They might hope you get the flu, or catch a sexually transmitted disease, or… suffer a tragic death. “Sterf aan kanker!” is a phrase that actually exists -- it translates to “Die of cancer!”
In most cases, though, the Dutch will just give you well-meaning advice if you cross them, like the time a food delivery bicyclist politely bellowed “FUCKING CHECK YOURSELF!” at my friend who was trying to enter the bike lane. When my mother visited, she wasn’t so lucky -- a bicyclist kindly did the checking for her, knocking her sideways without apology. In the name of justice, of course.
To the Dutch, the truth is productive.
Colleen Geske, Canadian expat and founder of the well-known blog Stuff Dutch People Like, gave a lecture to us exchange students about her adjustment to Dutch culture. I gave her a call for this piece and, despite her 15 years in the Netherlands, she was still very Canadian-polite. Geske said it took her years to get used to Dutch directness.
“One of the first experiences I had in a very Dutch office was right before I was going home to Canada to get married,” she said, already laughing. After she cut and dyed her hair, she asked a staring co-worker -- an acquaintance at best -- if she liked the new look. “She said ‘No! I really don't!’ But her body language was so positive that I thought she was saying yes.” The co-worker proceeded to gather other employees to ask if they liked Geske’s red hair and fringe, which they didn’t.
To the Dutch, the truth is productive. Honest feedback changes your perspective on yourself and the situations around you.
Now comes my favorite anecdote of all. When Geske was nervous about going into labor, her Dutch doctor took her to a window, pointed at a woman, and said, “Look at that woman over there. Does she look overly intelligent? No. Even idiots can have children.”
This No Bullshit approach also extends to their work ethicJust as there are tons of theories about why the Dutch are so tall (e.g. their milk-laden upbringings, a lowlands technique to stay above sea level, etc.) there are countless theories surrounding the phenomenon of their brutal honesty. History buffs believe it probably has something to do with the spread of Calvinism to the Netherlands in the 16th century. I’ll spare you the five points of Calvinism, because the Dutch people are far removed from, say, the belief that Jesus sacrificed himself for his flock and will bring salvation only to these worthy elect. But it may very well have contributed to a country-wide belief in the values of cheap living, hard work, and yep, verbalizing opinions.
Predictably, the Dutch definition of “hard work” is a bit different than ours. “I had a Dutch boss who asked me why I was working so late,” Geske told me. “I would be one of the last to leave the office and he told me, ‘You know, you don’t have to work this late. It doesn’t make you seem like a better employee. Actually it just makes people think you’re inefficient and can’t get your work done on time.’”
I snort-laughed at this story because I work in New York and the Empire City grind is real. In Amsterdam, I’d get teased for working too hard on a project. In New York, while nobody pressures me to work harder, it’s not not admirable to stay well into the evening. But to the Dutch, putting in too much effort, or trying keep up appearances to look busy and hardworking, just comes off as stupid.
And if the boss of a Dutch company suggested that people should stay later, it's unlikely that complaints would trickle silently to HR. Geske says that, compared to North America, there is almost no hierarchy in workplace culture. You can basically tell your boss to piss off if he’s being irrational, because voicing your opinion is considered productive, and feeling intimidated by your boss is considered, well, pathetic.
On the flip side, the Dutch find Americans confusing and passive aggressiveI went to a bar in Brooklyn the other week and approached two handsome men at the counter. They turned out to be Dutch (shocker) and visiting their girlfriends (because when do these situations ever work out?). They said they loved New York; everyone was friendly and the city was exciting and -- oh god, no, they would never actually live here. In New York, they insisted, your job was your identity, human connections feel less intimate, and those goddamn sirens never cease.
Of course, New York City is hardly representative of the whole country, so I asked some Dutch people that have traveled around the US what they really thought of us. One NYU student named Lucas said, “Everybody is really friendly in Florida. Too friendly maybe. It’s just when things don’t warrant friendliness I wonder, do I have to act this way too or can I be normal?”
Maud, a Dutch expat who lived in Arizona for her year abroad, told me, “I really liked Arizona because of the people I lived with and the community. The only thing that bothered me [about the roommates] was that they never complained to my face. They would send me a text message or something, and then I confronted them to their face, like, ‘Hey those were not my dishes left in the sink,’ and it was as though I was calling them fat or something.”
But most Dutch people I asked said they didn’t feel close enough to any one American to rightly hold an opinion. Even though many of them went to school, taught, or lived around Americans, they confessed to not understanding us. Maybe there’s something to that; maybe our efforts to be polite and get people to like us are actually backfiring.
“The only thing that bothered me [about Americans] was that they never complained to my face.”
A few months ago, a relative asked me if I was soooo happy to be back in the States. I told her no, I was content but not over the moon. After she nervous-giggled, I realized our conversation had a ready script -- unspoken protocol I was supposed to follow, like when someone asks “how you are” so that you can reply “Good, how are you?” and they can be good, too. As I continued to respond to beauty-parlor talk with the truth, I noticed how isolated and vulnerable I felt in the face of a PSA (Permanently Smiling American). No wonder we put up a wall of rainbows in the States. Negativity is a plague here.
But it’s hard to stop smelling once you realize something stinks. I saw the PSA everywhere: Morning Show hosts that flipped their frowns once they’d finished announcing a wildfire in California; clients who phrased “Do this over please” as “While I believe the effort was valliant, and I so love your dress by the way, I think this piece might need a tiny revision of the entire thing. A rewrite?”
This might explain the radical honesty movement, made popular in the States by Dr. Brad Blanton, author of Radical Honesty, How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth. He believes the root of most suffering is living disingenuously.
And now for a radically honest conclusionTo prepare for this article, I called Cas, the most honest Dutchman I know. When I asked him for an example of when his honesty might have startled somebody, he shared that his openness about drug experimentation and porn addiction were often met with some awkward pauses. My American lips started parting with the question, “Do you want me to include that?” before I realized the irony.
“The interesting thing is that we develop expectations of what will happen if we say what we’re thinking,” said Cas, “We imagine all kinds of horror stories about what might come of it.” Cas believes that keeping our opinions in the dark does not make them disappear -- it just makes them rot. “When you actually speak your mind and be okay with your thoughts and feelings, then often you will be met with understanding.”
So here goes nothing: I’m writing this piece so I’ll seem cool, funny, and cultured to my employers… and you. I imagine some Dutch people might get upset, or my ex-partners feel exploited, or my father taken aback that I have more sex than he thought I did. Most importantly, I hope that you’ll share this with everyone on social media, so I can become famous and rich enough to pay off my student loans.
Let’s go Dutch, y’all.