Living beside the Dutch

Friendly, but not a friend

For members of Groningen’s international community from more open cultures, the urge to close yourself off from the rest of society may not be limited to the dark days of winter. Clinical neuropsychology master’s student Marion Robinson posits that Dutch assertiveness and standoffish-ness may be more of a sign of a primitive society than an advanced one.
By Marion Robinson / Photo by Traci White

Like many non-Dutch residents before me who dared to venture into the heart of the tulip capital of the world, I have not yet escaped the ubiquitous opinion that Dutch nationals hold of themselves that they are ‘assertive’.

Assertiveness by Dutch standards means a professor pointedly saying that your opinion ‘doesn’t make sense’, or a fellow student unabashedly telling you that they ‘won’t have time to meet’ to complete a group assignment due in a few days, evidently failing to realise that their supposed inability to make time will mean someone else will have to work twice as hard.

‘Ja’ or ‘Nee’

These are but two examples where this characteristic pervades many interactions in the Netherlands, from the grand establishments of academia to the vending stalls on the Vismarkt. To my international ears, conversations appear clipped and robotic, more characterised by staccato delivery than feeling: there is barely any opportunity for any vibrancy or nuance not contained in the sterile ‘Ja’ or ‘Nee’.

The pulsating noise of island-life unabashedly proclaims: ‘Life is here’

As an island-girl, the difference in Dutch social interaction – both transient and sustained – is stark. It is evident in the half smiles and curt nods I receive when passing strangers and acquaintances alike, in contrast to the jubilant shouts, unreserved greetings, irreverent laughter and pulsating noise of island-life that unabashedly proclaims: ‘Life is here’. I see it in my interactions with professionals and transitory friends alike, which seem devoid of the warmth reserved for communal living. Perhaps rightly so, because the Dutch’s idea of ‘community engagement’ seems to amount to a staid journey to a bar for cigarettes and coffee – suitable only for delving into the shallowest of conversations.

Try as I may, I am beginning to realise that what I feel is missing cannot be summed up in words, but must be experienced. I tell myself that this forthrightness is perhaps tied to the inevitable loss of expansiveness in expression when non-native English speakers attempt to express themselves in English. Perhaps my interactions with a Dutch national are quite different from a Dutch person’s interaction with his fellow countryman.


I imagine the faltering expressions I would produce if I attempted to express myself in another language with which I have limited familiarity. In Spanish, Portuguese or even German, my lack of mastery would undoubtedly come across as acerbic to listeners – in the same way most Dutch nationals sound to me on the occasions when I feel the very palpable divide between speaker and listener.

But this is just my attempt to placate myself. My suppositions are negated first by the fact that most Dutch nationals are near-native English speakers and second by the fact that the Dutch inclination toward ‘assertiveness’ is not only experienced by native English-speakers or internationals, but is readily admitted to by Dutch nationals themselves.

I believe in the authenticity of communications that assertiveness inevitably brings

But I believe in forthrightness. As a student of psychology, I believe in the value of expressing one’s thoughts and ideas and have seen first-hand the detriments of unspoken truths. I believe in the authenticity of communications that assertiveness inevitably brings. Psychologists the world over teach their clients the value of being self-assured in their relations with themselves and others and how important this is to one’s mental health.

Personally, I have not altogether mastered being meek and mild. It’s been said before that some of the most rebellious and nonconformist people are from my island home of Jamaica, and I can clearly think of instances in the recent past when I have used my words and forthrightly unleashed the power therein. Consequently, I would not suggest that assertiveness per se is a bad thing.

I do believe, however, that in Dutch society – and perhaps in other societies built on the cultural tradition of independence rather than interdependence – the word ‘assertive’ masks something else that I am failing to sum up in a word. Whatever it is, it is a very different way of showing concern for others that borders dangerously on a lack of empathy and being downright offensive – primitive, even – especially to those with different assumptions about social engagement.

But verbal and social expressiveness are not the sum of the distinct difference that I feel as a student and a transient here. This forthrightness perhaps heralds individualism, personal independence and the self-reliance of the culture as a whole. That became undeniably pronounced when, as a student, I was thrown into the deep-end by seeing it first-hand when sharing living spaces with others.

Dutch people are ‘friendly enough’ but very rarely become your friend

Never before had I lived with anyone who was not a part of my family, so I may have subconsciously entered the living arrangements with a mind-set of communal living, rooted in the expectation that each person has a vested interest in the other’s well-being. Not so here. Instead, the individual demarcations were evident. The lines are drawn tightly around the invisible but very present individual spaces, giving credence to the shared opinion of many internationals that Dutch people are ‘friendly enough’ but very rarely become your friend.

In the odd and unsettling reality of not knowing my neighbours – and not knowing whether they are sick and need help, or whether they know if I have eaten or if I am starving – I wonder: what holds this society together? If not the care that people take to meaningfully invest in the lives of each other, what, then, can a successful society be established upon?

Interestingly, the Netherlands proffers inclusiveness, openness and acceptance of differences, but still appears to be at the mercy of an engrained culture of separatism and individualism expressed physically, socially and/or emotionally. It may not be evident to those within the culture, but it is very evident at a visceral and experiential level to those who come in contact with it.

If no other proof exists, the unmistakable impact of social and emotional exclusion is evidenced by a number of students from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa who have prematurely un-enrolled from their study programmes because the task of coping with not feeling welcomed, at home, accepted and a part of the fabric of this new country they had hoped to call home became an insurmountable challenge despite their best efforts.

Paradigm shift

With recent discussions on this topic in council meetings within the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences in mind, I recall a poignant conversation I had with a faculty member who tearfully recounted the experience of a former student who later committed suicide after returning home to Asia because – after acclimating to the norms, expectations and lifestyle of her new life in a new city and a new country – she was regrettably unable to fully reintegrate within her own culture upon her return home.

Danger lies in the ease with which one can unwittingly fall into an existence where the lines between assertiveness and aggressiveness, or individualism and collectivism, fail to function. If one is not vigilant, the undesirable aspects of cultural integration can inconspicuously seep in, causing a paradigm shift in beliefs, attitudes and perceptions.

For a brief moment recently, I found myself caring only about my own needs, wants and desires – living within society, but emotionally detached from it, from those around me and from my transient friends; ably adapting to my perception of the expectations of the culture in which I reside.

But I soon grew tired of ‘surface-living’; the curt nods and half smiles were able only for a moment to convince me that this would be the sum of my interactions with the people around me, who themselves may be hoping to break free of their individualistic bubble.

I found myself worrying about what would happen to me if I were to become ill at home. Would I suffer the same fate as the stories I’ve heard of people who died in their homes, unfound for weeks, as their neighbours minded their own business in their clearly marked out spaces of individualism and self-concern?

I rebelled against surrendering and allowing myself to be swept away by individualism

I decided that nothing good could ever come of completely denying the very characteristics upon which one’s selfhood is predicated. So, I rebelled – against throwing up my arms in surrender and allowing myself to be swept away by individualism.

In my rebellion, I began deliberately making eye contact with my fellow commuters. I say ‘Hello!’ to them, forcing them to engage. In my one-woman quest to break free of the status quo, I approach policemen and speak to them and pet their horses; I have a laugh with my supermarket cashier; I speak to homeless men, listen to their jokes and tales of their daily commute traversing the city; I offer to push a disabled man’s wheelchair; and one of these days, when I am a little more assured that I will be viewed as no more than 50 per cent insane for doing it, I will knock on my neighbours’ doors and invite them all over to my house to have Sunday dinner.

Assertive or primitive?

Psychology and life have taught me enough that I have come to believe that, despite the mirage of disengagement that pervades Dutch society; despite the fact that my international friends felt that these invitations to socialise were thwarted when no one accepted; despite those internationals brave enough to publicly voice their feelings of isolation in this vibrant city: despite all this, I believe that people are inherently social beings and therefore possess the same needs, with the one difference perhaps being the manner in which this need is expressed.

So on days when the quietude all around me whispers isolation and the lines of the space within which I am supposed to stay seem obvious, I imagine assertiveness as conscious attempts to break free of culturally-imposed independence and individualism in favour of a similitude of interdependence and purposeful engagement in each other’s lives.

I once heard that the more advanced a society becomes, the less the people within it will need each other – which makes me wonder whether we are fleeing from a primitive society or advancing towards it. Perhaps we are already there.

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