Friday, 31 May 2013

Going Dutch

I was recently tweeted a link to How Culture Shapes the Office, a paper by Christine Congdon and Catherine Gall published in the Harvard Business Review. I saw Catherine present the paper at last year’s WorkplaceTrends. I was impressed with the content and found it a sensible model with practical applications in workplace design. However, other conference participants unjustly criticised Catherine of cultural stereotyping.

The presentation and paper got me thinking about my own experiences of cultural differences. There are too many to mention in one blog. I touched on my experiences in japan in a previous blog on Vernacular Design,Climate, Culture and Teapots. In this blog I will focus on my views on the Dutch culture.  Rather than just state my findings, with the holiday season coming up, I have phrased them as travel tips for visiting the Netherlands.

So to begin with, did you notice that I wrote Netherlands rather than Holland? Tip #1 is to never say you are going to Holland to a Dutch person. They will think you are ignorant or stupid or both ignorant and stupid. Saying you are going to Holland rather than the Netherlands is like saying you are going to the Norfolk Broads rather than the UK. As a child I thought that the Netherlands was where Peter Pan and Tinkerbell lived, but apparently not.

According to Christine and Catherine's paper, the main differnce between the Dutch and English is that they are more feminine. Well, after my many visits to the Netherlands, holidaying there, working there, exploring the various cities, absorbing their unique culture, cogitating and deliberating (as Lloyd Grossman used to say), I have come to the conclusion that there is one fundamental difference between us Brits and the Dutch. And that is this: the Dutch put mayonnaise on their chips whereas we put ketchup on ours. Imagine that, mayonnaise on chips! Well I tried it and I have to say that I actually liked it - there is something quite continental about mayo on chips.
Also look out for sprinkles. The Dutch love their sprinkles. Those little chocolate or candy bits that we put on cakes, the Dutch put on cereals and toast or whatever they happen to be eating at the time. Sprinkles are like catnip to the Dutch. Anyway Tip #2 is do try the culinary delights of the Netherlands like mayo on chips, stroopwafels, babybell and sprinkles.

When I first went to the Netherlands with my very polite friend, he asked how you say “please” in Dutch. Well I looked through my Berlitz phrase book and found the translation was "alstublieft".  Well I couldn't read the word never mind pronounce it. The next word down in the book was "lelijk" so I panicked and said that instead. Unfortunately “lelijk” means “ugly”, so my friend went to the bar and asked for "drie biertjes lelijk". The Dutch are a tolerant race but they do not take kindly to being insulted in their own bars and we got kicked out. Tip #3 is don't try and learn Dutch on the hoof, most of them speak better English than us.

That brings me on to "coffee shops". The first time I and the same friend went to a "coffee shop" we were presented with a menu. My friend was into his Twinning’s teas so thought it great that you get a "coffee" menu. I read the menu, it listed Moroccan, Lebanese and Skunk. Being the well-travelled person that I am, I realised these weren't coffees and suggested to be safe we just stuck with the space cake. The first time I went to the Netherlands I was only supposed to go to Amsterdam for two days but it took me a week to find my way out of that city. Tip #4, "coffee shops" are not cafes in Amsterdam, they are the modern equivalent of opium dens, go for coffee with an open mind.

On that subject, Tip #5 is be aware of free gifts. The Heineken brewery in Amsterdam is a popular tourist destination. It used to cost 1 Guilder to enter (about 30p) and you could drink as much Heineken as you could consume without passing out. I remember saying "how do they make money on this" and spent the next 12 hours drinking Heineken in the local bars.

There is a lot of transportation modes available in Dutch cities - cars, buses, trams, barges and bikes. Tip #6 is keep your wits about you when crossing the road and bus-lane and tram-line and bike-lane and canal. I would say biking is the safest way to travel around the Netherlands except for one thing. The Dutch have cleverly designed the tram lines to be the exact same width as a bike tyre. From experience I can tell you that once you get your wheel caught in a tram line, it is only a matter of time before you have a nasty little accident.

Christmas is an interesting time in the Netherlands. I was staying with a Dutch friend around Christmas time and she told me to leave my shoes outside my bedroom door. I assumed she was being a good host and wanted to polish them but no, when I woke up my shoes were still dirty. However, they now had Christmas presents inside them. My friend explained that Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) visited during the night and because I was a good boy he had left me presents. Apparently if I had been a bad boy he would kidnap me, turn me black and send me to Sinterklaas's grotto (in Spain for some bizarre reason) for a year to make toys. It seems that child snatching and slave labour are still PC in the Netherlands. At Christmas the Dutch still blacken their faces and go around town giving out sweets to small children. Tip #7 is do not take offence, this is not the return of the black and white minstrels, it is a culturally unique celebration of Christmas.

Now if you are in the Netherlands in summer and getting hot, whilst sitting outside drinking Heineken or taking advantage of the "coffee shops", you might think I know I could do with a sun hat. You might also think I like the look of those little blue traditional barge caps. But Tip #8 is whatever you do, do not ask for a “Dutch Cap” as that is something quite different.

I hope you found my travel tips useful. Do visit the Netherlands, it is an interesting and wonderful place. But what has this go to do with the workplace I hear you say. Well it’s simply that we should understand and embrace local culture, no matter how weird it seems, rather than assume we are all the same and create standardised international homogenised working environments.

Feel free to leave comments on your unique cultural experiences in the Netherlands or elsewhere.

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