Collin Arocho

Collin Arocho is a technology editor at Bits&Chips.

7 October 2019

“The others seem to be enthusiastic about you joining the team, but I’m still not so certain,” were the first words out of the Director’s mouth. This was my first job interview since moving to the Netherlands from the US. “It seems like Americans are extremely sensitive about almost everything. Are you?” he continued. This style of communication really caught me off-guard. His words rang like dissonance to my ears. How do I respond to this? Was that an insult? What does me being an American have to do with sensitivity? One thing was sure, this was one heck of an introduction to the Dutch labor market.

As the conversation went on, the direct line of questioning continued. “What’s going to happen when one of us tells you that your work is ‘lousy’?” It wasn’t until this very moment that it dawned on me what he was getting at. Actually, it was a very reasonable question to ask of any potential employee. Though his style seemed a little crude and left me somewhat befuddled, he was simply asking about a competence needed for this line of work: handling criticism. This was a crash course in cultural communications, a lesson that I’m certain never to forget.

In my short time working as a technology editor, I’ve actually come to be a fan of the Dutch style of communication. People in this country don’t mince words and they say exactly what’s on their mind. While it takes me out of my comfort zone and definitely takes some getting used to – something I’m still working to do – this sort of direct dialogue can be very helpful as you almost always know exactly where you stand.

In fact, the Dutch are incredibly good at letting me know, I’m clearly a foreigner. I’m not exactly sure what it is about asking people how they are when I see them in the morning, but the response of disgruntled grumbles do not go unnoticed. It’s been brought to my attention from my colleagues that it feels too ‘American’ or comes off as disingenuous – more Dutch directness – but it comes from a good place and I mean it when I ask. I’m just friendly by nature, is that what too American means?

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As the outgoing, expatriated new guy, I have to say, it’s not so much receiving criticism that is the problem. Much more difficult for me is delivering this sort of feedback. How are you supposed to criticize the person that signs your check? How do you tell the experts that have been at it for years that you just don’t see it like them? That’s quite an interesting learning curve – and I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Another cultural difference: is it just me, or do lowlanders really seem to love their meetings? “Let’s get together and discuss it some more, this week, next week and again next month” – seems to be an ongoing theme in the Dutch workplace. Can’t we just make a decision already? Do we really need to discuss it again?

The reality is, yes, decisions could be made faster. The boss could, after all, just decide and move on. But what I’ve learned is, that’s not how things work in the Netherlands. I’m not entirely sure where the antiauthoritarianism stems from, but one thing is clear, the Dutch simply don’t like hierarchy. The power structure, much like the entire country, is flat, and decisions are a group effort where consensus is key.

Of course, when bringing all these strong opinions together, there’s bound to be disagreements, friction and more than enough complaining – is anyone ever happy with the weather? But rather than getting stuck in the trap of political correctness, the Dutch can always be counted on to give it to you straight, which works wonders in the business world where making progress is what counts.