Dutch business culture and etiquette; egalitarian, individualistic, direct
by Eleonore Breukel www.intercultural.nl
How we look upon and judge the lifestyle and workplace of other cultures depends on how we view the world from our own cultural background.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands is a small country with a limited internal market, consequently the Dutch look across their borders for markets. They started out as worldwide maritime traders in the 16th century and today they are still significant players in the global economy.
The Netherlands or Holland, and the Dutch
The Netherlands, (the low countries) are often mistakenly referred to as Holland. North Holland and South Holland are now only two of the 12 provinces of the Netherlands. At various times in history the name of the area called “Holland” was taken to be the name of the Country. E.g. 1806-1810 Kingdom of Holland. Today most Dutch refer to their country as The Netherlands however foreigners often call these low lands Holland.
In the English language, the people of the Netherlands are called the “Dutch” (de Nederlanders) and their language is called “Dutch” (Nederlands). The word Dutch comes from the old Dutch word Dietsch and the German word Deutsch.
The Dutch language
Dutch is a Germanic language belonging to the Indo-European language family. 22 million people speak Dutch. In the Netherlands, in the northern part of Belgium, on the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, in Suriname and some in South Africa.
The Netherlands is, with its 17 million people, one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Everyday life is structured down to the smallest detail. Private life and work are carefully planned and little is left to the unexpected. Ad hoc changes are not appreciated but dealt with if necessary. The Netherlands is a multicultural society. People of all ethnicities bring color to the Dutch streets. Integration has not always been successful. There live 1.5 million immigrants (2015) in the Netherlands. One million of them is Muslim.
Although 80% of the ethnic Dutch do not attend church. The influence of Calvinism is still seen in the values and beliefs of the Dutch. Calvinism dictated the individual responsibility for moral salvage from the sinful world through introspection, honesty, soberness, rejection of ‘pleasure’ as well as the ‘enjoyment’ of wealth. Therefore, extremes are still absent in society. Political extremes, extreme emotions, extreme richness maybe will not be shown nor will extravagant lifestyles. Some money may be spent for pleasure but frequent vacations abroad, comfortable houses and safe cars are preferred above luxury items or luxurious clubs and restaurants. The Dutch are mistakenly known in the world as stingy. In reality they simply hate to waste anything from food to money. Maybe it is this virtue that made this small country a strong economic power. Today however all this is changing fast.
Egalitarian society, status and authority
The Netherlands has an egalitarian society. Status and respect are obtained through study and hard work and not through family ties or old age. Every person is equal and should be treated accordingly in identical situations, according to the constitution, which may be difficult to understand for many foreigners.
As a Brazilian General Manager expatriate in the Netherlands remarked “I am happy that my Dutch personnel did not throw me out of the office the first months I worked in Amsterdam. As top manager in Rio, I barely spoke to my lower personnel. I was used to giving orders and being served. In Amsterdam I learned that I have the right to carry the weight of my responsibility as a General Manager but I certainly have no right to expect special treatment from my staff. As The Netherlands is an egalitarian society, the Dutch have big problems accepting hierarchy.
- Cross level communication or collaboration is normal.
- Only some companies use academic titles on their business cards.
- Throughout all layers of society and business, people call each other by the first name.
Many foreigners think the Dutch way of working is time consuming as no one can be given a quick order or instructions without explaining why. In order to deliver good work, the Dutch like to consider the risks and consequences of everything they do, well in advance. They will ask for detailed information. In the case something does go wrong the Dutch individual will take full responsibility for the consequences. In the case of success, of course, they will take the full credit.
Decision making and Consensus
The Dutch are famous for the many hours a week they spend in meetings. Decision making processes are complex. Everyone involved needs to be heard. In the end a compromise will be reached in which everyone agrees. Once agreed upon, the work can progress steadily. Therefore, changes are usually lengthy processes. Most Dutch organizations have a rather flat structure. Due to the globalization and working across borders, structures become more vertical.
Today we see that more decisions are made at the top however a decision can never be made without hearing everyone involved.
- In business and in private life no decisions are taken unless all involved agree, or agree to consensus.
- During business meetings opinions are aired and decisions are taken.
- Before closing a meeting, each individual participant is asked if he would like to say something.
The contrary takes place when doing business abroad. They usually have the individual authority to close deals on the spot without consulting the head office in the Netherlands. Dutch global traders are much more flexible abroad than at their home office.
The Dutch directness in the communication with foreigners regularly causes misunderstandings. Unable to make things understood through context and unable to read context, the Dutch express themselves verbally in a rather direct communication style.
They speak on a friendly tone in rather short clear sober sentences lacking any form of politeness or courtesy. The Dutch are distrustful of very polite conversations, afraid that an unpleasant message may be hidden which they are unable to detect. Transparency in communication is key. Being very nice may awaken the suspicion that one is in need of a special favor. Politeness may also cause irritation as it is considered a waste of time.
- Communication should be linear and very direct.
- Emotion and non-verbal communication is minimal compared to many countries.
- Ask people what they think instead of waiting for a non-verbal sign.
- The Dutch are distrustful of many compliments and very polite conversation.
Loss of Face
The Dutch expect others to be open and direct like them. They will tell you what they think of you and criticize your work indifferent of your status if you are a superior or a subordinate. They expect you to criticize their work in return, honestly and in a direct communication style. If you detect mistakes in their work and you do not inform them about these mistakes they will be disappointed in you. The Dutch do not feel ashamed when you inform them of a mistake. On the contrary they feel that you give them the opportunity to correct and thus improve themselves. In the end one learns from his mistakes. Loss of face is a rather unknown concept in the Dutch society when compared to other cultures.
- The Dutch expect you to tell them what you think of them and criticize their work.
- Be prepared as they will criticize you and your work as well, indifferent of your status.
Who is the Client
The Dutch have a 36-40-hour week. Foreigners often have the impression that the Dutch are not very service-minded. This may seem so because in most countries the client has a preferential position above the sales person and therefore in that particular situation, a higher status. In the Netherlands however, goods and services are exchanged on an equal basis. Sales persons feel free to openly disagree and criticize their clients. Dutch customer service calls for improvement.
The Dutch love time off to spend with their partner, kids and friends, for vacation or to study. Therefore, they will prefer to reduce working hours instead of having an increase in salary. Vacation days, depending on the labor contract run from 21 to as many as 40 working days a year. Expats on foreign work-contracts in the Netherlands complain that they are always in the office while the Dutch are on vacation.
Concept of Time
Being very organized and time conscious, one has to plan business appointments usually four to six weeks ahead, with bosses, clients and colleagues. As for the private agenda the Dutch plan an evening at the cinema with their best friend three weeks ahead. Of course, there is no such thing as just “dropping by to say hello”.
The Netherlands is the only country where they have breakfast twice. Your business lunch may consist of some slices of bread with a glass of milk. You continue working while having lunch at the meeting table. Large lunches are considered a waste of time.
Despite having a very open society with 17 million individualists, when it comes to the family nucleus it is a hermetically closed circle. The family nucleus is detached from the extended family. Adult brothers and sisters usually see each other only on birthday celebrations, weddings and funerals.
- The Dutch may have great work relationships with their colleagues but rarely invite them to their homes. Work and private life are often strictly separated.
- Nor do Dutch businessmen feel the obligation to entertain foreign businessmen visiting their company after business hours.
- With all this planning and structuring little is left to the unexpected. Therefore, Dutch people do not excel in improvising. However, they have an adventurous mind and dare to take risks in business which requests flexibility.
- Despite the strong Calvinist background and a disapproval of extremes, homosexual-marriages, adoption by homosexual couples, abortion, euthanasia as well as sex on TV and legalized soft drugs are part of daily life.
- Watch your words; at a café one drinks coffee, beer or other drinks. At a coffee shop one purchases legal soft drugs.
Your global virtual team
Are you French, Japanese, Indian, German, Chinese, American or any other nationality your Dutch team leader expects from his team;
- Openness and transparency.
- Assertiveness and pro-activeness.
- Direct and linear communication.
- To take initiative and individual responsibility.
- To be comfortable with ‘not’ receiving instructions of the team leader.
- To ask whenever something is not clear.
- A friendly atmosphere and collegiality.
- To be loyal to the team.
- To keep to deadlines. If you cannot make the deadline inform the team leader well ahead of time.
- To criticize him and other team members when mistakes are made so that lessons may be learned from the mistakes made.
- Sharing of information within the team.
- Not to copy the team leader in your emails to others unless you are requested to do so
© Eleonore Breukel
authority communication style direct Dutch egalitarian expat hierarchy intercultural leadership Netherlands