No, You Can’t Ask Me That!

When you think about the typical characteristics of the Dutch, one of the first things that you’re sure to hear is how the Dutch are oh-so-direct! “You’ve got stuff between your teeth!” So ruthless and straight to the point. Us Americans, we’re polite, we’ll let you smile to the world with a celery stub in the middle of your pearly whites. What else can you do?

I, being someone who generally enjoys honesty, thought this was a great trait! Yes, please, tell me when my pants are unflattering or if my lipstick shade is too bright. I take it in stride and I’d rather know what you’re thinking at all times rather than having to guess. And then, I actually moved to the Netherlands and was in for a little bit of a shock. My partner, a friend of hers, and I were having dinner at our place. The conversation was pretty normal, and at some point we got to talking about how it’s difficult for us late 20 to 30 somethings to buy a house these days, especially since it’s not uncommon to have student loans! Now, I’m against how ridiculously expensive an education is in the US, so I immediately begin my, “Oh. My. Gosh. Yes, you have no idea, it’s so fucking expensive in the US!” And then, out of nowhere it happened. The friend, this nice, lovely person, looks at me and does the unthinkable. She says, “Can I ask you how much your student loans are?” I was so stunned that I couldn’t think of anything to reply except, “No, you may not.” Which didn’t exactly make the conversation less awkward. And the weird thing is, I’m normally an open person, but as an American, I have internalized the idea that you DO NOT ask people about anything related to money. My first response was defense.

After this happened, I got to thinking, is it really so bad to talk about money? Why don’t we do it in the US? I know many cultures where people are actually open about this kind of thing, but there’s nothing to hide or be embarrassed about. Or is there? Is that why Americans guard their information with such secrecy? I have no idea. There was one other time when I was taken aback by a question like that. I went to a queer meet up — because, I’m suuuuper gay and that’s what super gays do — and among a group of internationals and local Dutch, we started talking about where we live, and I mentioned that I live fairly centrally in the city. And the next thing I knew, the Dutch at the table, who I had just met that night, asked me what I paid for rent. No hesitation, just straight up curiosity thrown in my face. What made it better that time, though, was that the woman followed it up with a smile saying, “it’s okay, we’re Dutch, we’re extremely straightforward.” And that just made me laugh. In return, of course, I shot the question right back at them! If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! And then I was happy I gained some information about the rental situation in various parts of the Netherlands.

So, what is it? Why are the Dutch so open about certain things and the Americans so closed off? I can’t answer that, obviously, but I do know that I’ve begun to see the benefits of discussing topics like salaries. If you can get around the who-makes-more and who-makes-less awkwardness, you can actually use that information to your advantage. For instance, if your friend has a similar job to you and makes more, you can use that information to decide to negotiate your salary at work. Someone you know pays less rent? Find out what the hell they’re doing right! I know that because others were happy to share their financial details with me when I first moved to the Netherlands, I wasn’t lost on details like what I should expect to pay for a one-bedroom apartment. Thanks, guys!

So the Dutch directness— is it just the Dutch being rude? Well, to offer my opinion on this, I don’t think they are. Since the culture one is in determines what topic is sensitive or totally off-limits, the Dutch directness to me appears to simply stem from the fact that there just aren’t too many subjects the Dutch are shy about. Let’s consider rebranding them as “open” instead of direct because the least I can say about them is that they are willing to take what they dish out. Be rest assured that you can definitely ask back the same questions! And soon you’ll find yourself getting used to the Dutch way of being direct. And if not, well, you’re in for a long ride.

One thought on “No, You Can’t Ask Me That!

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  1. There is a slight problem with that statement, particularly with American tourists. Yep, direct as hell. Probably also the reason why most of my friends shy away from meeting them up close and personal. Within my ‘group/clan’ most speak English and do that rather well. That poses a problem when an American asks for help finding things like directions or personal stuff. The number of times I tried to be helpful in Amsterdam only to get a sarcastic reply, and not even the ironic ones the English perfectly happy to dish out, when I consequently change my demeanour and walk away, I am the one who is rude! I can deal with the English by saying I’m a tourist myself, Americans, I do walk from immediately.


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