Photo: S-F/Shutterstock

6 Cultural Observations After Living in Amsterdam

by Benny Lewis May 7, 2014
On that famous Dutch tolerance

I was told that 30% of Amsterdam is foreigners; it’s one of the strongest expat communities I’ve ever seen in almost a decade on the road. So much so that you can (and people do) live in the city for years, and learn no Dutch and even make no Dutch friends.

The vast majority of other foreigners there were content in their English speaking “bubble” and had created full lives for themselves within it. The Dutch have no problem whatsoever with this. In fact, they almost encourage it!

The Dutch are famous for how tolerant they are. A large part of their history involves welcoming foreigners to the country and allowing them to continue living lives as they choose (in old times this being freedom in religion; nowadays in cultural background, sexual orientation, etc).

Such values surely inspired those who aspired for similar things in the New World, as the first pilgrims for America sailed from Leiden, not far from Amsterdam, towards what is now New York, which was appropriately called New Amsterdam for quite some time.

Even to this day I find the Dutch sense of samenleving (community / living together) gives great respect to an individual’s freedom to live life as he or she chooses — much more so than in other countries, including those that claim to be the freest in the world.

On just letting people be

But there’s one consequence of this open-mindedness: To allow people to do as they please, sometimes you should leave them to it. And this other side of the respect coin creates a big divide between the Dutch and the foreigners in the city. There are huge communities of foreigners, and they almost never interact with the Dutch beyond necessities.

To give people total freedom, it seems you have to take away any encouragement to integrate. Throughout Dutch history there was no pressure on foreigners to learn Dutch, both officially (to live there), and in social interactions.

This means that many Dutch people have no problem speaking to you in English. Some foreigners misinterpret this to mean they won’t speak to you in Dutch, not realising it’s entirely their own fault and that if you try a few things, you can encourage them to help you learn their language.

This means there’s a strong tendency among foreigners to stick together and never make local friends — a cycle that propagates itself. There’s a great balance in Amsterdam, and it’s working, so people keep it up. The Dutch are used to not interacting much with foreigners, and the foreigners are used to not interacting with them. So when they come together, they may not get any further than superficial pleasantries.

On living apart, together

But it goes deeper than that.

Dutch people are incredibly friendly and would always ask me with genuine curiosity what I was doing in the Netherlands. They gave me the time and patience to help me with their language, never switching to English when they saw how invested I was in speaking to them, despite my poor level at the start, and asked me many interesting and intelligent questions.

And then, unfortunately, most of the time it would end there. They would look at their agenda and see they had no time if I requested to meet up that week again. Moreover, after showing me respect and hearing I would be leaving soon, it just seemed impractical to try to create a deeper relationship. Why would you when the person is just passing through?

When you think about this, I suppose it makes sense. It’s hardly something to criticise, but it was terribly frustrating for me. Someone suggested to me before I went that the Dutch were not so friendly, and I disagree. They’re just more practical than other cultures.

On a different approach to being social

While it has serious disadvantages for me personally as a passer-through, I can see how this can be a smart choice — you have a select number of friends whom you hold very dear and whom you meet frequently and have very deep relationships with. I personally don’t relate to a way of life that excludes being open to making new friends easily, but it’s not my place to judge others.

While I can complain about this, and whine about the Dutch being “closed off,” I don’t tend to travel to new countries to investigate reasons to complain about why they aren’t like other ones. I prefer to try to see the positive in everything, and I can indeed see that in the Dutch.

Despite the difficulty in making friends with them, I’d actually argue that the Dutch are more social than most of us. And this is encouraged from an early age.

One thing I found quite strange, for example, was that while my flatmate left the door on the street open so he could move things in and out, some children from the neighbourhood I’d never seen before ran in, ran up the stairs, barged into my room and demanded I give them some sweets. Amazingly, this happened twice!

A fear of strangers just isn’t Dutch. They’re encouraged to get out of the house and do things as much as possible. As a result of this, they’re generally way more at ease in social situations than other cultures and are great at making conversation in a relaxed manner.

On the agenda

They’re so social, in fact, that they need to organise themselves to make sure they can fit everyone into their active weeks. And this leads to the agendas issue that drove me so crazy. I suppose the rest of us are “less” social, so we have room to be spontaneous and meet up with someone immediately, but the Dutch (at least those I met) would have social events, dinners, coffees, walks, clubs, excursions, sport, family events, nights out, and everything else after work programmed in advance. When you have so much to do, you live life to the fullest!

This is great and it’s something I feel I’ll take a little of with me in the future, as I finally embraced the agenda lifestyle out of necessity to socialise on their level. I did indeed eventually (grudgingly) arrange to meet people several weeks in advance so we could hang out.

There’s a certain advantage to being organised in this way. It forces you to be more social and interact more than most of us in the Western world do with TV nights in, hours wasting time online, and lack of coordination with those you want to see properly. Although, I also have a great love for serendipity and spontaneity, so I’ll always try to leave my immediate calendar open now that I’ll be living among other cultures again.

On really getting to know them

It was quite a struggle to have them squeeze me into these agendas; I even went as far as coming up with unique ideas to get some “Dutch practice time,” like going on 25 speed dates. In case you’re wondering how it turned out; I eventually got three jas, and after a lot of email exchanges, one of them finally agreed to have our second date three weeks from then. Considering the date she proposed was yesterday when I was already over 5,000 miles away, I never did get to discover that other type of deep relationship with a Dutch person…

But once I stopped fighting the very idea of agendas and organising far in advance and learned to go with the flow and use a calendar app more frequently, I did get into their agendas. I had to work hard to convince them I was worth getting to know, but I was successful, and through this I can now call several Dutch people good friends of mine.

They were always straight and honest with me. This stood out quite a lot! While the lack of spontaneity killed my social life a bit, the fact that they were always true to their word and invited me out if they said they would and talked to me with a no-bullshit frankness I don’t get from oversensitive cultures meant I had a greater chance to build on the few relationships I did start having with locals.

Speaking the language definitely enriched my experience. It showed them (despite my dash through the country) I was serious about getting to know them, and if I made that investment in them, perhaps it was worth giving me the benefit of the doubt and investing in finding out more about me, too.

In many places, people casually say we should meet some time — numbers are exchanged, but it’s not always serious. With the Dutch, when someone was my friend, they really were one. It’s a sort of extreme where superficial and deep friendships are in much greater contrast to most places I’ve lived in. This article originally appeared on Fluent in 3 Months and is republished here with permission.

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