Friendships or Networks in the Netherlands? (part 2)

Friends having a fightIn Part 1 we discussed the case of two Southern European expats who tried to initiate friendships with Dutch colleagues, but ended up rejected, astonished and distressed.  That’s the consequence of not

knowing the kind of relationships valued in the Netherlands. Once you are aware of this, you can decide how you, as an expat, can behave to benefit from the Dutch reality.

The Dutch way

Dutch people grow up in a typical WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) society. Cross-cultural psychology also uses the term Individualistic society (I-focused). Newcomers from less-WEIRD (e.g., South-East Europeans, Chinese, Japanese) societies experience more difficulties than those coming from other WEIRD societies (UK, US, Australia).

New, loose and free of obligations

The Dutch are open to everything new, including relationships. New contacts offer chances for personal development. They are alien to ideas of stable, trusted and mutual obligation feelings: Personal freedom is the key value. No obligations to one’s family, for example, should constrain children’s choices. They hate words as ‘must’ and ‘should’. ‘Niets moet alles mag’. A good translation is missing but it’s like: Nothing has to, everything is allowed’!.

Personal development matters

Jose once proudly said while showing me something she had made in her pottery class: “I would rather devote my time to learn something than to social contacts”. Until then, I had failed to think of this as a dilemma. The Netherlands lacks tradition in gathering and eating together, while in other cultures it is essential way of life and for maintaining friendships. Here, when someone invites you for dinner, this can be because he himself enjoys cooking. Not just South-East Europeans, but also French and Americans also complain that Dutch colleagues do not invite them.

Short-term and flexible

Many connections are made in the context of specific interests e.g., sport, hobbies. Connections change periodically and last as long as one’s membership is active. According to the Social Networks Study of NWO1 the Dutch replace almost half of their personal connections (48%) every seven years. Here, “personal” means people you talk to about important personal issues, help you with DIY in your home, you pop by to see etc.

One-by-one individual connections

When we asked Dutch adults and children to describe “what does ‘We’ mean for you personally” they often mention a single friend like: ‘Paul, my best friend’. They describe family members like: ‘Me and my mother’, ‘Me and my brother Olivier’, ‘Me and my sister Anne’. Instead, South-East European or Asian persons would answers: ‘my friends’, ‘my family’. The difference is subtle, but essential: ‘me in a one-to-one separate relationship’ versus ‘me as part of the group I belong to’ (friends). The Individual itself is THE value. They selectively invite individuals, e.g. Peter, Marlijn, to a birthday, and children invite so too not the whole class. In less individualistic cultures people invite ‘all friends’ and it is neither easy nor acceptable to exclude some of them.

Less frequent, structured and goal-specific

Telephone calls within family and friends are much less frequent compared to South-East Europeans or Asians. According to the CBS (Centraal Bureau for Statistics, 2006), over the last 35 years, Dutch devote less and less time to friends, especially visiting each other.
Calls just about ‘how are you’ are not usual either. In addition, you do something specific together: you go out to drink, to a cultural event. Anne goes out once a month with a fixed group of friends from her studies. Each one in turn, will find out what is worth seeing and make all the necessary arrangements. Hanging around is for teenagers and often threatening for locals

Volunteer work

On the other hand, an amazing percentage of Dutch people (45%, CBS) older than 15 years devote time to voluntary work. This may sound paradoxical, but is not. Dutch feel useful, efficient and social. They participate in their society. They do not help just their friends. But, you should do it professionally, not emotionally: Maya, who does volunteer work in a retirement home is strictly advised to avoid any personal conversations.

Rational versus emotional

Relationships of love and support may be risky and damaging. They make vulnerable individuals and do not help them in taking risks. Not the same in all WEIRD cultures. For example, emotional support within the American family is appreciated.
Such ideas are conflicting with what non-individualists believe: Friends without support are not friends. They contribute to positive feelings (well-being, self-confidence). Obviously, such contrasting differences have major implications for psychological counselling.

What expats should do? My advice in random order

– Follow the Dutch: Notice how they behave with others. Do not expect from them what they do not do with each other. Go through the sub-titles once again.

– Be flexible and stay cool: Get the messages from the Dutch reality. Yes you can. The less WEIRD society you come from the more encoded you are for dealing effectively with unpredictable situations. Life has learned you and you are strongly situation-sensitive. Keep in mind: Behavioral adaptability is emotional adaptability.

– Separate personal from professional life

– Be selective: You don’t have to adopt everything. Negotiations within yourself are the most difficult. Your choice: ‘Take it or Leave it’.

– Value your own culture: Keep whatever is important for you. Expect emotional support from those with whom you share ideas about friendships

You started a long trip where ‘Change is your only constant’ as Herákleitos said 2.500 years ago, who also added ‘from the conflict between the opposites comes out the most beautiful harmony’. I will add: Your mind and your heart are more flexible than you think.
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Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, Gerald Mollenhorst

14 November 2014,  written for IamExpat.nl