I am an American citizen. I am also a Dutch citizen. This means I get to pick and choose which passport I want to travel on, and when I want to identify either the Dutch or the Americans as a ‘they’, or as an ‘us’. Since I currently live in the UK, I often find myself talking about both the Dutch and Americans as ‘they’ these days. Today, however, I’ll be wearing my Dutch hat.
When I moved to the Netherlands seven years ago I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pretty confident that my status as a long-time TCK would help me to deal with whatever came my way. I am used to being immersed in new cultures (for better or for worse), and I am used to having to adapt and fit in quickly. What I definitely didn’t expect was that I would learn a thing or two from the Dutch about this process.
When choosing a nationality for the character of Goldmember (in the 2002 movie of the same title), Mike Myers wanted someone from ‘a place that nobody has an axe to grind with’. How do you develop that kind of status as a nation? Partly by financing half the world and providing vital trade to the other half, partly by becoming known as ‘that place where weed is legal’ (again, a savvy sales tactic), and partly by encouraging its citizens to become expert blenders.
So here, as my gift to you, is the Dutchman’s three-step guide to fitting in. Use it wisely.
Make being normal a competitive sport
How do you get noticed in the Netherlands? If you want to do it in a positive way, the best way is to be as normal as possible. There are at least four well-known sayings about it, but the best-known of these is doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg – literally ‘just be normal, then you’re already crazy enough’. Some have called being normal the nation’s primary pastime. And don’t worry – the Dutch have a Civic Integration programme and exam to help you figure out exactly how to be normal.
Sometimes this innate desire for normalcy hides deep social problems, and it can be very off-putting if you come from a culture (or cultures) that don’t encourage you to go with the flow. It can feel like your identity is being sucked away. But sometimes it’s pretty effective.
In typically Calvinist fashion, the Dutch take the concept of ‘being normal’ to ridiculous extremes. It’s not at all unusual to walk past a Dutch house and see the following:
It’s not that the Dutch don’t have curtains, it’s just that they don’t use them. If people are allowed to look in (and you’re allowed to look out), then we can all see just how normal everyone is. If you close the curtains, Dutch logic goes, you must have something to hide. Which brings be to my next point.
Let it all hang out
If modestly shutting yourself in and hiding doesn’t show how normal you are, letting it all hang out must be the answer. At the Rotterdam office I worked in for two years, we had a neighbour we called the naaktloper (‘nude walker’). This was because he enjoyed walking around his house wearing very little clothing, and rather than seeing this as something particularly strange, my co-workers were amused in a positive, almost affectionate way. This is because the Dutch value directness, a quality that has been given many less flattering names as well. Once you’ve qualified as ‘normal’, you can pretty much get away with anything.
Basically, the Dutch glorify shamelessness, which only works because we take every opportunity to shame each other. If your clothing choice is bad, someone will tell you (though their feedback isn’t always reliable). You’re respected for having an opinion, and voicing it, even if no one agrees with you. When you fail, you’re expected to own up to your mistakes. If you don’t, someone else will definitely call you out on it.
This may not seem like the best blending tactic at first blush, but it ties in closely with my final tip:
Make fun of yourself
Dutch humour relies almost exclusively on mockery. Sometimes this involves mocking others, but usually self-mocking is employed. This is subtly different from self-loathing, which doesn’t fit in with the Dutch love of shamelessness. Sarcasm and black humour also top the list, though irony is often too incompatible with Dutch directness.
When you’re laughing at yourself, it’s more difficult for others to laugh at you in a way that’s not at least partly affectionate. And people we can laugh with are people we can live with. If fitting in (while still having a chance to stand out) is something you’re aiming for, it can’t hurt to give the Dutch model a try.
Now, go forth and be gezellig!