In Defense of Dutch Directness

If you were someone’s guest and didn’t love the food that they served, would you tell them? 

I was recently at a dinner party with Dutch friends and was asked, “How’s the food?” Although the salmon was too dry, I smiled through my distaste and politely nodded. She saw right through me and laughed, “How American of you.”

I was surprised to find that I was expected to say I didn’t love the food rather than pretend I did. But having a Dutch background, I picked up on this difference in communication styles more often: the Dutch are very direct, and Americans are not. 

Politeness is something deeply ingrained in my American culture– we are afraid of offending others and often become indirect and even dishonest in our efforts to be polite. The Dutch, on the other hand, are much more transparent. Few topics are off-limits to discuss. Perhaps this transparency has to do with the fact that the Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe: the tightly packed houses and the famed Dutch aversion to curtains cultivates a different notion of privacy. I’m not surprised when I hear people openly discussing personal health issues or their sex lives over a cup of coffee. When I was an awkward tween, I remember being mortified when my grandmother bluntly asked in front of my extended family if I had gotten my period yet. 

Being raised by Dutch parents, I’ve had a few experiences with this blunt style of communication. But since moving from California to Utrecht a few months ago, I’ve come to realize how a dose of directness can go a long way. 

Last semester, I was enrolled in a brand new class at the UU. A few weeks into the course, the professor asked us to evaluate his teaching thus far. I was surprised when I realized the professor was not going to leave the room and leave behind some anonymous surveys, as is done in the States. Another student from California told him what she liked about the course, and then added, in a somewhat convoluted way, what he could “maybe, possibly, sort of, kind of” be doing better. 

Then, the Dutch students weighed in.

“This course is far too easy for a level three course.”

“Your grading system needs to be changed.”

“I have learned nothing useful in this course so far.”

My eyes widened, and I could feel the American girl tense up next to me. But what sounded like a string of insults to us, was standard constructive criticism for them. We shared the same opinions, but they voiced them in a much stronger and more direct way. Nobody, including the professor, seemed phased or uncomfortable by their bluntness. He took their comments and implemented their suggestions– their directness resulted in a better learning experience. 

Not only is directness more productive, but it can also help us connect more deeply with those around us. In the States, a lot of daily interactions feel scripted and leave it hard to connect with people on a deeper level. When waiters ask how the food is, you’re expected to say “it’s great!” When people ask “How are you?” you’re expected to say, “I’m good, you?” 

I’ve found that living here in the Netherlands, there’s no pressure to pretend to be happy all the time. It’s okay to not love the food. It’s okay to not be “good.” Often times, I’ve found that voicing your honest opinion leads the conversation down a much more interesting path. The Dutch culture of honest talk, while it does take some getting used to, allows for more authentic conversations and often results in some pretty good stories to tell.