Dutch people can be blunt. You might say candid. Or maybe outspoken. Does forthright sound better? How about curt? Brusque may often be the way it feels, especially to a visitor.
I suppose the way you describe the phenomenon depends on how you experience it.
The Dutch people I have come to know during my first few weeks in the Netherlands don’t hesitate to say what’s on their minds. If they’re thinking it, they’ll probably say it, which can be a good thing. But not always.
Cultural stereotyping is almost never a good idea in my experience, but some generalizations about a culture are unavoidable. Last month, in my column, I wrote about the Dutch and their bicycles. It’s hardly a generalization to say that the Dutch love their bicycles when there are 24 million of them in a country of only 17 million people.
But to say that Americans are obsessed with guns (using a similar comparison between the number of guns and the size of the U.S. population) might make us feel uncomfortable. Still, there seems to be at least some truth behind most generalizations, including the one about Americans and their guns. Most people who have spent time in the Netherlands have been on the receiving end of more than one surprisingly personal comments.
“Why did you get your hair cut so short?” someone said to me, disapprovingly, after I had my first haircut at the neighborhood barbershop. I had been mostly pleased with how my hair looked, and I had enjoyed my conversation with the person who cut my hair. She spoke Arabic, French, and English, in addition to Dutch, and I found the entire experience enjoyable.
But my hair was short, and my new Dutch friend was merely stating the obvious. Why not say it?
Good question. Many Americans — and I’ll generalize further here by saying, many Midwesterners — prefer to be polite. We keep our opinions to ourselves, especially if we think those opinions might not be welcome. The result can be, and often is, a lot of dancing around what seems obvious to everyone — like a really short haircut.
For Midwesterners, the most important value seems to be being nice. We pride ourselves on how nice we are (unless of course we are leaving comments on social media sites), and truth is typically a secondary concern. Not so with the Dutch. What’s valued here above all is straightforwardness. There’s even a Dutch word for it: bespreekbaarheid or, literally, “speakability,” meaning that everything can and should be spoken aloud. In this country, there are very few taboo topics.
Do you have a medical problem? A problem in your marriage? A stain that you’re having a hard time getting out of your shirt? You can talk about all of those topics — and more — at normal volume over coffee at the bakery next door. Why not?
Most people think of the Netherlands as a liberal country with a generally progressive outlook. Dutch people, in other words, are straightforward but tolerant.
Many scholars tend to associate Dutch attitudes, values, and beliefs with Calvinism, a major branch of Protestantism, with roots in 16th century Europe. Calvinist teachings may have shaped the nation’s way of life, but the Netherlands today is one of the most secular in western Europe. Over half of the population claims to be non-religious, according to a 2020 study by the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek.
Claiming that a centuries-old religious movement led an entire country to be direct in its interpersonal communications today might seem like a stretch. After all, the Dutch Calvinists who settled in western Michigan are not known, at least not today, for sharing these same traits — neither tolerance nor straightforwardness.
An intercultural consultant, Eleonore Breukel, who assists Fortune 500 companies around the world in cultivating effective business cultures, likes to say that Calvinism’s emphasis on “individual responsibility,” more than anything else, led an entire population toward “total honesty” and, interestingly, “a rejection of pleasure as well as the enjoyment of wealth.”
So, there are, after all, a few topics that the Dutch prefer not to talk about. Among them would be salaries and pensions. Anything to do with luxury, really. You would never, for example, talk about how beautiful your house is.
I learned this exception to the “Dutch directness” rule one day when I said something about the house where I am living for the year. I think my words were: “The house where I’m living is amazing.”
The person I was with looked appalled and said, “You might want to keep that to yourself.”
— Douglas Brouwer is a resident of Park Township, except for the school year 2022-2023, when he is living and working in The Hague, Netherlands.

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