Wrong Culture, Right Culture?
When it comes to describing cultural differences, one of the greatest challenges is to not succumb to the temptation of over-simplified stereotyping. Stereotyping is a useful psychological way for human beings to quickly make sense of the world around them.
However, the danger lies in the fact that when we start stereotyping we tend to polarize a certain culture or cultures and/or individuals. E.g. “Americans are loud, you are an American, so you must be loud” (supposedly as opposed to myself. I’m not American, so I’m not loud), or “You are German, so you must be on time, because all Germans are always on time” (and then we’re confused if this specific German arrives late).
This leads me to the second point that tends to occur when we look at cultural differences, and that is that human beings (in general) tend to find their own culture better or superior than the ‘other’ culture, whatever that other culture may be. This can lead to mutual misunderstandings, which can lead to mutual perceptions of negativity. “They are wrong because of this or that”; “We are better because of this or that”. The word of warning here is that no culture is either good or bad, or better or worse. It is just different, that’s all. Different.
In this article I would like to compare and describe a couple of differences that you might encounter when it comes to employment and a career in the Netherlands. It is not that this will always happen, but hopefully you will find some explanations for situations you have encountered.
Are Personal Questions Allowed?
Typically in the United States it is not allowed to ask questions about your personal sphere when you are hiring someone. You’re not even allowed to check out someone’s Facebook page before the applicant enters your office (although I believe everyone does this; I would if I was hiring someone).
In the Netherlands the situation is not much different, although it is somewhat expected for you, as a job applicant, to talk about yourself as well. Of course there are the standard subjects, which are mentioned on your CV (more on CVs later), such as hobbies and sports.
But in the Netherlands, a little more personal information about yourself is appreciated if you are applying for a job with a Dutch company, and in an interview with a Dutch employer. Subjects to consider could be (depending on the situation of course) such fairly innocuous topics as:
Your last vacation
What you had for your last Christmas dinner
The Dutch culture appreciates your being a ‘normal’ person, and not too business-oriented. They want to see the actual person behind the one applying for the job, so don’t feel shy about showing your prospective employer who you are.
Dress for Success (or for the Job)?
The Dutch, compared to their neighbors (the Belgians & Germans) dress much more casually; when a Dutchman goes out for dinner he dresses down, because it is his own free time. A German or Belgian (but also the French) will typically dress up when they go out for a dinner.
To some extent this dress code is also reflected in Dutch organizations. There are few organizations that will make you wear a suit, let alone a tie. Typically banks would be an exception, and then this is usually only when their employees will be interacting with clients directly.
Similarly, when you are going for a job interview in the Netherlands, don’t overdress. By overdressing I mean that if you are applying for a job at the local library, you should not walk in wearing a suit and a tie.
Overall, dress smart/casual (which is up for interpretation; leave out the jeans, that will work), and don’t wear sporting shoes. And if you drive a fancy sports car or SUV, park it around the corner, so your future employer won’t see what you’re driving.
Differences in CVs
When it comes to a CV there are very clear differences between the Netherlands and, for instance, the United States.
In the United States you are supposed to beef up your CV quite a bit. For example (allow me to exaggerate a bit here), if, as an American, you speak three words of French, you would describe this on your CV as “having average command of the French Language”. While on the other hand if you are Dutch, and you speak three words of French, you would mention on your CV that you… well, speak three words of French.
The difference lies in the fact that Americans, much more than the Dutch, like to (and often must) boast about what they are able to do and about their skills. An American manager, assessing a CV created for a Dutch manager, would probably wonder if this is all this Dutch person could do. And yes, it is exactly what this person can do, and he can actually do it.
Turning the situation around: A Dutch manager assessing the CV of an American would probably think he is about to hire Superman. Because it is virtually impossible for so many skills to be united in one person.
In the Netherlands, we have a saying “Act normal, that will be crazy enough” (doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg). This also applies to your CV. Just be factual.
Work to Live or Live to Work?
For the Dutch, work is not a motivator (I know, this is a bold statement). In general the Dutch tend to see work as a necessity to pay the bills and to live life in general. This is due to the fact that on the dimensions developed by Geert Hofstede on cultures, the Dutch score high on ‘femininity’ versus ‘masculinity’ – meaning the people of the Netherlands are less focused on achievement, assertiveness and material rewards. Quality of life is important.
This work-to-live mentality is visible in a couple of situations, such as:
Are You Open or Closed?
Go to a Kruidvat store ten minutes before closing time, and you will find the majority of the people working there already cleaning the store and getting ready to close down for the day. You might even find that the store is already closed minutes before closing time. Should you knock on the door and ask to be let in because it is not yet 6 P.M., you will be met with: “we close at 6!”. Leaving you wondering why they’re not open till 6.
What Do You Do?
When two Americans are introduced to each other the first words exchanged will be their names. The second will be what they do for a living. In other words “you are what you do”.
Having experienced this many times myself (remember, I’m Dutch), I’ve always wondered why Americans (and Indians, and other more Goal-Oriented cultures) need to tell me what they do for a living. For the Dutch what you do is your business, and I don’t necessarily need or want to know.
Pay-for-performance is something that is very common in Belgium, Germany, the United States and the UK (typically even more so in the US & UK). The more you work, the more you earn.
The Dutch look at this differently. Should you suggest that a Dutchman work 10 hours per week more, in order to earn €10,000 a year more, there is a good chance that the Dutchman will decline your offer. It is not that they don’t like the money, but the extra effort it would take to earn this would not be worth it.
In my experience having about 10-15% of someone’s salary flexible in terms of a bonus is about the maximum that would work in the Netherlands.
Time to Find a New Job
In my time as a manager for a small firm in Belgium I was always surprised by the fact that if I had an interview with a new employee, it would almost always be after 6 P.M.
In other words when Belgians go out job hunting and for job interviews it is always after office hours. And (very important); the Belgian boss should not know that you are looking for different employment.
In the Netherlands this mentality of secrecy does not exist as much. Of course this depends on the circumstances, but letting your boss in on the fact that you are looking around for different employment could even work in your favor because he just might give you a couple of hours off to do your job interview.
Wrapping It Up
If you are reading this and you are not Dutch, you might have found the answers to some of the things you have been wondering about us. Just keep in mind, as I said at the beginning of this article; cultural differences are just that: differences.
And to close it off with a quote from Carl Jung: “Everything that irritates us about others can teach us something about ourselves”.
Chris Smit is an Author, Entrepreneur, International Public Speaker, Consultant, and Interculturalist.
He has worked with thousands of individuals from over 100 nationalities in more than 45 different countries, sharing his know-how on Cultural Differences doing many hundreds of Cultural Awareness Workshops.