Eighteen months ago, Steve Dailey came to the Netherlands for a day. And he’s been here ever since. What started out as a day of consulting, turned into an employment contract with a Dutch employer, Origin.
Still no need to learn Dutch
Steve is a mild-mannered, friendly man, who takes the time to think over his answers and chooses his words carefully. As he settles down behind a cup of coffee, after two hours of being in a traffic jam, caused by a tremendous downpour, we ask him if he had prepared for living in the Netherlands. Taking into account the fact that his move to the Netherlands “just crept upon” him, the answer is no. Luckily, once Steve and his wife, Julia, moved here, they had wonderful Dutch friends, who helped them find a real estate agent, suggested nice places to live and advised them on the issues of bank accounts and taking out an insurance. These friends loaded Steve and Julia into a car, and took them driving around various pleasant neighborhoods. Steve and Julia settled for Den Bosch and have not regretted it for a minute.
Many people who move to the Netherlands find that they can easily get by with English. It is the same for Steve, who has been here now for a year and a half and still has not had the need to learn Dutch in order to do his job. Lucky for him, he says, is the fact that the client for whom he was hired to manage a project, is an American multi-national. So far, either he has to communicate with Dutch employees, who speak English perfectly, or with other foreigners, who have never had the need to learn Dutch either.
The Dutch as business people
In Steve’s observation, the Dutch are astute business people, who know what they want, and are reliable and friendly. He finds them relaxed and outspoken and quite willing to propose and consider what others might think of as off-the-wall ideas, which, even if they are not put to use, often turn out to be quite valuable in other ways. Consequently, they will think along with your ideas – but are definitely not shy to disagree with you. Does Steve have any advice on how to deal with such a situation – say, for instance, if he were to feel that he really has come up with the best solution, but his team does not agree? Don’t tackle it head-on, says Steve. Instead, go with the group – “start walking down their route”, as he calls it – look at their problems and gradually ease in some of your thoughts, until at the end, you sort of naturally, as a group, come to the solution you had in mind.
The Dutch are known as a country of consensus, of endless meetings. Is this true, in Steve’s experience. “Oh, yes,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye, “No lack of meetings here.” How does that affect decision-making? “It lasts forever.” And why is that? “Because,” he ponders a while, “People are used to having their say. And at the end of day of deciding, they’re perfectly willing to sit around the table again the next day …”
What am I doing here?
Sometimes, people go to a meeting so automatically that one even wonders whether they really know what they’re doing there. A point in case: Steve will never forget one particular meeting. It started at 11 a.m., and at 11:20 a man Steve had never seen before came in, mumbled his name and a sincere apology, sat down quickly and whipped out his notebook. Steve had not caught his name, but found that he could not object to the new arrival’s presence as he diligently took notes, asked no further questions and stated no objections. Steve found him a pleasant addition to the meeting. Until, about half an hour further into the meeting, the man closed his notebook, put away his pen, stood up and said: “I appear to be in the wrong meeting,” and left as quietly as he had come in.
“I might like a copy of those notes,” Steve thought, as he watched the notepad go out the door.
Obsession with price
Steve has noticed, through his own and other, fellow-expatriates’, observations, that the Dutch are very preoccupied with price, which is – in the long run – to their disadvantage, he thinks. First of all, this means that the issue of price is not something that is settled in the first couple of rounds, so that the parties can work out the rest of the agreement. On the contrary, it seems to crop up again and again, often hindering other, more constructive discussions. Secondly, eventually the client might manage to get the price he can live with, but Steve has found that the provider of the service often can not afford to deliver at this price, so that he ends up having to “cut corners” as a result of which the quality of the service is less than it could (and should) have been. By being so focused on the price the Dutch thus often sacrifice the optimal balance between price and quality.
What are Steve’s impressions of working with the Dutch? What he finds most noticeable is the, what Steve calls, laid-back attitude of the Dutch. On the positive side, this creates a more relaxed atmosphere. He makes a comparison with the United States, where his colleagues would make incredibly long hours, just so that they could boast about how many hours they had spent at the office. In the Netherlands, he says, if you say that you were in the office from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., they just look at you as if to say, “What are you, nuts?” This, as far as Steve is concerned, is actually quite pleasant. As Steve interprets it, family life is simply very important to the Dutch and they are not willing to sacrifice too much of it to their professional lives.
On the other hand, this laid-back attitude can also create a negative impression. Steve was brought to the Netherlands to manage a, to his employer, critical project. Upon his arrival, he requested the best people for the job, which were sent to him. He called them all together for the purpose of holding a “kick-off”-meeting. He wanted to bring the team together and have them rally ‘round the cause. To his great surprise, the people present at the meeting had merely come for the purpose of determining whether they fancied the idea of working on this project. This he found, in fact, quite shocking. Steve would have expected a sense of duty or obligation, based on the fact that they were thought to be the best. However, they were there from the point of view that if they thought the project sounded interesting, they were willing to consider joining it. On the other hand, once they had chosen to join the team, they were entirely committed and worked hard.
As in every interview, Steve is invited to come up with five words or phrases to describe the Dutch. Steve considers this carefully. Lively, is the first one he comes up with – in fact, quite loud at times – friendly, intelligent (they seem to do a lot of studying in their free time – not only academic studies, but also other very interesting topics), laid-back (in dress and attitude) and, he says, choosing this word carefully, pecunious.
And our last question: what would Steve recommend someone do, to get to know the Netherlands? Visit the local bars, says Steve, without hesitation, here you meet a fairly good cross-section of the Dutch, people are friendly and happy to talk (particularly about what’s wrong with Britain, he adds with a laugh). If one wants to see Holland as one imagines it would be, he suggests Heusden (near Den Bosch). Heusden is preserved and even has windmills! And finally, well, Den Bosch, of course – there is always something going on there: a fair, a jazz happening, street plays, a culinary event, an historic pageant, a five-a-side soccer tournament on the town square, etc., etc., etc. Steve, who does not consider himself to be long-winded, can’t stop summing up the things that happen in Den Bosch – in fact, he’s probably still sitting in his office now, finishing off the list of events … jeu-de-boules contest, carnival, rock groups, … ■