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Dutch culture: A strange case
6 maart 2008 - ‘Have you traveled a lot?’ someone from the audience asks Cor van Halen, a Cultural Psychologist at Radboud University in Nijmegen. Last Friday Van Halen gave a lecture in the Auditorium about cultural differences, the Culture Shock phenomenon and the way foreigners see the Netherlands.
Cor van Halen. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

The Nijmegen researcher answers honestly that his travel experience does not extend beyond Europe: ‘My knowledge is mostly theoretical.’ For this reason he invites his audience, which consists largely of international TU/e students, to share their practical experience with him. ‘What do you find incomprehensible in the Dutch culture?’ is one of the questions he poses.

The approximately 25 interested students who have come to the interactive lecture organized by the multicultural association Mosaic have many examples. Someone from Poland is amazed at the inability to take decisions. ‘Why do you need to have endless discussions to reach a compromise that everyone can agree to rather than just look at the best option there is?’

A Chinese Master student feels pity when she sees elderly people living alone here. Her colleague is flabbergasted by the numbers of bikes that are stolen and by the fact that people, including the police, are so lax about this. A Master student from Bosnia is surprised at how quiet the streets are at night. ‘After six It looks like war here.’ He says that people in Bosnia can be found in the streets in great numbers at night in particular.

Rebin Said, secretary of Mosaic and originating from Iraqi Kurdistan, had to get used to the individualism in the Netherlands. He is accustomed to close family ties: ‘You help your family wherever you can.’ Burhan Zainuddin, a PR committee member of Mosaic who comes from Indonesia, seconds that. He is amazed that one should choose a partner here without taking one’s parents into account.’ There are many girls, but I have only one mum,’ he jokes.

Four dimensions
Cor van Halen says that the examples are in line with the research results obtained by Geert Hofstede, Emeritus Professor of Maastricht University. A large-scale research into value orientation conducted at IBM among other places, in which more than 166.000 people from more than 70 countries took part, came up with at least four dimensions in which cultures differ from each other. Firstly, how they assess power differences, i.e. the Power Distance Index. Secondly, whether a culture is more individualistic or collectivistic. Thirdly, whether men are expected to be ‘masculine’ or ‘more feminine’. And finally, how people deal with insecurity and whether or not there are strict rules to control insecurity.

A strange case
According to Hofstede’s research, the Netherlands is the odd man out, a strange case in the world. On average Dutch thinking tends to be more egalitarian and more individualistic than elsewhere in the world. Also, the Dutch culture is ‘more feminine’ in comparison with most other cultures. And because of the relatively low uncertainty avoidance there are no strict rules. The Dutch culture looks somewhat like that of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries, and is much less like that of other countries in the world. Van Halen thinks that this is one of the reasons why it is difficult for foreigners to settle in in the Netherlands.

According to him you embody your culture as a result of your upbringing. You notice this when you detect that something differs from your own cultural rules. It affects you emotionally. Van Halen shows a model of the phases that someone goes through who is immersed in another culture. This model runs from the tourist phase, to the culture shock, to the renewed balance phase in which you can shift easily between cultural systems. Someone in the audience asks how long it takes to find that balance. Van Halen: ‘In the worst case that may take a lifetime.’ He does have a piece of advice: ‘ When you think there is something odd about the Dutch culture, you should discuss it with the Dutch. Indeed, they are used to discussing everything.’

This interactive lecture was an initiative of Mosaic in collaboration with Willemien Fraaije from Humanistisch Raadswerk. Rebin Said of Mosaic explains: ‘We are a multicultural organization and open ourselves to all cultures. That is why we have recently celebrated the Chinese New Year complete with a dragon’s dance and why we are organizing this interactive lecture.’ Said says that Mosaic took a new route last year: ‘On the TU/e website we are still listed under the heading philosophy of life, but I do not find that really appropriate. We would prefer to see ourselves back on the TU/e site under the heading Culture. Said thinks that there is definitely a need for a multicultural club like Mosaic: ‘You can easily see that from the big turnout today.’/.,