Dealing with Dutch Directness: disconnect or connect? (Photo: Creative Mornings)

Dealing with Dutch Directness: disconnect or connect?

Did you catch the tongue-in-cheek article, “10 ways to fit into Dutch society” (posted 3 June, 2014 on expatsHaarlem), written by Simon Woolcot (a.k.a. Amsterdam Shallow Man)? I was entertained for sure, which I imagine was the whole point. I also realized that some of us could possibly use some more tangible, serious tools when dealing with the Dutch, especially their tendency to be upright and direct about what is on their mind.

Where I grew up (the Southern U.S.), people are trained at an early age to “not say anything if you don’t have something nice to say.” You can imagine the cultural shock I experienced when I first came to the Netherlands. I just couldn’t easily accept or adapt to the bizarre (to me) behavior of speaking openly and directly about their perspective, opinions, judgments, analysis, etc.

It was a lot to take in, not only because I wasn’t used to this kind of transparency (I myself judged to be brazenly rude at first), but also because I was an insecure mother of two rambunctious young children. So I received plenty of advice, mostly from older women wherever I went in public. I figured they could sense my fear and enjoyed putting me through hell. Or something like that.

So this story (and others I made up about “being unfairly judged”) was somewhat paralyzing to me for a while. I went out in public as little as possible in order to avoid the Dutch directness which I had come to utterly dread. I didn’t know what to DO with it, how to respond, how to stop my story-making brain from running loose and feeling more insecure. The ironic thing is that my behavior of avoiding social situations served as a barrier to my own goal of connection, expanding my social life and community!

At one point, I started a new career as a coach and communication trainer, with a heavy focus on the Nonviolent Communication model. Among the many useful things I have learned, I now know how to transform judgment into connection. Here are the two key steps I use, followed by an example:

When I hear someone express what I perceive as a judgment, I do two things: 

  1. I tell myself I did NOTHING wrong (if I believe I did, I’m likely to feel defensive and disconnect)
  2. I get curious – seize the opportunity to connect to what’s important to him/her by asking questions.

Dutch person:

“What are you Americans thinking with all of your ‘right to bear arms’ nonsense – don’t you see too many innocent people are getting killed?”

Curious me:

(I think to myself, “this is not about me – I’ve done nothing wrong.”) “Are you concerned about the safety of Americans and wish that circumstances around gun control in the U.S. could be different?”

[Note: Defensive me would more likely spout off: “We don’t all agree that guns should be so readily accessible!” So even though there is likely agreement between us, we experience little or no connection because of the words/tone we chose to express ourselves.]

So, in my experience, curiosity is something like the opposite of judgment. Asking questions invites people to slow down and explore why they say what they say and they experience being seen, heard and understood. Very empathic, connecting stuff.

 If you’d like to practice connecting with people in your life who express their judgments, please share your examples in the comment section. Cara will suggest “curious questions” you can ask yourself and the other.

Another way to learn/practice is to attend Cara’s workshop,“Dealing with the Dutch: transforming directness/judgment into connection. Two are planned to take place in Amsterdam (Leidseplein) this Fall. Cara is open to facilitate workshops outside Amsterdam (particularly Haarlem). If you are interested in the workshops in Amsterdam or Haarlem, please send her an email at:


Cara Crisler
Follow me
1 reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] So how to persevere in the face of criticism regarding our “work” which includes all our roles as mother, partner, friend, volunteer and co-worker? What I see in the Netherlands is a culture in which people of all ages are encouraged to express whatever is on their mind. I believe this is linked to how they are taught within the educational system to think critically (something I missed in most of my American education). The downside of this is that such open expression can come across to those of us from praise- and polite-oriented cultures as rather abrasive at times (see my previous article: “Dealing with the Dutch: disconnect or connect”). […]

Comments are closed.