Another assignment for Dutch Culture and Society I, during my first semester, was to explore something that was stereotypically Dutch. While most students chose stroopwafels or tulips, I had to be difficult and choose a state of mind. Still fun, and I got to talk to my Dutch/Pitzer friend Harry about his grandma.
Coming from a country were standing out is highly desired, I was very surprised to find out that Dutch people prefer to blend in. I can think of so many things that do make the Dutch different, but that only makes them “different” by American standards, not necessarily unique to each other. A visiting friend that had done some basic Dutch research told me about this Dutch proverb, “steek je kop niet boven het maaiveld uit,” which reiterates the importance of not sticking out; you’re most likely to get cut off. Fortunately, acting “normal” by Dutch standards doesn’t mean being boring; as their other famous proverb goes, “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg!” In English, that translates to “just act normal, that’s crazy enough!”
The Dutch phrase “doe normaal” doesn’t necessarily mean to stop acting weird, but to stop acting out of the ordinary in a way that might make you seem different, usually in a bad way. This includes refraining from bragging or discussing money, which are two things that should generally be avoided in conversation anyway, especially with people you are unfamiliar with. However, the proverb does include the part that explains “normal” as “crazy enough.” The Dutch have adopted this attitude because they understand the Netherlands can be a bit kooky, and they think that accepting a slight weirdness as normal prevents large outbursts of disorder. Acting “normal” also includes following rules and regulations, which although Dutch laws are considered lackadaisical, they are still important. What slightly bothers me about this aspect of acting normal is refraining from showing too much personality or too much emotion; these two things help you to connect better with other individuals, and provide insight as to whom you can get along with in the long run.
I discussed this “doe normaal” concept with a Dutch friend and he responded immediately with “*laugh* the typical Dutch expression!” I asked whether the expression was something that was actually used or more of an idea, and he said it is used amongst friends and family more than with a stranger; however, it could also be used with strangers, if the individual is feeling even more straightforward than usual. He also said that the Dutch fear anything that doesn’t conform, and this saying is the “hard truth” to someone who is acting out of the ordinary. By out of the ordinary, Harry said, he’s referring to someone who isn’t acting “Dutch.” This agreed with what I found while researching the concept exactly. However, I don’t exactly know what acting “Dutch” is defined by, so I think it is hard for an exchange student to determine when a phrase such as this could be used.
I think this type of behavior is most likely found in Eastern cultures, which makes it surprising in Western Europe. From my experience with Asian cultures, children are obedient and if they choose to excel or stand out, it is to represent their family well, not to make themselves seem unique or successful. Asian cultures are also known as being more submissive, which is a word that can be used in this “doe normaal” context. The Dutch are being submissive to cultural norms as opposed to family members, but take pride in their sense of normalcy. While researching this attribute, I saw that one website equivocated asking someone their income to asking a woman what her age is; in this context, I can definitely see how this comes off as an offensive action that is really not a stranger’s business.
This act of blending in not only refers to not being unique in both culture settings, but being modest and respectful. These are admirable traits in a culture and especially new to me as the status of a family or individual in America is incredibly important—at least to those that can uphold a high one. Being humble is generally a good quality in an individual, and this tradition demands that people act in a humble and modest way. You are less likely to have conflicts over social status if no one shares their position in terms of money or lifestyle. However, I do feel that many aspects of life can be determined by the clothes to wear and where you live (even if you do ride a bike), so maybe being modest wouldn’t completely cover up your true self anyway. Although the Dutch are also known for being incredibly straight-forward and to the point, it confuses me why they decide to act so modest and “normaal” when they could be—and possibly could be expected—to be brutally honest about their social status or income. In my Dutch language class, we discussed compliments, and how the Dutch are quick to brush them off, or say an article of clothing is old or was on sale. I would assume a straight-forward culture to admit that yes, it looks good because it’s expensive, than to say something that would cost a lot of money would just be a “ratty old thing” to save face.
Overall, I have had a wonderful time exploring stereotypical Dutch things while studying abroad in Amsterdam. I know I will take cultural norms back to the United States with me in the summer, and not only recognize the norms but be able to explain them, and their history, as well.