So… you decided to come to the Netherlands. Big step, big change. A leap of faith. As a young professional, the chances that you will find your new job in the Dutch working environment are very considerable. Hopefully, you come with an open mind, full of ideas and ideals and also no expectations whatsoever about how it is going to be. You just know how it is in your country, is it going to be the same or different?
Culture has their own specifics, there are many definitions of culture among them those saying that culture is about: “the behaviours , beliefs & values that are learned and shared by a group of people” – so it is about how we act, what we believe in and what we find important. It is all we are, and who we are. There are models of culture presenting it, as water for a fish. In this case we are so much emerged in it that lots of times we do not even notice it around us. Lots of times we are even not aware of our culture, we just do what we do, as everyone else does the same or we have always done that.
And here may come a clash. Getting immersed in the new culture requires being open minded and willingness to understand. Step by step we see, some things work actually in a different way. Some behaviours that are acceptable and ’normal’ in one country are not so much appreciated and valued in another and vice versa. What one observes in the new environment may seem strange and awkward.
Looking at proverbs and sayings of a given country can help us decode and understand the values, behaviours that are important in certain culture. Just to give you few examples. In the Netherlands, there is a saying: “Een held op sokken”. It means someone who is not afraid of anything, a courageous individual. We can decode the importance of individuality, being entrepreneurial. Or there is a saying: “Voor een appel en een ei” translating directly “For an apple and an egg” which means buying something very cheaply and shows that one is fond of good deals, bargains. Another proverb is “Met de deur in huis vallen” which means “to Fall with the door into the house”, which depicts the habit of coming straight to the point; being direct, straightforwardness. You say what you think and you think what you say.
To contrast and show you the point, in Poland for example, there is a saying: “Jak trwoga to do Boga” which means “When in fear, one turns to God”, which reflects the importance of God, faith, humbleness, modesty. Another one is “Gość w dom, Bog w dom”, which means “Guest in house, God in house” lays bare the values of hospitality, food, collectivism, family.
Getting back to facts and my story. I came from Poland over 7 years ago, to start my adventure in the Netherlands. I came exactly with hopes, ideas and open mind, as well as behaviours from my own culture. My first job was a job in a strictly Dutch company, as I was the only international person in it. You can call it jumping in the deep water. Yet, I was curious and excited about the new adventure. As every adventure, it has its surprises and obstacles to overcome. It is kind of hero journey to learn new skills and gain new powers.
Having this experience, I would like to share with you some of my observations on Dutch working environment, my learnings and tips to move on. One of the biggest surprises I had was the egalitarian style of management. You can go to lunch with a manager, present your point of view and feel like an equal. What is more, it is even encouraged to have your own opinion and be even confronting. Coming from the hierarchical culture, it was a challenge for me to be outspoken and ‘feel equal’ towards my manager. In Poland your manager, is considered to be ‘above’ you and to know better. And even though I have never been working in a Polish office, those traits seemed to be quite rooted in me. It took me some time to be at ease with voicing my opinion to my manager.
My tip is to give yourself some time, be observant how others behave, reflect on why you react or behave in a given way, so you understand yourself, your culture and the new culture. In this way you can find the ground that is optimal, you stay aware of who you are and also adapt and learn new skills which are very important to survive in the new waters.
Another surprise and block for me was direct communication – you say what you think and think what you say. Dutch culture is a low context communication culture – you say things in a concise and direct manner without excessive explanations, hidden meanings. What is on your mind is on your mouth. This is the skill I also needed to learn, as well as to have the understanding that it is not the rudeness but different style, different technique of communication. Personally, it was an important lesson for me to be more disciplined in communication.
One of the traits of Dutch culture and working environment is being focused on the future and performance. It is about planning in advance, having a vision and setting long term goals. Coming from culture where we cherish past a lot and where we are not so used to long term planning and having a plan and set goals, it was yet another learning I needed to acquire, not without pain and objections surely. As usually we also face a conflict: stick to what I know or be curious, open minded and just learn. I needed to let go of the notions I knew and adapt to learn new skills.
One more feature that comes in a set with the performance is focus on individuality, self-realization. Coming from more collective background, it was yet another observation to make.
This new adventure can bring a lot of learnings and opportunities. There is opportunity to learn from each other coming from different cultures, opportunity to learn new skills, to be more flexible, adaptive and understanding. However, there are also challenges along the way. It’s good to be aware that you will have to face anxiety and feeling of not being understood, there will be a sense of foreignness and not belonging, just to mention a few, which may result in lowering self- esteem. Lack of openness and ignorance of the other culture can lead to misunderstandings and communication blockages on a personal and business level. That is why the understanding of man and the other culture is crucial in helping you survive, learn, connect and swim safely in new waters.
What to do?
My tip is to get to know your culture and be aware of your own behaviours and where they come from, along the side stay open and curious to learnings. It is not bad or good, right or wrong, it is just different. To raise your awareness, take time and reflect on the proverbs and values in your culture, think of at least 10 things you like about your country and own culture, what are you proud of? In the same way, take time to learn about your new environment, go to a museum, make Dutch friends, read some books about the Dutch culture, reflect on what you like and what is appealing to you, what you would like to learn, and, above all, stay open-minded and enjoy the experience.
What helped me to survive in the beginning and also later on was also the attitude that apart from different backgrounds and behaviours we are all people. We all have similar struggles. It is good to remember that whenever confronted with some cultural conflicts, there is always point of connection.