Work culture can vary from country to country and newcomers to the Netherlands must learn to adapt. For British Mama Samantha Gale this process was comically painful.
My First Day at Work
I am often asked (okay, my mum asked once) how the working environment in the Netherlands differs to that in the UK. Well, at least for me, it’s different, that’s for sure.
I remember the initial encounter that I had with my boss on my first day of working in the Netherlands. He came over to me, shook my hand firmly and said: “Now, the only piece of advice that I can give to you is … try not to be too British.”
I smiled nervously, knowing that I had already failed whatever weird test he was giving me because I was British.
He might as well have said: “Don’t be too white or too ridiculous” – again, two things that were inherent to me. I was white, ridiculous, and British. He continued: “You see, us Dutch, we say what we think and if we don’t agree with something that you say, we will say it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t like you.” He paused. There was more to come. “Unless,” he winked, “we actually don’t like you. Just try not be too sensitive.”
I took the following from that interaction:
1. My boss hated me.
2. He already hated all my ideas (despite not having heard any yet).
A Flat Hierarchy
The working environment I’ve experienced over here is more of a flat hierarchy, meaning that it seems like everyone gets the platform to share their opinion. It’s a much more open forum than I was used to in the UK. It has its pros and cons.
It seems to take an awfully long time to reach a decision about anything, from the major, right through to the very minor. Every man and his dog is consulted on whether they think that Joke’s open tin of tuna has been in the fridge too long or if we should go ahead and sign the sponsorship deal worth €3 million. I am undecided as to whether this all-inclusive approach is really the best.
The other thing that I discovered when I moved to the Netherlands is the propensity for openness and directness. In my previous job in the UK, if there was a meeting and some poor chump was presenting an idea, when they finished, everyone would clap and say, “Excellent idea!” and then we would wait until he left the room before ripping him apart. “What a terrible idea!” or “That guy is an idiot!” or “His flies were undone.” You get the picture.
At my Dutch office, people tell it straight and shoot from the hip – they don’t wait for someone to leave the room. They’re all: “Mate, your flies are undone and it’s a dreadful idea. Biertje?”
You learn to grow a skin thicker than your average African elephant, but at least you know where you stand. I think this is a good thing.
This flat hierarchy becomes more interesting the more nationalities that there are within a company. For instance, I have found that my German colleagues tend to favour a more hierarchical structure, rarely speaking out. Often, the battle between the modest Germans and the sharp Dutch leaves me somewhere in the middle, sitting on a large fence, not wanting to rock any boats – I couldn’t be more British!
Adapting Takes Time
In fact, the longer I am here, the more quintessentially English I become. I find myself saying things like “Cheerio!” and “Bob’s your uncle!” and just generally things that I never really said when I actually lived in the UK. It’s as though I’ve developed an allergic reaction to this new system of honesty. I might as well be humming Mary Poppins and carrying a cane.
I have to say, one year on, I am still convinced that my boss hates me, but at least I have learnt to be more open in the work place. If I don’t agree with something, you might even find that I say “no”.
I do scurry off to cry alone in a toilet cubicle immediately afterwards, but it’s a start.
Samantha is a 30-something British mother of one, living in Amsterdam with her boyfriend and emotionally-dominant Dachshund. She writes about surviving the first year of parenthood (and beyond!) and her experiences navigating Dutch life as an expat. She works in fashion, so writing is just a passion and a much cheaper alternative to therapy.