The Turkish controller at the tax office, Suleyman, has taken the tip from his NT2 (Dutch as a second language) very seriously. He was standing in front of his team head in full business apparel. With suit and tie, and shiny shoes.
He asked: “How does the yearly performance review work in the Netherlands?” and he had put in (too) much work after his NT2 coach had told him, that yearly performance reviews were a little more formal than day to day interactions.
Measuring norms is very difficult
The Dutch are in general a little more direct than you are used to from your experience in the UK, I told the English management researcher. ‘Good grieve, but you did not tell me that they would start a first conversation with a question about the relationship I have with my mother!’ She was still shocked. The non-verbal “thank you” was tangible.
Or take two Afghan refugees, who ended up in the “Het Waterkwatier” neighborhood of Winterswijk during the soccer world cup. They invited me to dinner in their new house. As we sat at the table, they reminded me about the lessen from the naturalization course: “Dutch neighbors are very reserved and they generally keep their distance, so this is a huge difference from what you know from your home country.”
Samira laughs: “just imagine how surprised we were, when we opened the curtains and our neighbor, in full Oranje dress, was standing in front of our window, cheering with a glass of beer in his hand, and the rest of the neighborhood was in the street, behind beer crates and TV sets, partying and watching a soccer game. This was indeed a little more outgoing scenario compared to what our NT2 teacher said THE Dutch neighbor is like.
In general, always, often
The devil is in the detail. Words such as often, always, and in general are tricky (compare the illustration below). How far do you come with these nuances in real life? When do you find yourself in one of the textbook scenarios? Will it be easily recognizable, unambiguous, and clearly mainstream culture, or will you find yourself in a situation belonging to a subculture, that deviates from the mainstream?
This is also true for language. Of course, expressions such as “o.k.”, “maakt niet uit”, and “geeft niet” can often be used. But how often do Dutch speakers use the expression ”Dat laat mij Siberisch”? the little neighbor Balkan, who was very proud of his new language skills asked me. He noticed that Dutch people often looked very surprised when he used his newly acquired vocabulary in conversations with them.
Another example: Privacy is very important in the Netherlands. During a job interview you have the right to sometimes let the HR manager know that a question is too personal and that they step over the line. In a simulation of a job interview during a training session with a real HR manager, a few participants were so aware of privacy and their right to object to being asked questions that are too personal, that they reacted to questions about their name and address with “This question is far too personal!”.
The second mirror: Know thyself!
There is nothing wrong with the tendency to use generalizations in training sessions for expats, to give them a general picture of life in The Netherlands. The need for stereotypical descriptions is common and even quite handy.
But: the mantra of “in general” often causes the unexpected and experimental of reality to disappear. Reality is harder to grasp than we think. Naturalization course textbooks often give a happily distorted image of how we live together. But there is also another mirror: The mirror of self-image: how open-minded, adventurous, and alert do we stand in society? It strikes me that this question is often overlooked in naturalization courses, although this question opens a very different and less general perspective to both: expat and trainer.