Rude honesty: when politeness is cultural


in American culture,culture,multicultural,origin,self-image,society,taboo


Bluntness. Directness. Criticism. Call it what you will but the Dutch habit of telling it like it is leaves some expats with a cultural conundrum.

Growing up in Britain I was taught to be tactful. “Don’t hurt people’s feelings, let them down gently.” But here in the Netherlands the Dutch believe in telling you directly what they think, and in such an efficient way that it leaves no room for misunderstanding. So Brits are among those who find the Dutch communication style abrasive. Many non-natives see the Dutch as pushy.

Yet other foreigners welcome the no-nonsense approach. They find it liberating to join the straight-talking ranks, to say what they mean without offending people. According to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it is precisely this Dutch trait which allows for open, honest debate about Islam in the Netherlands.

The Dutch, on the other hand, find the politeness of the Americans insincere and the stiff upper lip of the Brits an alien concept. Cultural traits from different planets. The bumbling Brit trying to sugar coat a negative message often fails to get the point across to a foreign listener.

Who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong? Is it rudeness or honesty? Is it politeness or lying?

Maybe it has nothing to do with politeness. After all, complete strangers in the Netherlands acknowledge and greet each other in semi-public places like doctors’ waiting rooms and lifts — something that Brits just don’t do. In the same situation Brits would avert their eyes and study the button panel in great depth. We Brits have perfected the art of putting blinkers on and pretending that everyone within a mile radius is invisible. Is that polite?

How do you handle the cultural norms of another country when they contradict everything you have been brought up to believe?

Amanda van Mulligen is a British-born writer, blogger and mother experiencing life in the Netherlands.

  • Expat Kiwi

    Fertility Doctor:

    So after
    four failed IUI’s and one surgery for an ovarian cyst (without anaesthesia) we
    find out that the asshole Dr failed to check sperm mobility (there is none). When confronted with all the questions of why
    did you do this and allow such a tragic botch up, the response is: Dr opened his
    own legs and makes rude sounds to then tells me “welcome to the Netherlands,
    you have just had a true Dutch medical experience. You are integrated now”.

  • Kate Thwaite

    We thought they were lovely but we are from Northern UK

  • Pingback: Culture 101 | To Den Haag With Love()

  • Kristin

    I’m a Brit who has just moved to Washington D.C. for three years after my wilderness years in the Netherlands. American friendliness and politeness (insincere or not!) feels WONDERFUL. So relaxing, so refreshing, so easy and nice. So normal.
    Because yes, the Dutch are rude. RUDE, Mr Fawlty! One thing I always noticed was that while they never hesitate to give you the benefit of their unrequested, ignorant opinions and advice, they don’t like being on the receiving end of the ‘direct’ behaviour they are so unaccountably proud of. I don’t know why they can’t just be normal and nice.
    I am thinking of ways to never go back to NL. Having escaped makes me realise even more what an awful place it is. There is just nothing to recommend it. Food, weather, scenery, mediaeval maternity care and medical care in general? Quality of life…?!
    This sums them up: You board the train at Schiphol airport carrying luggage. The people already in the train give you that uniquely unpleasant Dutch stare. Someone at an airport…carrying luggage…? Nee, eh!

    • AfroDutchess

      Ah come on Kristin, it sounds soooo bad Lool
      Anyway, I understand what you mean: the Dutch love to be blunt but generally speaking they cannot handle their own piece of cake, which is I think quite amusing. Still, since they are so pecular, one one knows how they are, it’s easier to still love the NL, so in case you ever come again on this of the world, I’d be happy to welcome you :-)

  • Susanne

    Growing up as an Air Force “Brat,” I learned early on that when off the base, I was to observed respect, and emulate the customs/habits/norms of the host culture.  When on base, I could revert back to American norms as dictated by the military.  This never seemed difficult to me.  Being raised in many different countries helps one become a chameleon, to understand that no single perspective is the correct perspective, and find that the easiest path is to swim with the majority when one is a minority in another country.

  • William Whitbread

    These diffs always lead to falling out with my Dutch FIL. He puts virtuous labels on rude behaviour. For example, incredible stubbornness = “integrity.” Terrible rudeness = “honesty.”

    The question I always ask is, “Has your ‘honesty’ ever led you to openly tell someone that you love, like or respect them or their conduct?” If no (and in this case the answer is definitely no), then you’re not just being honest, you’re just being an a**hole!  

  • Hollandusa

    Whenver I am being pushed and bumped in a line at a store (most of the time). I always ask “Wat is de haast? Hebt u een afspraak met de koningin?” I know this is a bit sarcastic but honestly rudeness is not a custom it is just rude!

    • Anastasia

      Aha! Please provide a translation for the rest of us…I know I only got half of that. :-)

      • John

         Basically translates to “What is the hurry, do you have a meeting with the queen??”

        Now since you don’t know what the dutch say about foreigners behind their back, maybe you can pretend that their honesty isn’t being rude…  now of course if you understand the buitenlander (foreigner) comments, you will find the Dutch to be a very rude, inconsiderate people.

  • Bernd

    Interesting blog of an American Expat, trying to explain the same subject. Although it’s been a couple of years ago, I think he manages quite nicely.


    • Anastasia

      Nice find, Bernd!

  • Eppieozen

    politeness or sincerity of policatically chosen words – call it however it comes, but in a work situation, what i repeatedly hear in adopted homeland of Turkey is ‘don’t be nice – they won’t respect your demands’ …and after many experiences with plumbers to painters, I still want to believe that it’s better to be polite and clear than demand in a harsh voice. Nonetheless, whenever a passionate commando is around people tend to step up the work a bit faster…

    • Anastasia

      I’ve also heard this, and witnessed it, Eppie! Being able to strike a tone that is both familial and stern at the same time seems to work — but it’s an acquired skill for sure.

  • Aledys Ver

    Very good post and I found Frank’s contribution really interesting. As an expat of Latin origin I have difficulties sometimes dealing with Dutch bluntness despite the fact that I have been living here for a long time now and that I understand that their “rudeness” is not personally directed at me, as a foreigner, but that it is a cultural trait.
    While I see that it is in their nature to speak their minds, I still think that even when you have to disagree or say something negative to someone else, there are ways of doing it that won’t upset the other person (for example if you have to give sb. bad news). In these cases I don’t see it as being insincere, but rather, more SENSITIVE.

  • Linda

    I love how this article teases out the cultural differences in how we approach and interact with each other. And the comments add a lot to the conversation. I especially appreciate Frank’s charcterization of ‘high v. low context’. Look at all the loaded words being used: rude, bluntness, directness, phony, insincere, abrasive, honest, sugar-coating, etc. I’ve tried to teach my children that any time they start to think/feel that some action or statement is ‘rude’, it’s likely a cultural difference poking through. (And sometimes it’s just rude!)

    • Anastasia

      That’s an interesting practice, Linda… Even when something is “just rude” it’s probably someone’s version of acceptable, if only in that individual’s one-person culture.

      • Linda

        I reread my comment and don’t want to pretend I’m all ‘Mother Theresa’ – I’m not. We all seem to know fairly accurately when someone is just plain being rude within our own cultural context. It’s fuzzier within another culture (with some cultures definitely being fuzzier than others, depending on the degree of difference from our own. i can get offended as well as the next person, I’m just trying to remind myself and my children that sometimes it’s cultural diffreences at play.

        • Linda

          That, and I can’t always type!

  • Kym Hamer

    Being an Australian with a Dutch dad, you can probably imagine how my directness was received when I first arrived in the UK! It was like head-butting a very polite but immovable wall…I learned to ‘mellow’ and soften the edges to help my message ‘be heard’ but after 7 years, I really still prefer the plain-speakers.

  • Frank Garten

    I like this post a lot. Being Dutch myself,I recognize the directness which is so characteristic of my culture. I have traveled and negotiated a lot with many Asian cultures, and our directness to the is indeed “blunt”, “confronting” and “uncomfortable”. What we Dutch often do not realize is that we bring other cultures in problems with our direct approach: cultures that value group harmony and do everything to avoid conflict or open disagreement, find our approach very disturbing and incorrect.

    Our approach is ver ‘low-context’, while the English and many other culturs have a style of communication which is high-context: the meaning of the words can be derived from the context in which they are spoken, and the way they are presented. Nonsense, is what many of the Dutch would say, why don’t you just say honestly what you think, instead of hiding your message. Indeed, we find high-context communication insincere (you seem to hide your true intentions), and we value the honesty of very direct communications.

    In trainings I often ask Dutch to do a debate about a controversial topic in a high-context way; they have difficulty with it. When asking foreigners to do a debate in a very direct and low-context way, they enjoy it and find it ‘liberating’. The explanation is that high-context communication often is accompanied by high sensitivity for the social context. The Dutch miss this antenna to pick up social norms and hierarchies, hence find it very hard to communicate in a way for which they simply miss the tools and the sensitivity.

    This what makes cultural differences so beautiful. None of us is right or wrong, it’s just different. We have to learn not to label and judge, but to accept. To not use words like ‘blunt’ or ‘dishonest’ as in these words there is judgement. Accepting cultural differences is done with neutral words, like ‘low-context’ and ‘directness’. But then, I have made this last statement in a rather blunt and direct way. Apologies for that :-)

    Frank Garten

    • Miss Footloose

      Mooi gezegd, Frank! Well said.

    • Amanda

      I think this is a great way of explaining it Frank, and for many Dutch people it is such a natural way of communicating they don’t even realise that some other cultures (and I can imagine in some Asian cultures even more than in other western European countries) find it very difficult to digest. My mother in law was very surprised when I told her that many expats in NL find the Dutch ‘rude’ because they are so direct.

      I can certainly relate to the idea of low-context communication being liberating for those who don’t see it as the norm….

  • LingonLife

    Wow, the culture in the Netherlands sounds a lot like the culture in Sweden. It is socially correct to be blunt and to the point. Works for me. Never have to guess what someone Really meant.

    Swedes also have the same views about the insincerity of the politeness of Americans. On that one, I just agree to disagree 😉 Monica

    • Anastasia

      Hi Monica….by the way, one of Amanda’s lines lost in the editing mentioned that the Dutch feel it’s polite to get to the point. Not waste a person’s time. I can certainly appreciate the favor of straight-talk.

      What’s funny to me is that Americans think they’re straight talkers but, as above, it seems other cultures find them insincere. That’s a shock since besides the Orwellian double-speak that plagues our politics and more recently our media, the American self image is earnest in the extreme.

      I know during my 13 years living in the Near and the Far East I was often the straightest talker in my circles or at least it felt like that…and when I had something to say that wasn’t going to be received well I’d feel the necessity to make it come out as sweet as possible. So, both direct and a sugar coater! How can it be! :-)

      • Miss Footloose

        You mentioned that other cultures find Americans insincere. I lived in Armenia for a number of years. For many historical and understandable reasons, Armenians are not very outgoing or friendly to stangers in public places. I was told that when Armenians arrive in the US for the first time, they misinterpret the kindness and friendliness of Americans, and when they realize that when someone is nice and asks how they are doing, it does not mean they want to actually hear the truth, be your friend and you can sleep on their couch, they are disullusioned and consider Americans “fake.”

        • Anastasia

          …and we can see the (dark) flipside of welcoming fakeness in American female travelers being misread. Have a guest post for Matador on that topic brewing, ever brewing.

          As for the couch surfers, that’s another cultural conundrum: generosity of spirit and how it plays out (who it’s reserved for, how deep it goes)…bet we all see ourselves as generous but are not perceived that way by others.

      • LingonLife

        Hi Anastasia! I find that any time a discussion about American stereotypes come up, I feel obligated to point out the vastness of the US with corresponding differences based on region. I’ve lived both in the NorthEast and MidWest. There’s a big difference in attitudes and and social platitudes that I had to adapt to based on where I lived. One doesn’t have to leave their own country to be met with different cultural norms.

        Anyway, I usually give the benefit of the doubt to cultural clashes based on language barriers. The way I see it, either I’m speaking a second language(Swedish) with a Swede or they’re speaking a second language(English) with me. It’s not the easiest thing to be polite in a second language. Therefore, being direct is the most natural consequence of speaking a second language.

  • Miss Footloose

    It is interesting to see how foreigners see your country and interpret your behavior. I am Dutch and never thought at all about us being rude or blunt until I met my (future) American husband and managed to offend him now and again with the way I expressed myself. He did marry me though 😉 I think I learned to be less blunt.

    Now that I’ve been an expat in a number of foreign countries and have not lived in Holland for decades, when I visit my family and friends in the Netherlands, I notice that directness and bluntness. It really is not rudeness. It’s directness. And when you’re not used to that it may seem like rudeness.

    • LingonLife

      Hi Miss Footloose! It’s interesting the way language evokes emotions. With my Swedish husband, he can light up my day with an out of context, endearing compliment in English or bring a cloudstorm to bear when he makes a too direct “constructive” comment in English. Therefore, I take his compliments to heart and the comments with a pinch of salt. Works for us. :-)

    • Amanda

      Sometimes my Dutch husband says something and I cringe – I would never dare to put it in so a direct way – other times I admire him for getting to the crux of the matter so I guess I have got used to it and know when to accept it for what it is. But certainly for newbies in the Netherlands there is a steep learning curve and to start with many really perceive Dutch as rude which is a shame – they really aren’t.

  • CoCreatr

    As a German living in Japan I think I saw a spectrum encompassing polite rudeness and rude politeness. My take-away: I accept I do not fit in and that some, not all people try to accept my foreign manners and ignorance. In case of doubt I try to be more polite, less direct, to resemble the common cultural pattern here. Still after all these years I am learning to adapt, “reading the air” as they say in Japan and in rare cases getting bruised by a “corner of tofu”.

    • Anastasia

      Bernd you remind me that in Japan, as it seems it might be in the UK, ignoring someone in a small space is a form of politeness — to give them the privacy the physical setting does not provide….

      • ML Awanohara

        Anastasia, as you know, England and Japan are my two adopted countries, and I definitely think you are right about the influence of geography/physical space on cultural definitions of what constitutes politeness and what constitutes “in your face.”

        After living in each of these countries for a while–both are small, overcrowded islands–I could see why people might crave privacy.

        My UK friends would brag about living in a house that wasn’t “overlooked,” something we Americans take for granted; and my Japanese friends had only one goal in life: to live in a house one day instead of an apartment (regardless of whether it was overlooked!).

        And you know, that’s one reason why I feel so comfortable in Manhattan (where I now live)–which, after all, is a small, overcrowded island where many people live on top of each other. Manhattanites tend not to talk to each other too much in the elevators or on the subways. We can always tell when someone is from out of town as they are just too friendly and talkative.

        But another reason I like it is that New Yorkers can be very direct (we are Americans at the end of the day!). We don’t tend to grumble behind people’s backs in the way the Brits do.

        It is in other words a healthy mix.

      • Amanda

        I guess that is a good point – though you would think the Netherlands would mirror this based on geography. After all it is one of the most densely populated places that exist. Houses that overlook each other are a given here, and people live on top of each other but still acknowledge each other’s existence in small spaces and public places. Ignoring someone in the UK in a small space is a form of politeness though it generally feels uncomfortable for all those involved! Cultural differences at its best!

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