In the workshops I facilitate, I often ask my participants what the biggest intercultural challenge they face is. Since most are foreigners living in the Netherlands, they obviously struggle the most with some aspects of Dutch culture, often mentioning the Dutch “direct communication style”, which they can experience as rude or even brutal.

Communication and understanding each other: 2 different things

A Japanese woman was telling me that, for two years after she moved to Amsterdam, she had frequently cried when her Dutch boss gave her feedback. Though the general evaluation of her work was positive, she could not comprehend why the daily feedback was so harsh that it led her to doubt her competency.

Other contexts, other perspectives… A few months ago a Dutch friend talked to me about her difficulty working with her French colleagues. It was real challenge for her, dealing with people who did not always clearly say what they meant, when they weren’t saying exactly the opposite!

We quite clearly don’t all communicate the same way, and this can result in great frustration on both sides. But where do those differences come from? And above all, how can we deal with them?

Context matters

Think about your best friend. The chances are good that you have known each other a long time, and that you understand each other without needing to say much. You know each other’s lives, backgrounds, personalities, preferences, strengths and weaknesses, habits, and place in society; you know your friend’s “context” and they know yours. This concept of high- and low-context communication* helps us explain the differences in the ways French and Dutch people communicate.

For French people context is important, and communication is deeply rooted in context. People sometimes talk in an implicit or allusive way; as a listener, you have to read between the lines and understand double meanings. To understand someone, you’ll have to know their context; just as in the best friends example, it’s important to know where that person comes from, what they do, what they like,a nd so forth. That’s why building the relationship is so important – when you know someone, you share knowledge and references with that person. You can say things without fully spelling them out; sometimes, even without saying them at all.

For Dutch people context is not that important; you need to understand each other even if you don’t know each other. That’s why their communication avoids implicitness, or reading between the lines. People will usually say what they mean and mean what they say. Language is functional, transparent, and direct. This intends to avoid misunderstanding and confusion.

A few years ago a French exporter based in Amsterdam started a business to export bakfiets (the classic Dutch cargo bike) from the Netherlands to France. He tells a story about how his project almost failed from the beginning because of major differences in communication modes. When he found his first potential big client in France, he invited him for a business lunch and made sure his Dutch production partner would attend as well. After an hour talking about everything (the lovely lunch, the success story of the client’s company, the French economic situation…) except the product and the potential collaboration, the Dutch partner could not stop himself from expressing his impatience. He asked quite bluntly if they could finally talk business, product, price, all the things which were ultimately the reason they were meeting! The French client turned suddenly silent, with a very displeased look on his face. It took all the intercultural agility of the French entrepreneur to save the situation and win the contract.

This business lunch illustrates the way French people communicate quite well: they develop familiarity with their interlocutor and their context, building the relationship. Information is exchanged, and trust is cautiously built along with the common reference frame that will ease future communication and mutual understanding. For many Dutch people, even the concept of business lunch is difficult to grasp: why is the focus not on the real purpose of the meeting (the deal)? They can even feel that it is a subtle way of trying to “mess them around”, or a strategy to gain time. For most Dutch people the goal of a business meeting is not to build the relationship, but to get a deal. 

This example reveals that different ways of communicating are expressions of deeper divergent needs and perspectives. In the French cultural context building the relationship is key, whereas in the Dutch cultural context the focus is on the task to be achieved and being effective.

Understanding the values at stake

When I worked in promoting France as a touristic destination to the Dutch market, I kept wondered at how the promotional texts coming back from the translation and copy department were half the length of the original French texts. What was going on? The texts underwent an “effectiveness boost”! The relationship or complicity the French writer had attempted to create with his French reader by using lyrical sentences and metaphors was not suitable for the Dutch reader. The copy department had the sensitive task of transforming the text into a story much more focussed on what, when, where, how, and for whom.

Behind the implicit communication, the metaphors, the reading between the lines, hides a central notion in the French culture: relationships. Whereas in the Dutch culture, effectiveness is a central need that materializes in the communication style. This need translates into a transparent, intended-to-be-misunderstanding-proof way of communicating that permits people to express themselves directly (too directly, some will argue) and avoid wasting time.

Once you are aware of those divergent needs it becomes easier not to feel so baffled by the way Dutch people communicate. It is when the Japanese woman became aware of those differences that she started to regain her self-confidence. Likewise, the bakfiets producer could have done good business in France had he understood the importance of building a shared context and relationship.

How to better communicate?

A friend from Senegal told us that after he moved to the Netherlands he quickly learnt to leave home very early for appointments. Why? Simply because he had set up a strategy enabling him to answer his own cultural needs and those of the Dutch at the same time. In Senegal, as in many other African countries, communication is deeply rooted in relationships with others, with family, friends, groups, etc. When you go somewhere you are never really sure at what time you will arrive; it will depend on how many people you come across on the way with whom you will be culturally prescribed to chat for a few minutes about the latest news. Upon arrival in the Netherlands, this friend was confronted with an intercultural challenge: be on time (effectiveness) and greet all the acquaintances met on the way (relationship). He solved the dilemma by leaving home early.

This example illustrates an intercultural agility that consists of bridging cultural requirements that are sometimes at odds with each other. Reconciling opposite requirements is the attitude that enables people to harmoniously navigate between different cultures, while staying true to themselves.

Here are a few suggestions to help in understanding others and communicating well

  • First, try to suspend your judgement and avoid thinking in terms of good and bad. “They” are not rude and “we” are not hypocritical, we just have different ways of communicating and thinking.
  • Always remember that cultural expectations materialize in different communication styles, and try not to take things personally.
  • Find original ways of reconciling opposite requirements while monitoring your communication style to make sure your message will be correctly interpreted. Adopt a more or less direct style and be ready to adjust your ways of doing things as you go.
  • Keep an open mind and remember that everything is a question of perspective.

*The concept of high-/low-context communication was developed by the American anthropologist E.T Hall in the 60s.

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