Reflection Square 1:

Those maverick Dutch and their annoying common sense

Part One

It keeps surprising us: the puzzling effectiveness of their unconventional touch - of the Dutch approach to life, liberty, social organization – and running a war.

Running a war? Yes, and I'm not talking about their 80-year struggle for independence from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, though that was a textbook case of how to shake off a far stronger foreign master: by merciless nagging, dissembling and breaking the rules until he gives up in disgust. Not even to the German occupation from 1940 to 1945, which Holland arguably could not have ended that soon on their own – though they would no doubt have gotten rid of them eventually.

The Rotterdam philosopher Erasmus
(1466-1536),who espoused rationality

No, I'm referring to the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan of the Dutch contingent of 1,950 troops after four years' service. The deaths of 24 Dutch soldiers in the conflict and increasing doubts about the wisdom and effectiveness of the U.S.-led policy caused a crisis in Dutch government, leading to the decision to get out. But the Dutch contribution was praised by analysts. According to the BBC, "the Dutch contingent has pioneered techniques which have since been held up as a model for other foreign forces in Afghanistan. These include the '3D' policy - defence, diplomacy and development - which involved fighting the Taliban while at the same time building contacts with tribal leaders and... offering the ... population safe living conditions and advancements in health care, education and trade." The Dutch soldiers often went about on bicycles, without helmets, instead of using their armoured vehicles.

Problems are there to be solved

The "3D policy" is just an example of the Dutch proclivity for applying common sense to any situation. Thoughtful visitors to the Netherlands often comment on the self-reliance and problem-solving nature of its citizens. Shiba Ryotaro, a famous Japanese writer, in his Oranda Kikou ('Report on a journey to Holland') points to the many achievements of the Dutch resulting from their faith in rationality and their rejection of -isms such as extremism, mysticism, militarism and fanatical nationalism.

Another Japanese book about Holland is Monogatari Orandajin ('Story about Holland') by Kurabe Makoto, who lived and worked in Holland for 12 years. He found the Dutch to be diligent, with an individual talent for solving problems. Despite being a small nation the Dutch often take a leadership role on the international stage. It helps greatly that they are multi-lingual. They are progressive in controversial areas such as gay marriage, euthanasia and tolerance of soft drugs like marijuana. They are frugal in their personal habits but tolerant of others who are not, and readily respond to calls for disaster or poverty relief. Mr. Kurabe says that conditions in the Dutch workplace are worker-oriented. Employees are treated as individuals, and their personal needs and interests are respected. This means that overwork is practically non-existent, enabling people to spend much time with their families. The author also finds that Japan might study the merits of Dutch education, which places the child first.

On this last subject, a Japanese writer and expert on education, Dr. Naoko Richters, has written and lectured extensively in Japan on the merits of education in Holland.

Three Dutch realities

We may well ask what the origins are of this Dutch willingness and ability to find workable, reasonable solutions. One major factor is Holland's geographical location in the delta area of major rivers, and facing an often angry North Sea. This has made it extraordinarily resourceful not only in dealing with the constant threat of flooding but also by reclaiming land from the sea and lakes.

Water everywhere:
Amsterdam has 1700 bridges

In addition, as a small country surrounded by much stronger powers, the Netherlands always had to know how to give and take in order to survive. Their deft maneuvering (rather than outright confrontation) enabled them to gain, regain, and maintain their independence as a nation over the centuries.

And then there's the invigorating climate, as unreliable as the surrounding seas and countries. Together these three realities - water, climate and intimidating neighbours - have helped nurture the Dutch character, and made them into a fiercely independent race of traders, farmers, artists and citizens always ready to re-think accepted systems if circumstances so dictate.

Daily life in Holland

In what ways do these character traits manifest themselves in day-to-day living?

First, there is the informality: the rejection of ceremony, rigid structures, expectations, apologies. Agreements tend to be fluid, subject to interpretation and modification. When making a date with someone, don't always expect strict punctuality. When dining out or having a coffee, you can generally choose your own table and just sit down. The waiter may seem to neglect you, but you are probably not being forgotten. And if you feel you are, don't conclude you are treated with disrespect because you are a foreigner. Just remind him or her with a smile. Staffing levels are much lower than in Japan, requiring serving personnel to stretch themselves.

In their social lives too the Dutch are low-key, non-deferential, apparently relaxed. 'Doe maar gewoon dan doe je al gek genoeg' is a popular and humorous way of saying: 'Just be yourself, then you are already crazy enough.'

Secondly, the Dutch practice thrift to avoid waste and obtain good value. This attitude, not to be confused with stinginess, tends to keep their day-to-day decisions levelheaded and makes them much less susceptible to the temptations of the consumer society with their famous brands and aggressive promotions and advertising. This may account for the relative absence of billboards, neon signs and touting in the streets. In fashion stores you are left alone until you are ready - or not - to make a purchase. Dutch thriftiness - like the frugality practiced in Japan in the mid-Showa era and now being revived - clearly has its place in the age of recycling and 'saving the planet.'

In fact, there are several other aspects in which Dutch society differs from most other countries. Taken separately, they are by no means unique, but seen together they do help to explain why the people of the Netherlands have managed to maintain their own identity over the centuries.

Next month we will explore some of these areas, and also consider the possible drawbacks of the Dutch approach to life.

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© 2010 Hans Brinckmann