A Silent Movie

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches 

Welcome to the second four-way guest posting of NorthSouthEastWest! We are four expat bloggers who have joined together to rotate our monthly guest posts from the four corners of the world on each other's blogs: Linda at Adventures in Expatland (North), Russell at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary (South), me at Expatria Baby (East) and Maria at I Was an Expat Wife (West).

 This month's theme is 'how different cultures physically interact'. I hope you enjoy today's guest post on my site by Linda, and that you check out my NSEW guest post over at Adventures in Expatland. Better yet, why not check out all four?!

In the meantime, let me introduce you to Linda, an American expat and writer living in The Netherlands, and the brains behind the NSEW blog concept. She writes here a reflection on physical interaction, rudeness, and cultural relativism.


I've done plenty of travelling in my life, worked in the international arena for most of my career and lived in a country other than my own for a time when I was younger. So I'm used to observing and respecting cultural differences, and know that they certainly include the non-verbal.

But I have to admit that when I was preparing to move a few years ago to The Netherlands, it never really occurred to me that there would be all that many non-verbal differences in how we physically interact. After all, America and The Netherlands are two Western industrialized countries. English and Dutch even developed from the same base Germanic language.

What I should have realized was that of course the differences are there, just as they may exist if you move from one part of a country to another. 

It's a little like watching a movie without the soundtrack. Your mind is expecting certain actions or behavior, so if your eyes take in something other than what is expected, it registers. When the physical interactions between cultures are very different, it's immediately noticeable because it feels jarring. Others are more subtle, like nuanced shades of different; it takes a little time to notice them. Something feels gently out of kilter.

Probably the first difference I recall noticing was when we were settling in to life on an entirely Dutch street in a predominantly Dutch neighborhood. As I carefully retraced my steps to the ever-growing list of places with which I was becoming familiar (grocery store, local shops, tram stops, recycling station, nearest park to walk the dog), I'd smile and nod at passing pedestrians. For those making eye contact, I'd add a quick hello.

It wasn't long before it dawned on me that no one was returning my greeting. Some people even looked startled. By what?, I'd wonder. What to me was a passing pleasantry, an almost automatic courtesy, was clearly not standard procedure here.

And it grew from there.

Whenever I found myself waiting in close proximity at a tram or bus stop, rarely did anyone acknowledge my or anyone else's presence. No one ever made the casual passing remark one is used to in the United States. You know, the simple observations such as 'The bus is running late this morning' or 'What gorgeous weather this is!' indicating a sort of 'we're all in this together' attitude as we passed time in tight spaces.

Alvimann morguefile.com

It wasn't simply a case of language differences. No one said anything in Dutch, either.

In stores and shops and other public places, when someone had to press against you to get by, they didn't say Excuse me or Pardon me as they brushed past. They'd just turn sideways and slip by as if you weren't even there. Not in an aggressive manner, just getting on with business.

Much is made of the Dutch becoming accustomed to living in tight quarters over the centuries given the lack of land suitable for farming and building. Only with the advent of a sophisticated dyke system could the polder land be reclaimed from the sea. They're used to having many people interacting closely together, and somehow that has translated into no one saying even the Dutch sorry as they invade enter (at least from my own cultural perspective) your immediate personal space in the crowded aisles of the local Albert Heijn grocery store. 

Why? Because their definition of personal space in public areas is much narrower than many other cultures. It's simply taken for granted that in crowded places, people will end up being packed in tightly. No need to acknowledge it or the air would be filled constantly with a litany of Sorry. Sorry! Alstublieft. Zo sorry. Graag gedaan. Sorry. 

Rarely a dank u wel when you hold a door open for someone, either. Occasionally someone will hold the door for someone other than in their party, but not always. All part of a culture that believes strongly in a Calvinistic sense of personal responsibility. The door is there, of course one should be prepared to open it.

These are subtle cultural differences that, since they may differ from one's own social norms, are often trotted out as examples of how rude or standoffish the Dutch can be. But is this really so?

I think not. 

It's all a matter of perspective. What is expected in one culture may not even make the radar screen in another; what is acceptable in one may not be tolerated elsewhere. If we bring our value judgements to bear on the behavior of others in different cultures, we risk the stinging pronouncements of others on our own customs and expectations. We also miss out on what we're not seeing, what we're not observing.

Watch closely and you'll see that the Dutch are not without their own effusive salutations when they encounter someone they know. They'll do the standard Dutch greeting of three kisses. Not two as in many cultures, but a full three! Hands holding the other person's upper arms to draw in for a partial hug and then left, right, left: lips on cheeks if a family member or close friend, air kiss with cheeks touching for acquaintances.

Observe Dutch people interacting with someone they know and you'll hear the lilting singsong conversation and the high-pitched, drawn out Dooie! (akin to an informal See ya!) of some of the women, the easygoing joshing and guffawing of the men, the gentle teasing of teens and younger children by adults.

While perhaps not as 'hands on' as some cultures, the Dutch can indeed be generous in their physical interactions with others: they just draw their cultural circle of intimacy much smaller than some of us are used to. 

So more than two years on, how have I changed?

Well, I still make eye contact and greet most people passing on the sidewalk, but now it's with a short Morgen or Dag. Most respond, and very few ignore me or act surprised anymore. Sure, many of the neighbors that I haven't met probably recognize me by now, but whether they are responding due to a sense of familiarity or acceptance or just to humor me, we'll never know.

I still nod and smile at whoever is waiting in the tram shelter with me, but I don't think twice if they don't respond.

When I encounter a close friend, I easily slip into a cheeks-touching triple air kiss if they're Dutch, a single air kiss with a half hug if they're not.

I now say a quick Pardon when having to brush past someone in a crowded place, but don't expect it to be said in return. When I hear that or Excuse me, we both tend to spin around, realizing we've probably encountered a fellow expat or someone who's been socialized to say that.

Because that's the point. It often isn't about right or wrong or polite or rude, it's about how each of us has been socialized.

But you'll never EVER hear a high-pitched Dooie! pass these lips. I'm just saying.


{Image credit: Alvimann morguefile.com}