Straight talk deeply ingrained in Dutch culture


Why are the Dutch so impolite? The German-born historian Christoph Driessen proposes a couple of hypotheses in yesterday’s NRC (Dutch).

The Calvinist is interested in the essence of things. Everything else is unnecessary. In that view politeness is quickly seen as hypocrisy in the Netherlands.

The republican form of government of the Netherlands [from 1581 – 1795, Branko] may also have led to a very direct and uncomplicated form of contact. In other countries, manners were largely determined by the aristocracy—hence the word courteous. […] One of the leaders of the republic, Johan de Witt, was mighty enough to oppose the Sun King [Louis XIV, Branko], but when he tried to wear a gold and silver garment to underline that position, instead of the simple black every other Dutchman wore, the troops he tried to inspect jeered and laughed at him.

Considering the Dutch saw themselves as burghers before they became Protestants, I am guessing the second hypothesis may carry the larger weight. Unfortunately, Driessen does not expand on why the republic was such a successful idea in the Netherlands long before it became popular in other Western states.

The historian also points out that since other countries like Germany are letting go of class-based societies, the Dutch head start may actually turn into a disadvantage. Unlike people from other countries who now also learn how to talk straight when needed, the Dutch cannot easily reverse gear and use politeness to sugar coat unpleasant messages, as they have not been brought up in a culture of politeness. Driessen suggests that children could be taught manners in school to remedy this.

(Drawing of a Goop by Gelett Burgess, from a 1903 children’s book on manners.)


  1. jon says:

    In the UK, the Dutch politicians opposed to the Islamic cultures in the Netherlands are portrayed as vulgar racists (racism now being the ultimate slur). I wonder if that direct impolite style you speak of is mis-understood by us for crudity and brash vulgarity.

  2. Darth Paul says:

    I find Dutch manners very attractive- there’s directness, yet a respect for others’ space (I’ve never heard a sober Dutch person shout in public).

    Jon- Not quite. The anti-muslim mentality itself has nothing to do with Dutch practicality and much to do with the (perceived) superiority of the cosmopolitan Dutchman to the unevolved ‘native’ in the mind of the nationalist. I suspect this same mentality extends to the negativity towards buitenlanders and such.

  3. Jay Vos says:

    Well, personally, in my own Dutch family (relatives in NL) and among my circle of Dutch friends, I do find they have forthright opinions and are not ashamed to voice them. Thankfully one of the advantages of my schizophrenic upbringing (Dutch-American) is that I’ve learned the Dutch nuanced put-downs at an early age! Ha!

    Here’s Driessen’s article (in English) in NRC/international today:

    Also, Paul Schnabel in the same paper:

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