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Friday, 3 August 2012

Does it pay to be polite… in the Netherlands?

I’ve lived in several countries, and have always wondered why politeness is viewed so differently in each country. For me, Canada was on one end of the politeness spectrum. People would ask me: “How are you?”, and even though I knew that it is just a manner of speaking, and that I was supposed to say: “I am fine”, I was still surprised.

In Poland, if you asked the same question, you might hear an answer along the lines of: “my dog died, my house burned down, and I’ve been sick for 5 months”. However, even there, the answer is more and more expected to be: “I am fine”. I am fine, I am fine, I am fine. Even if you’re not. But I do understand that it is just a way to exchange greetings, and that it is just as good as any other way. It’s like a game of ping-pong. You ask, I answer. My father half-jokingly said that when your next neighbour is thousands of miles away, you are very polite to every human being because you just don’t see so many of them.

The Netherlands seem to be placed at the other end of the politeness spectrum. Before I came here, I knew that the Dutch people are extremely direct, but even then I was completely unprepared when a waiter in Amsterdam asked us: “What do you want?”. Not: “What would you like to order?”. Not:”What can I get you?, no. He said: “What do you want”!

At that time, I thought that the Dutch might call themselves “direct’, but that they are in fact, rude. But with time, I came to realize, that the Dutch people are not rude. They just show their concern in different ways. People always help me when they see me with my stroller, wanting to get on the tram. And while I sometimes have to ask for help, they usually volunteer. Also, I had always expected the Dutch people to be cold and distanced, but instead I found that they love children, and smile at me each time when I take my girls for a walk. This of course, does not explain a certain woman’s behaviour, but it is my overall impression of the Dutch people.

Another thing is the structure of the Dutch language, and the way it works. The Dutch use short sentences and they cut straight to the chase, without the preliminary “it would be great, if you could do this…” However, it seems to me that they don’t use language that much to show their politeness. Instead, Dutch people act politely, when asked for help. They help with the stroller. They give directions when asked. They nod politely when you want to buy something from them. Also, there are expressions of politeness that I haven’t noticed in other languages: “Ja, hoor. Nee, hoor”. “Ja, dat kan”.

This is not something that I easily understand. Politeness is important to me, and I want to convey it as well as I can when I talk Dutch. But then, I lack the proper expressions, and the way of speaking. I think I also have to adapt to the Dutch way of being polite a little bit- after all, politeness is so much more than just saying lots of nice words!



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17 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post. I think it always pays to be polite, not only in the Netherlands. I agree that politeness is much more than just "nice words". If they come with a friendly and sincere smile, they are not empty phrases. - I would like to add the interjection "graag gedaan (hoor)" or the "ik wens je veel plezier ermee" (from the lady in the shop that just sold you something) to your list; but I guess there is more to add.

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    1. Yes, I agree that it always pays to be polite. I just find it hard to be polite the "Dutch way". I agree that there are many more expressions to express politeness, and the ones you suggested are very good. I think that these expressions, while they should be genuine, often are used in a pretty automatic way- like in ping-pong. And I think that in Dutch, I haven't reached that level yet, this is why I still struggle with being polite here- I can't always think of the right expressions at the right times.

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  2. My general impression of the Dutch is that they are polite enough; at least, they are a generally friendly people. I suppose that the best way to think of them is that they endeavour to make everything as 'gezellig' as possible. The most polite place I have ever visited must be California, apparently similar to your experience of Canada. On the other end of the scale is Munich (where I lived for five years), where the people often are extremely rude.

    I was brought up in England always to say 'please' and 'thank you'. Consequently, I always say 'alstublieft' and dank u wel' in Dutch. However, I think that this comes across as a bit strange to the Dutch who as you say, use funny little words like 'hoor' en 'graag' to express politeness. Old habits die hard though!

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    1. Paul, this post was actually born out of our last discussion on what does it mean to be polite. However, my impression of Canadians is that they were extremely polite and easy-going people. They do say "How are you", and you answer that you are fine, and ask how they are, and then they tell you their life stories! And, another thing that comes to my mind is that some nations are generally extremely polite-just not to foreigners. This whole politeness thing is a little bit weird.

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  3. These cultural differences are so fascinating. I have often been struck by the apparent rudeness of people who don't say please and thank you, only to realise that it is in fact down to language differences. One thing I've noticed from French culture is that they say 'of course' a lot more than the British... which can lead to misunderstandings, as it's considered a bit arrogant!

    Please could you translate 'hoor' for me?! I'm sure it's much politer than it sounds! I'm wondering if it's a bit like the German 'gerne', which I suppose means 'with pleasure' although it's used with far more frequency than the English equivalent.

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    1. Tallulah, these cultural differences are exactly what I wanted to address in this post. As the word "hoor" is concerned, frankly, I still don't really know what it means. It seems to me that it's like a "filling", so that the "ja" or "nee" wouldn't feel too rude.It's a little bit like "right?", "you know", etc, although it doesn't mean that. And I really had to laugh about your comment- the difference between "hoor" and the other word you probably had in mind is very small, and it's also about the intonation and your tone of voice that makes the difference between being polite, and being very, very, very rude!

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    2. Your're right about the "hoor": it is a "tussenwerpsel: ter bevestiging van een uitspraak 1781 [Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal: hooren]; but have a look at this: http://www.etymologiebank.nl/trefwoord/hoor.

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    3. Thank you, Ute for the link, and for the explanation!

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    4. For the people who have trouble reading the etymology link: 'hoor' is from 'hoor je', and can be translated as 'do you hear' or less literally 'did you understand'. In a way it is comparable to the 'do you' addition at the end of English questions and has the same role, making the sentence less 'rude' (or direct) and more smooth. In Dutch however it is used as an affirmative.

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    5. Thanks for the explanation. I actually thought that "hoor" might be connected to "to hear", as it is in English (to hear) and German (hoeren), however I was confused by the fact that the Dutch say "luisteren". But the connection sounds pretty logical to me.

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  4. What you describe sounds a bit like the Danes - being very direct, not using much polite phrases. For example, sitting next to a Danish person at the table you'd hear things like "pass me the butter" and, as a Danish friend explained, it is not impolite, they just don't have the word 'please' in their language.

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    1. Ilze, while the Dutch do have the word "please", and they use it, they can still come across as impolite. But you are right, sometimes politeness is expressed non-verbally!

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  5. In English, for a long time we had no single word for 'please'; it is essentially a French word and was introduced by the Norman occupiers after 1066. In Old English you would have said something along the lines of 'I bid you, pass me the butter' (which is of course related to 'bitte' in German).

    Regarding 'hoor' in Dutch, I think of it as being a somewhat reassuring, like 'you know' in English: 'je ziet er goed uit, hoor!'/'you look nice, you know!' In any case, the Dutch seem to find this usage acceptable which is perhaps the most a foreigner can ask for! The other 'wordlet' often used by the Dutch is 'zeg', which acts as an intensifier, just like in (rather old-fashioned) English: 'zeg, dat is een mooie auto!'/'say, that's a nice car!'. Please take my examples with a pinch of salt; I'm not Dutch and can't guarantee that this is exactly how the Dutch would say these things!

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    1. Thanks Paul for the explanation. I think the Dutch people say: "zeg maar", a lot, that is true. As, as for being polite, I remember studying for my A level exam in English, and we had an English teacher who was somewhat crazy (on top of being an exceptional English teacher), and his list of questions to ask the other person included: "Ask your friend to stop kissing your boyfriend. Be polite!" I came up with: "Would you be so kind so as not to kiss my boyfriend!"

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  6. That's something I noticed. Everybody says the Dutch aren't polite, but I noticed they use modal particles to show politeness (maar, eens, wel) instead of saying "could you, please" etc. They say "geef maar", which I think it's slightly more polite than "give me" and less than "give me please". English features no such constructions, so when the Dutch speak English something is lost in translation. Mee eens?

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    1. Yes, we are so used to being shown politeness using "thank you", "please", etc that we don't notice that there are other ways to be polite, for example through actions, or the little words similar to the ones you've just mentioned. Another thing is that you can be very patronizing and condescending when being polite- sometimes you can offend somebody by saying "please", it all depends on the tone of your voice, and your intentions. So, maybe we could have another look at politeness and decide that there is more than words?

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