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!