The Netherlands: The Country of Polders, Directness and Pragmatism

A while ago, my home country – the Netherlands – held its general elections. With a turnout of 82%, the Dutch have chosen a total of thirteen parties to represent them in the House of Representatives for the next several years, none of which received more than 22% of the votes. In the next several months, some of these parties will have to sit down in a closed room, and negotiate an agreement that will allow them to form a majority government for the foreseeable future. Only after this lengthy process will the Dutch people know who their Prime Minister and cabinet members will be.

I imagine this process sounds alien to many Americans. I assure, however, that in this post I will not put on my pundit hat and make predictions about which government we are likely to have, the merits of each party’s policy proposals, or the virtues and vices of the election campaigns. Instead, I will be writing about Dutch culture, starting with pointing out how our election campaign and the formation process provide cases in point about what the culture that I grew up in looks like.

Let’s take the campaign of the party of our Prime Minister. The centre-right VVD party once again got the largest amount of votes, and will likely be leading the coalitions talks. Their campaign slogan “Normaal. Doen.” would roughly translate in English to “Act. Normal”. Some ambiguity is used here, but the general message is that everyone should ‘behave normally’, and deviance from that are often a problem that should be dealt with. This banal message might raise some eyebrows overseas, but most Dutch people are very familiar with this phrase. There is also a Dutch saying “Doe maar normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg”, or “Just act normal, that’s crazy enough.” The egalitarian Dutch people frown upon eccentricity. Standing out in any way (for instance by lavish displays of wealth) is generally not appreciated. Any symbol of stature and prestige in Holland will likely be met with with ridicule and criticism to compensate for its lack of ‘normality’. Our comedy, for instance, has a long history of ridiculing the government, the church, and our best football players, even before such a thing became acceptable in similar western countries. ‘Men in uniform’, like policemen and the military are also not as respected in the country as they are in other Western countries. The only exception that seems to escape this rule is the existence of our monarchy. The cynic would claim that mediocrity is the highest virtue among the Dutch.

This culture of egalitarianism probably stems far back to the Middle Ages. While most countries in Europe were ruled by powerful kings, dukes, and counts, this was not necessarily true in the Low Countries. First of all, the fertile and riverine lands would quickly be densely populated by a large amount of cities, which managed to claim a certain degree of autonomy and independence from the local lord. Secondly, much of the Dutch land is actually below sea level (see the map below). Already during the late Middle Ages, the Dutch were reclaiming new areas by draining the land and building dikes in the proper places. These reclaimed areas (“polders”, as the Dutch call it) were typically ruled in a relatively bottom-up fashion by the local community, and not by the local lord. The 16th century inhabitants of this land had no problem paying taxes in order to take care of these water defenses (to this day, we still hold elections every 4 years to elect regional water authorities, the merits of which are up for debate). In a time when the Netherlands were still part of the Kingdom of Spain, the Spanish king decided that it was a good idea to centralize the governance of these water defences, which faced stern opposition from the local communities and rulers. This was just one of many attempts of the Spanish monarchy to curb the autonomy of the Dutch people, which would eventually culminate in the Dutch Revolt, Eighty Years of war, and the independence of the Dutch Republic.

You might think that from that point onward, the Dutch were immediately a like-minded people, who prided themselves on their common identity as Dutchmen. This was far from the case. While the people inhabiting these lands in the northwest of Europe found themselves in a unity necessitated by their struggle against foreign kingdoms, internal divisions were still stark. If you happen to become familiar with the Dutch language, you will notice that a huge amount of diversity in dialects and accents exists within the country, highlighting the local identities of the provinces that make up the country. Calvinist Protestantism was the most common religion in the Netherlands, but there were still large Catholic, humanist and even Jewish minorities. The compromise that was made between these groups was a certain degree of ‘tolerance’. This was not some kind of happy, progressive, multicultural tolerance, in which everyone got along and accepted each other’s views. It was a kind of tolerance born out of sheer necessity and pragmatism. Many ecclesiastical authorities would have loved to impose their views on the rest of the country, and where they had the majority and stability to do so, they did. However, most of the time, there were too many wars to fight and dikes to maintain to be occupied with that sort of stuff. Due to this pragmatism and decentralized governance of the Republic, religious minorities would have the right to freedom of conscience (which was not the same as freedom of religion) and have economic opportunities to flourish, both of which were much more extensive than in other European countries of the time.

When the Netherlands would eventually become a parliamentary democracy (in the 19th Century), this problem of division would rear its head again. This time, the Dutch would not only be divided along religious lines, but more generally along ideological lines. This phenomenon was called “verzuiling” (pillarisation). In general, Dutch society was segregated along four major societies (Liberal, Socialist, Catholic, Protestant, sometimes including smaller divisions like Communist and Evangelical). Each had its own distinct newspapers, television broadcasts, football clubs, student associations, schools, labour unions and political parties. However, since none of these pillars had an electoral majority, the solution was the same as it was in the old Republic: pragmatic tolerance, only this time with the added Dutch trait of ‘compromise’. Since the country had to be run someway or another (also taking into account the common threat of the sea), multiple pillars negotiated a compromise, formed a majority and governed the country for several years, after which the coalition could change. The word used for this kind of compromise is ‘polderen’ (referring to the cooperation that reclaiming areas below sea level requires). After World War II, Dutch society desegregated thanks to mass media and secularization, but this culture of consensus and compromise would persist. As you might have noticed in the introduction, the fragmented Dutch political parties will still spend months to conceive a mutually agreeable coalition government. But even outside of politics, this culture is apparent. While in France labour unions and capitalists regularly face off in confrontational standoffs, in the Netherlands these groups are expected to sit down (together with government officials), compromise, and come to an agreement without any long-term strikes taking place (this process is called the ‘poldermodel’). Even in companies, managers are expected to consult their juniors for input, and not just tell them what to do. In the Netherlands, power is supposed to be shared, and compromises will have to be made.

The topic of tolerance also brings us to the elephant in the room: How come so many Dutch people smoke weed? Well, actually, according to the World Drug Report (2011), the prevalence of cannabis use (either regularly, or during one’s lifetime) in the Netherlands is less than half that of the United States. So why did we legalize it? Well, actually, we didn’t. Owning less than 5 grams of cannabis is still a criminal offence, but it is simply not enforced. So called ‘coffeeshops’ are also technically not allowed to sell cannabis, but likewise, if they comply with certain criteria, these laws are not enforced. This is what the Dutch call ‘gedogen’ or ‘gedoogbeleid’ (the policy of turning a blind eye). At some point in time, the cultural trait of pragmatic tolerance came to the surface, and it was decided that these laws were simply not worth enforcing (the argument was made that this would keep it out of the criminal circuit). This happened despite the fact that there is still not a parliamentary majority in favour of true legalization. This same attitude gave us legalized prostitution, euthanasia, and led us to become the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage. This did not happen because all Dutch people necessarily agree with all of these things (although some of these, like gay marriage, now have widespread support), but because Dutch people just didn’t want to bother stopping someone else from making these choices.

Many observers mistook this expansion of progressive legislation for actual tolerance (meaning, actual sympathy for someone else’s beliefs or practices), instead of the pragmatic tolerance that it was. This led many to be unpleasantly surprised when the Netherlands also became one of the first western European countries that had a rise of anti-immigration parties. The truth is that in general, Dutch people never really had much interest in accepting and indulging in cultures and beliefs different from their own. They just wished to leave them alone, and be left alone in return. However, when some Dutch people felt that the combination of immigration and present integration policies would change the way they had to live their own life, they hit the brakes and voted for the party that promised them they didn’t have to.

Let’s move on to another famous Dutch stereotype: being frugal (or stingy, depending on your perspective). Dutch people love bargains, they expect to split the bill in a restaurant (i.e. Going Dutch), the use of credit cards is rare, and they generally like to save money when they can. To find the source of this, we can consult Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’, in which the German sociologist coined the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic. The theory dictates that the theological underpinnings of Protestantism (and Calvinism in particular) put a large focus on the virtue and obligation of hard work, discipline and frugality. The ministers of the Dutch Calvinist churches did their best to bestow these values to the churchgoers of the country. And it wasn’t only the Calvinist who held these ideas in high regard: the humanists of the early modern period were inspired by the ancient stoics and Franciscans, who all preached an aversion to worldly things like luxury and wealth.

These attitudes also lead to a very organised and diligent sense of time in Dutch society. Many Dutchmen maintain a strict agenda, in which meetings, appointments and even social events are planned far in advance. All these events are expected to start on time, and there is little room for improvising or ‘just dropping by’.

While many of these traits will ring true to people familiar with Dutch culture, we shouldn’t overestimate the influence that Calvinist preachers had on the values and ambitions of the Dutch people. While the Dutch might be economical in their spending, they take pride in expensive houses, cars and holidays. Already in the 17th century, rich Dutch families spent their money on lavish houses, some of which can still be seen by the canals of Amsterdam. When looking at the World Giving Index (2016), the Netherlands is one of the most generous countries in Europe. Maybe the Dutch trait of frugality can be better explained in terms of economic pragmatism. Geographically, the Netherlands has a unique position of being a fertile, riverine country, with close connections to major seas, oceans and the entire European hinterland. The Dutch were always conscious of their wealth, and always looked for ways to increase it (maybe also to function as a buffer against the dual threat of the sea and their mighty neighbours). This led them to inventions like the first joint stock company (and with it the stock market, derivatives and short sales). It also led the Dutch to navigate far and wide, as pioneers during the exploration age, in search of new markets to trade with and goods to bring home. The existence of many modern-day Dutch multinationals and expats with much decision-making autonomy is proof that these traits are not lost to the Dutch people of today. But, although international trade would push the Dutch to learn many foreign languages, younger generations are increasingly content with proficiency in only one foreign language.

This focus on increasing wealth would not come without victims and committed atrocities, however. The Dutch trading company WIC would play a major role in the Atlantic slave trade, while the VOC would be responsible for major oppression of the local population in the East Indies (sometimes even leading to exterminations, when the local populations would not do as they pleased). When the VOC went bankrupt, the Dutch state eagerly appropriated this role. Another side-effect that stands out is the tulip bubble: when the tulip (which was imported from Turkey) increased in popularity, many Dutch people would start speculating on the increasing price of the flower, expecting to increase their wealth manifold. When the price eventually collapsed, it would stand as an example of one of the earliest market bubbles (and hardly an advertisement of the Calvinist mores that the Dutch supposedly possessed).

An area in which the Calvinist background probably had more of a lasting effect concerns the trait of ‘plain-spokenness’ or ‘directness’. While the Netherlands turned into one of the least religious countries in the world, this is probably the one leftover from our religious past that hasn’t just survived, but has only been amplified even more. Aside from the religious part, the trait would also prove useful in a country where crises like the threat of floods was common, and needed to be dealt with fast, without concern for social niceties. When you ask a Dutchman about his opinion about the new shoes you bought, don’t be surprised if the response is that they look horrible. After a bad presentation, think twice before asking feedback from Dutch colleagues, because you will probably be assaulted with criticism, for everyone to see. The Dutch have elevated the importance of honesty to such a degree that it takes precedence over any forms of politeness and courtesy. We will say what is on our mind, even when our opinion is not asked for. It is no wonder that political correctness and social taboos are continually destroyed in Dutch society. This attitude of directness rubs many of the politest countries (especially the English) the wrong way. They tend to call it ‘rude’ instead of ‘direct’. But the fact is that this is often a two-way street: Dutch people consider the politeness and friendliness of the English (and often also of the Americans) to be insincere and find it hard to uncover what is meant when people don’t actually say what they mean.

Before our elections, the international media asked the question: “Will the Netherlands be the next domino to fall in the rise of populism?” If these media outlets would’ve understood Dutch culture, they would’ve known that it would be quite unlikely. It is true that Dutch tolerance has proven to have its limits, and that the party of Geert Wilders (the Dutch version of an anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-Euro populist with a curious blond hairdo) garnered significant momentum. But the Dutch culture of ‘normality’ dictated that his extreme political proposals could only go so far. And if ‘normality’ wouldn’t have been able to stop him, then our system would’ve forced him to compromise to such a degree that there would be much less reason for concern. While our directness will probably continue to offend the rest of the world, I hope that this piece has helped you understand where we are coming from and that we actually mean well.


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  1. Shaun McMaster Reply

    Loved the article! Got a Dutch buddy who makes my English sensibilities roar with laughter every time he speaks “directly”
    Really enjoyed that overview!!

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