By Dave Mangene
“The University of Utrecht,” she says elegantly, raising the glass to her lips, her accent a gentle Dutch lilt, “is one of the oldest Universities in the Netherlands, and one of the largest in Europe…”
She sips the wine, deftly tucking a lock of long hair behind her left ear. She continues:
“The University is rated as the best University in our country, and the 13th best in Europe.” She even pronounces the tricky ‘th’ sound without a problem.
Wow, I think silently to myself, this woman’s English is really good.
“What does the University motto mean? The one in that painting over there?” I ask, pointing to it, wanting only to keep her talking.
Not missing a beat, she quickly replies, “It means ‘Sol lustitiae illustra nos’, which in English is ‘Sun of justice, shine upon us” she says.
She can pronounce Latin too. Damn.
Our conversation pauses as we look out the cafe window. Hordes of cyclists race by, the chirp of their bells filling the summer night.
“You know” I say truthfully, “your English is amazing. It’s really good!”.
She fixes me with a steely gaze and says…nothing.
“No really…” I muster, sensing a rift, “I’m an English teacher. I’m not just feeding you a line. How did you get so good?” I ask.
“Good?!” she barks, the corners of her mouth raising reluctantly into a smile which isn’t a smile at all.
“Nee, I am…no…not so good in English. I just say something…” she offers, waving me away, her cheeks red as wine.
This is weird.
All of a sudden her English sounds like the bus driver I had earlier today, instead of the smart woman I was talking to just a few minutes before.
“Normally, I speak English only to…people not from America or England…” she says, her voice soft. She looks down.
She is coming unglued.
She looks back up at me, her blue eyes on fire, almost mad now, and stubbornly asks, “Hoe is het met jouw Nederlands trouwens?” She chucks her phone into her bag, signalling her departure.
What just happened? We were having a nice talk and then BOOM, the energy got sucked out of the room. Somehow, I lost her.
Was it getting too late for a weeknight?
No. It’s 6:30 pm.
Was I being boring, talking only about myself?
No. I just kept asking about Utrecht, her hometown.
And then it hits me.
It was my compliment.
Before complimenting her English, she just spoke it, answering my questions with poise and lovely, dry wit.
But once I made a point to compliment her, based on how I truly felt about her English, all hell broke loose. She became self-conscious and her English got worse.
I never saw her again.
Had I crossed a line? I really wasn’t trying to flatter her, although I am American and we are prone to flattery. But I am an English teacher, and I’m in a position to judge on technical merits alone. Of course, she was an interesting (and attractive) woman and perhaps I wanted to pour it on a little thick.
In general, the Dutch don’t like compliments.
Check that: they ‘like’ compliments, for they are human after all, they just don’t feel comfortable receiving them, at least not in the way Anglo-Saxon people do.
To Americans this is strange because we are raised in a culture of praise, some of it genuine, some of it superficial. Either way, we’re at least used to receiving compliments, no matter how small.
The Dutch, not so much.
But why not? Why is it so hard for the Dutch to take a compliment?
First of all, there’s the whole ‘doe normaal’ thing. This is a society in which ‘normalcy’ reigns supreme and extravagant compliments are seen to be abnormal. Generally speaking, the Dutch will acknowledge a worthy performance simply by calling it ‘good’. The word ‘good’ carries a lot of weight here in Holland.
Another important reason the Dutch don’t take compliments well is their deeply rooted culture of equality. In other words, you are not better than me, no matter what you have achieved. We are all human, and therefore equal. I will not shower you with praise because that will elevate you, make you superior, and that is simply not realistic. Even if you have won a gold medal, even if you are the President of the company, we still poop in the same pot, and I’m not gonna treat you otherwise. To compliment you is to disrupt the typical Dutch lack of heirarchy, particularly in the West and North of the country. (Southerners, found below the major rivers, are more French oriented and therefore subject to more heirarchy).
For Dutch people dealing with Americans, this can be a problem. The Americans will compliment enthusiastically, thinking it will nurture the relationship, and instead it will push the Dutch people away. It’s a lose-lose situation: Americans are upset because they were just trying to be ‘nice’, and the Dutch people are upset because they feel they’re possibly being manipulated.
So now what?
If you’re American, and dealing with the Dutch, keep your compliments understated. Words like ‘amazing’, ‘awesome’, ‘mind-blowing’, and ‘life-changing’ don’t go down well. If someone in Holland deserves a compliment based on a worthy and proficient performance, a simple ‘well done’ or ‘good job’ will do the trick.
If you’re Dutch and an American is complimenting you based on real enthusiasm for your performance, all you gotta say, to properly take the compliment is this:
You can add a ‘thank you very much’, or an ‘I really appreciate that’, or a ‘God bless you’, or a ‘that’s very kind of you’, or one of the many ways we Anglos respond to compliments, but promise me one thing:
Say ‘thank you’. At the very least.
And for the love of God, please don’t respond to an American compliment by saying, “Ok.” That’s just not good enough my friends. It will make you sound rude and/or arrogant.
Compliments and criticism are a tricky business culturally speaking. If you follow the advice I’ve given you here, you will cross the intercultural bridge quite well.
Oh, and by the way, you look GREAT!