Being an expat in the Netherlands – a cultural piece of cake?

Cultural differences are one of the major sources of complications during an international assignment. This is also the case when expatriates are sent to nearby countries, for example within Europe. Much research focuses on expatriates who are on assignment in countries obviously different from their own – for example Americans in Japan, or the other way around – but it is also important to look at intra-European assignments, because there are many cultural differences in a relatively small geographical area. It is often thought that expats on assignment within Europe will not have too hard a time adjusting, as many people assume that the culture is not very different. True, you won’t get any hardship premiums or danger pay when you’re sent to the Netherlands or to the UK, but lack of awareness of cultural differences can lie at the root of many problems.

“I could have been better prepared. Many people think that all countries in Europe are the same, but this is on the surface only […] I would have liked to have known more about English culture, especially within companies” (Dutch expatriate on first assignment in the UK)

One strategy to deal with cultural differences is to get in touch with locals. Oberg already said it in his famous article on culture shock (1):

“What can you do to get over culture shock as quickly as possible? The answer is to get to know the people of the host country.”

It looks like this might not be as easy in the Netherlands as in other countries, according to the Expat Explorer Survey (2). They asked expatriates how easy it was to make local friends, and Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, Germany and Switzerland came out at the bottom of the list. The multitude of reactions (or complaints) on various forums suggests that the Netherlands indeed is not a piece of cake for everyone (3).

What do you think? Are some countries ‘easier’ to adjust to than others? How easy have you found it to adjust to living and working in the Netherlands?

Sources
(1) Oberg, K. (1960). Cultural shock. Adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, p. 182
(2) This finding is mentioned in the 2010 report. For the 2011 and 2012 reports they did ask the same question, but unfortunately the report does not list the countries in order of how easy or difficult it is to make local friends. http://www.expatexplorer.hsbc.com
(3) For example the Expatica forum about Dutch culture http://community.expatica.com/forums/24

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About Marian van Bakel

I graduated in International Business Communication at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. After my studies I was a Visiting Study Fellow at University of Oxford where I conducted a research on the adjustment of Dutch diplomats and their partners in London. In February 2012 I successfully defended my PhD thesis ‘In Touch with the Dutch’, in which I put expatriates in touch with a Dutch host to examine the effect of this contact on the success of the international assignment. During my PhD research I also worked as in house communication consultant at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. I am currently a postdoc at the Department of Leadership and Corporate Strategy at the University of Southern Denmark (www.sdu.dk/en). Since 2004 I have done extensive voluntary work in the intercultural field for the Young Society of Intercultural Education, Training and Research (Young SIETAR). One of my projects was to co-edit and co-author A Suitcase Full of Discoveries (2008), an intercultural storybook for children.
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4 Responses to Being an expat in the Netherlands – a cultural piece of cake?

  1. Thank you for this great article and a first insight about research on this field. As an expat-since-birth in Europe I completely agree that it’s not always easy to adjust within the European countries, and being aware of the differences is the best way to be prepared for a new assignment. I think that all depends on the personal character and the background we have. If we have already lived and worked or studied in another foreign country and maybe are TCK or ATCK (or TCA), expat etc. it can be easier, because we already know how to approach a new culture. Independently on the country we’re going to live and work, we have to be proactive; the sooner the better. It’s easier if we have children, as we get quickly in contact with other families, schools, clubs etc. – I would be interested in the criteria for the reports mentioned in note (2). Also, making local friends might appear easier in some countries, but in the countries mentioned as “on the bottom of the list”, this usually requires more time, but once you’re friend, you’re friend forever… And the definition of “making local friends” is very subjective, some consider “friend” someone with whom they can talk about very intimate things and trust forever, others would call “friend” someone who is just a bit more than an “acquaintance”. – I’m very glad I found your blog!

    • Thanks! Personality and international experience certainly have something to do with how easy it is to adjust to a new culture – I hope to blog about these topics too. I’ve also heard often from expats that having children, especially those who are at primary school, helps because it allows you to make contacts through the school (bringing children to school, volunteering at school).

      Those are some very good questions about making local friends. The Expat Explorer survey does not address them (it simply asked a lot of expatriates about their ease in making ‘local friends’). Their finding definitely got me interested in cultural differences in making friends, because I think a cultural difference may (in part) explain why the Netherlands is at the bottom of the list. Many expatriates in the Netherlands expect to be invited for drinks or dinner by their colleagues; however, this is not usual in Dutch culture where there is a fairly strict boundary between work and private life. Expats should go about in a different way to make contacts here. I think it would be very helpful to learn more about such cultural differences in making contact, and I hope to be able to some more research into this topic.

      I’d be very happy to hear any input about how to make contact with locals in specific countries!

      • This is exactly the point, everyone has different expectations, depending on his/her cultural background. If an Italian comes to the Netherlands and expects the same social rules etc. he will be disappointed. That’s why I consider it crucial to learn about a culture before judging its habits. – I think in every country it’s like a new adventure to get friends, it depends on where you live: in a small village or a city, in a multicultural context or not. What I found very useful was to first observe the locals in the new country, to study their behaviour. There are so big differences among the European cultures for example in welcoming people: with a handshake, looking straight in the eyes, with a pat on the back, with a hug, a single smile etc. – I would really love to read and learn more about this topic!

      • Exactly – and the important point is not to forget to prepare if you’re going to a relatively nearby culture. If one goes to China one usually expects cultural differences and is provided cross-cultural training (if sent by a company), but if one is sent to the UK, for example, this training is usually omitted because it is assumed the cultures are more or less the same (from the viewpoint of a Dutch expat) and the expat does not need any cross-cultural preparation.

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