[Column] Home is where the hearth is

Why is it so difficult for internationals to befriend Dutch people? After three years in the Netherlands, columnist Vishal Onkhar has some experiences of his own.

Vishal Onkhar: “Rembrandt’s forays into Indian drawing techniques might have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

An oft-expressed grievance by internationals in the Netherlands is that it is notoriously difficult to befriend Dutch people. In fact, a recent survey unveiled an unsettling truth – the Netherlands is among the 10 worst places in the world for forging close bonds with the locals. This discovery may ruffle a few feathers; after all, the Netherlands is renowned for its tolerant society, a reputation which the Dutch like to guard jealously. However, there exists a fine line between possessing amicable relations with your co-workers and enjoying the luxury of friends, and many foreigners find themselves on the wrong side of it.

If this sounds far-fetched, one need merely ask around. Odds are, most expats at TU Delft will confess to having several Dutch acquaintances but fewer Dutch friends than they would like. I, for one, will freely admit that in the three years I’ve spent so far in the Netherlands, I have garnered barely 10 friendships with Dutch persons. And while I bemoan this dearth of personal connections, I have been told, on many an occasion and to my dismay, that the average number is lower still. Furthermore, I am astounded to learn that to a sizeable portion of my companions, I am their sole international friend.

This sorry state of affairs begs the question: why it is so hard to warm up to the Nederlanders? I have a hunch that the reasons are threefold: (1) the nature of the niche that friendships occupy in the fabric of Dutch society, (2) a consequence of the Dutch mindset for efficiency, and (3) the emphasis on privacy, independence and individuality in Dutch lifestyle. To my mind, this triad governs the dynamics of interpersonal relationships in the Netherlands, and manifests as a three-pronged trident that outlanders must clash with as a rite of passage into the kingdom. At first glance, it may appear that I have disregarded a fourth, and particularly menacing, spike viz. the language barrier. But this omission is entirely intentional since many Dutch people are perfectly comfortable conversing in English. Besides, the inability to speak the local tongue seems not to have impaired expats’ prospects of fraternising with the natives in other European countries such as Spain.

The Dutch adopt a very businesslike approach to relationships

To start off, I have noticed that a substantial number of Dutch staff and students at TU Delft already maintain an extensive network of friends, typically from their neighbourhoods, high schools, and fraternities, prior to their entry into TU Delft. In my experience, these groups also tend to be socio-economically and racially homogeneous, pointing to a lasting sense of tribalism in Dutch communities, not unlike what I have witnessed first-hand in my own community in India. Thus, it strikes me that Dutch persons in an international environment face no real necessity to befriend foreigners, not least because their social networks are already brimming with people. Moreover, the individualistic manner in which Dutch society is structured lends itself more easily to preserving and nourishing existing relationships rather than cultivating new ones. This is a pity, as it exacerbates the alienation of expats through the formation of cliques that are either wholly Dutch or wholly international. A similar sentiment, one of estrangement as a foreigner in Europe, is illustrated by Marjane Satrapi in her influential comic, Persepolis. Perhaps TU Delft could stand to gain something by offering incentives to students to broaden their circle of friends.

Moving on, I find that in describing the Dutch mentality, simply labelling them as ‘direct’ and calling it a day is a reductionist approach that does the people of the Netherlands a disservice. Rather, in my opinion, the Dutch adopt a very businesslike approach to relationships, romantic or otherwise. Things seldom happen without prior notice, calendars, appointments, schedules, timeslots, and one is often reminded of the give-and-take nature of one’s associations. An unfortunate side effect of this admirable pragmatism is that it can come across, to those uninitiated in the ways of the Dutch, as them being cold and distant. Throw into the mix the infamous Dutch aversion for small talk (save for the weather) and their penchant for being point-blank, and one has a recipe for being misconstrued as aloof and unapproachable. Needless to say, this erroneous assessment does not readily promote the conducive circumstances vital to the fostering of friendships.

Finally, it is apparent to me that the Dutch lead highly independent, busy lives, with an innate need for privacy and a remarkably low tolerance for extraneous information. More often than not, they do not take kindly to personal questions in the early stages of friendship, and rarely pry into the affairs of others. While this is certainly a commendable attitude, it can also be a double-edged sword, as it hinders the development of the initial bonds of fellowship. Arguably, these casual inquiries lay the foundations for a future relationship, and so it proves difficult for expats to obtain a sure footing with the Dutch, when the latter are perceived, perhaps unfairly, as being neither receptive to questions nor forthcoming with them.

In the end, for an international, home is a place that brings with it a sense of belonging and a network of dependable friends to rely on in times of need. A place where one can warm oneself by the fire on a cold evening, and curl up beneath a blanket to watch the embers fade long into the night. And forget, for just a moment, how far we really are from our native land, as we slip into a dreamless slumber. The Netherlands and its people are all of these things; it just takes some time to see it.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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