Us Europeans

With compliments

The Hague, NL (View on map)

Look up the word `Dutch` in an English dictionary and the explanation `inhabitant of The Netherlands` will be followed by a list of unflattering proverbs. Most of them refer to the Dutch being rude, which is a well-established stereotype about the Dutch in adjacent countries. The Dutch prefer to see themselves as honest and direct, and allergic to differences hierarchical positions. Anybody differing from the average is singled out and usually made fun of – regardless of his or her social status, achievements or pretensions. The Dutch use a subtle combination of compliments, criticism and sarcasm to `level the playing field` between themselves and everybody they deal with.

Compliments are a complicated matter in The Netherlands. They need to be adapted to the situation, issued by the right person and with the right tone in order to actually be recognised as something positive instead of just an ironic remark. The biggest danger of compliments is to distort the relation of equality between two people, which would put both the giver and the receiver of a compliment in an uneasy position.

Good compliments
Danny (37) tells me that he does not often get compliments, but doesn`t hand out many either. It`s not really fair that you will hear it straightaway when something is wrong, but hardly ever when you do something right. Danny would be happy to hear that he is good at something, but only if he feels sufficiently confident that he actually is good at it. Otherwise, the range of options to treat the compliment would be to either not notice it at all, to bounce the compliment or to make a cynical joke about it.

In some cases, criticism is received with more enthusiasm than compliments. Jorien (23) and Jurriaan (29, both in photo) explain that people have a tendency to check compliments for authenticity. Jorien says that a compliment with no reasonable ground is not something that makes people happy. `Somebody who keeps making compliments to people makes a fool out of him- or herself, or even worse: a slijmbal(bootlicker). A compliment needs to be exclusive, tailor made and applicable to the situation. It also needs to come from the right person, which is somebody who you respect for having a good taste or experience in the domain the compliment refers to. A random compliment out of the blue is only marginally appreciated if it just serves to make conversation.`

Jurriaan tells that he does not like the idea of getting compliments without a reward behind. `Managers in The Netherlands are usually not very abundant with compliments, but if they were, people would come and ask for bigger salaries all the time.` Bart (21) says he likes compliments from people he knows, but not from people he does not know. `I need to know whether the compliment is serious. If I do not believe what the other says, or don`t agree with it, I will just start laughing or make some kind of sarcastic joke. About myself or about the other person.`

Taking yourself seriously
Self-mocking is a popular form of humour. Mocking about others is almost equally popular, and people are expected to have a lot of relativeringsvermogen, a much-used Dutch word that translates as `the ability to see things in perspective` or `the ability to make painful things acceptable simply by thinking about them in the right way` or more practically `not to take things too personal`. Relativeringsvermogen is one of the most vital characteristics one needs to enjoy life in The Netherlands.

Dutch people are reluctant not allow compatriots to think high of themselves. Paradoxically, those people are usually put back in place by… compliments. While the content of the remark may not differ from a positive compliment, its intonation clearly gives away the sarcastic undertone. Interpreting Dutch compliments therefore requires a lot of reflection. Even the Dutch themselves have a hard time dealing with compliments, which is probably the reason they are used so rarely. Compliments may cause confusion and it is not uncommon to hear people ask `was that serious?` after they have been given a compliment.

Consensus
The Dutch consensus style goes way beyond office buildings and management books. Equality is to be maintained at all cost and mixing criticism and compliments in a smart way helps people remain each other`s equals. If there was such possibility, the Dutch would debate about a compliment to see if they find it mutually acceptable: whether the receiving party deserves the compliment and whether the emitting party is in the position to issue the compliment. The personality of both emitter and receiver are also taken into consideration. Do they match the prevalent standards of empathy? Is no harm is done by either momentarily upgrading or downgrading the person, in both short- and longterm?

With all this thinking about something that is supposed to serve just as a tool for social bonding, it`s not a wonder that Dutch Lonely Heart ads consistently ask for spontaneous people: there is not much spontaneous about being Dutch. Do what you`re good at but don`t insist too much. Rather have somebody else say to somebody else that you do alright, rather than having somebody tell you in your face that you`re fantastic. Indirect compliments cause less friction and are more likely to open doors.

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