Have you ever wondered who your neighbor is? Not so much in detail, but simply who he or she is, because you never see them…?

In most (very) individualistic countries, people tend to keep to themselves. The Dutch are no different. Simply dropping in for a coffee in the morning or a drink in the evening is not done; you must first make an appointment. Whereby you should keep in mind that most Dutch people have a full agenda, because a full agenda is a sign of a full life.

So you’re living in the Netherlands, either in an apartment or a house with a garden. How do you deal with your neighbor? What if you need help, or the garden fence needs to be replaced? How do you go about that?

Let’s use the example of placing a new fence in the garden that separates your garden from your neighbour’s. Most neighbours will agree to split the cost and share the work. But you need to ask gently and politely first. You cannot simply ‘tell’ them what needs to be done. The Dutch are allergic to being told what to do.

Now that you’ve agreed that you will share the cost and the work, you will go to your local DIY store together, and buy the items you need. And, once you get home, you will start getting to work. Of course, you will have carefully planned this activity and it will be in your neighbor’s agenda as well.

After having finished all this hard work, your neighbour will treat you to a beer, which you will drink together, within happy view of the end result.

At this moment, you should not be tempted to think that you and he are now best friends. For you are not. This was simply a one-time event after which you will each go back to your own houses and keep to yourselves. Those words are key: “keep to yourself”.

These words are key: “keep to yourself

Can I Talk to You?

Can I talk to you, Chris?” That’s what my upstairs neighbor asked me when I was living in Amsterdam years ago. “What’s it about?” I asked. “I just want to talk to you, Chris, if that’s all right,” he answered.

I became a bit more adamant: “Sure, you can talk to me, but before that, I would like to know what you want to talk about.” To which he replied patiently: “Chris, I simply would like to talk to you. When would it suit you?” I told him that there would be no talking to me as long as he didn’t tell me what he wanted to talk to me about.

This changed the tone of the conversation quite a bit. He sighed deeply and said: “I simply wanted to give you a bunch of flowers and welcome you to the building because you’re new here”.

I turned deeply red. I had been so Dutch and he had been so kind. In this case, I had been guilty of toeing the party line: neighbors keep to themselves as much as possible and they don’t tell the other what to do… even if it’s making themselves available for a yet-to-be-announced surprise.

There’s a party downstairs and around midnight you decide that
enough is enough – and so you violate the rule: don’t tell me what to do

You’re Wrong in Any Case

My final bit of Dutch housing culture revolves around being wrong in any case.

Here’s the situation: your lovely neighbor, whom you hardly know or see, decides to throw a party one evening. It’s hard to miss because the music is loud as well as the laughter and the dancing. You can hardly hear yourself think.

Officially your neighbors should be relatively quiet after 10 P.M. But you want to be flexible and you don’t want to harm the relationship (what relationship?) you have with her, so you keep quiet about it.

Around midnight you decide that enough is enough and you decide to ask your neighbor to tone it down a bit because you’re trying to get some sleep. When she opens the door you are greeted with a questioning face; what do you want? You explain that it’s late and that the noise is a bit much and ask her if everyone could be a bit quieter.

The questioning face of your neighbor turns sour as she listens to your ‘unreasonable’ demands. “We’re not that loud at all!” is thrown at you, as well as: “Can’t we have a party once in a while?” and other, equally charming, sound-bites. In the end, you go home wondering what you did wrong.

What did you do wrong? You violated neighbor-rule number one: “Keep to yourself”, and you also violated neighbor-rule number two: “Don’t tell me what to do”.

It isn’t always easy to get it right, not even for us natives.

This article was written by Chris Smit (the author of this website) and appeared first on the website of XPat Journal.

Chris Smit

I'm passionate about Cultural Difference. I have been helping organizations save time and money when they work Internationally for the last 19 years. I have had the fortunate opportunity to hold lectures, workshops, and consulting projects on this subject World Wide. It has made me understand my own culture much better, and appreciate the differences around the world.
I have a Master's Degree in Organisational Psychology and have lived in the USA, the Netherlands and, currently, in Belgium.
Thank you!

Chris Smit
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