Science - November 10, 2005

Appropriate behaviour?

Sexual harassment and other forms of inappropriate behaviour are occurring more frequently according to the annual report of the confidential counsellors at Wageningen UR. But not all physical contact is unwished for. And the Dutch have a reputation for not being physically the warmest. They are too direct, not open and often cool. While a reassuring hand on your arm during a conversation can be so heart-warming. Or not?

Lenneke Vaandrager, lecturer on Health and Society, from the Netherlands:
‘We are definitely too cold here. It’s important to be friendly and cheerful as it makes for a good working atmosphere. Often it’s just simple things like saying ‘good morning’ to each other. People work better if they feel that colleagues care about each other and one another’s working conditions. It happens too little. If you care for those around you, they will also take care of you. A pat on the shoulder can be good sometimes. It is good to express your feelings and to be open when there are problems. Sometimes though it is better to keep your anger or sadness about a work-related issue to yourself and not to get too worked up. The next day you might regret having made a fuss.’

Claudia Aqudelo, first year master’s student of Urban Environmental Management, from Colombia:
‘At first I found people here cold and a bit distant. But once you get to know them, the Dutch are quite friendly. In Colombia people are always cheerful and smiling. They take time for you, even if they are in a hurry. You don’t see that in the Netherlands. People are also much more direct here, while we tend to talk around a subject without mentioning it directly.’

Jan van Bommel, dean who sees Dutch and international students, from the Netherlands:
‘There is no nation as blunt as the Dutch. We seem to think we have to be able to talk to other people about everything, especially about ourselves. But I know from experience that people from Indonesia for example are not used to talking about themselves. I think it is good to express your emotions. Keeping everything bottled up is bad for body and soul. You have to listen to your feelings, as long as you don’t offend others in the process. I don’t think you have to always express everything immediately. In a discussion it is sometimes a better strategy to keep some things to yourself. I do think though that we should make more positive comments to each other, rather than only mentioning what we do not appreciate. Unfortunately people often find it difficult to make positive remarks, for instance that someone has done a good job. But everyone needs this kind of positive feedback. I can’t stand the Dutch customs of kissing three times and congratulating people though. They are often so insincere.’

José Pedro Cavaco, Erasmus student from Portugal:
‘At home I am used to kissing all my close relatives: my mother, my grandfather, my brother. You don’t see that here. Student life here is much the same as in Portugal, although I do think it is difficult to go beyond the superficial level and make good friends. The Portuguese are more open, also to strangers. We are likely to tell someone we have only just met our whole life story. Here it is far more difficult to go deeper, but it’s not a big problem. I already have lots of friends in Wageningen, although most of them are not Dutch.’

Anne van Loon, student of Soil, Water and Atmosphere from the Netherlands:
‘In their everyday lives people do not show their emotions much, I think. Maybe the Dutch find it easier to express themselves in other ways, through hobbies like music or dancing. I have noticed that students are quite distant towards each other in the department or when they are doing a research project. People don’t spend long there and everyone is busy with their work. I am like that too. You see each other during lunch, but you don’t really get to know each other quickly. At the moment I’m doing an internship, and I notice that it’s important to talk to colleagues, and that happens when we drink coffee together. In the Netherlands we talk about feelings, but we rarely base our actions on our feelings. When I was in Ecuador I discovered that this means that you don’t have to think so much about them. When I returned I also had the habit of embracing people, but that is regarded as strange here, certainly among friends. I would like it if it were considered more normal to touch each other in public. I also appreciate it that my supervisor, who I have known for a number of years, sometimes gives me a pat on the shoulder.’

Rubén Borge Robles, recently graduated in International Land and Water Management, from Spain:
‘The Spanish differ from the Dutch, but I see more similarities than differences. Differences become more noticeable abroad as students of the same nationality tend to stick together. The Dutch do this as well. One of the big differences between the Spanish and the Dutch is that we are more open. That’s because social relations are stronger with us. You have to be more sociable and therefore also more open, otherwise family or friends won’t accept you. In the Netherlands, people are more concerned about being efficient. They don’t talk about their feelings, but more about plans and projects. In Spain people talk more openly about their feelings and they show their emotions more. If you say you are sad in Spain, no one is likely to say ‘don’t make a fool of yourself’ or ‘it’s alright’. The Dutch are very different. Nobody wants to know about someone else’s emotions, it doesn’t fit the system here. In Spain it’s part of our culture to have respect for each other’s feelings. We are also in love with love, whereas the Dutch hide their feelings far more. Don Juan was definitely not a Dutchman.’

Jasper Harms and Yvonne de Hilster

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