Life and Research in the Netherlands, Part 1: Language and Culture

The Netherlands is a popular work destination for scientists for any number of reasons. Although the country is small, it harbors a variety of decent research institutes and universities, and Dutch scientists, being a familiar and amiable presence in the labs of many other countries, serve as an advertisement. The Netherlands is well situated for access to the rest of the continent, meaning that both trips home and weekend breaks in surrounding countries are easy to take. The cities--at least those that weren't rebuilt after World War II--are known to be beautiful and congenial: Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leiden, and Maastricht, with their ancient buildings, waterways, and terrace culture, rival many European cities for charm. Perhaps most significantly for a foreigner contemplating a research stint in a foreign country, it is an established fact that most Dutch people speak English, the lingua franca of global science, and that one could in all likelihood complete an entire PhD or postdoc without bothering to learn the local language.

After spending 4 years as a biomedical scientist in the Netherlands (as an American expat with postdoctoral training in the UK), I found that--like many things in life--the prevailing wisdom was both right and wrong, sometimes simultaneously. In this three-part article, I will explore this idea. I should stress first that there are probably as many expatriate experiences as there are expats and, although I have tried to focus on those issues frequently echoed by other foreign colleagues, what follows remains a personal, and not necessarily universal, opinion.

Language is an important consideration when choosing to do research in a foreign country--especially for nonnative English speakers who have already had to learn one foreign language just to cope in their profession. And with the exception of a few older Dutch people or denizens of small villages, you will be hard-pressed to find a native that will not be able to speak enough English to communicate effectively. English is everywhere in the Netherlands. There are plenty of English bookshops. Most of the pop songs on the radio are sung by American and British artists, and even many Dutch groups sing in English. In addition to airing BBC1 and 2, Dutch television carries a large number of US and UK programs that are subtitled, not dubbed. (British football supporters take note: Many Premiership matches are aired live on Dutch TV.) Even the movies, with the exception of children's or animated films, are subtitled, so although foreign film buffs will suffer withdrawal symptoms, a non-Dutch speaker can be well entertained.

But all this exposure carries a downside if you are truly interested in learning Dutch. Just as Dutch natives are probably proficient in part from the prevalence of English popular culture, this same exposure will not do your fledgling linguistic attempts any favors. Worse, in big cities that deal with a high volume of tourists, you will have difficulty finding a native that will let you speak Dutch when they detect your accent. I have experienced prolonged bilingual exchanges with shop-keepers, my Dutch versus their English, each volley becoming progressively more heated and stubborn. (Although they probably think they are being helpful, my personal take is that this behavior is essentially a power game.) But the net result is that the same student or postdoc who, dropped in Paris, Madrid, or Berlin, would be speaking the language briskly in a relatively short timeframe might take years to become fluent in Dutch--or give up trying altogether. For those who want to persist, I offer this advice: Sheer volume and confidence helps. If you are tentative and soft-spoken, the battle is lost.

In the lab, things on the surface are linguistically rosy. All major scientific procedures are conducted in English: the weekly lab meetings, the seminars, the manuscripts, and theses. The Dutch are keen to perfect their English, so native speakers will find themselves in demand for proofing papers. So far, so good. But be aware that your Dutch colleagues are--and quite understandably so--going to use their native tongue for everything else. Many cultures consider it rude to speak a foreign tongue around someone who can't understand--not so the Dutch. Lunchtimes can become a lonely affair, staring at your plate or endlessly rereading the text on your obligatory milk carton, and in the lab, where friendly banter eases the tedium of repetitive tasks, it might take some time to adjust to a solitary linguistic existence. (And those trying to learn Dutch please note: Asking your Dutch colleagues to speak a bit of English now and then will cause you to lose the moral high ground when you want to practice your Dutch and they won't let you!)

Outside of the lab, your Dutch colleagues can be good companions, but they are seldom spontaneous about social events. If you ask a colleague for a drink, don't be surprised when they whip out their diary and book you in for a slot 2 months hence. The Dutch have a thriving social life centered around family and a circle of lifelong friends, and a foreigner will not find it easy to break into this so-called kring. Although the British are famous for their "reserve," after comparing my social experiences in England and Holland, I have to say that I have had more trouble infiltrating the tight-knit mentality of the Dutch.

When you do get invited to a party, make sure you know what you're getting into. You might show up to a Saturday night birthday celebration in your gold lamé clubbing gear only to find yourself eating apple cake next to the host's grandmother. As in any foreign country, taking the time to learn the more subtle pitfalls is helpful: the minimum number of flowers in a bouquet before the gift actually becomes rude, who to greet with three kisses and who with a handshake, and how to leave your cutlery on your plate without causing mortal offense. There are a number of books that explain all these customs and more, and a quick read could save you some embarrassment.

Trivial proprieties aside, there is a major contradiction here that hinders cultural understanding. The Dutch are renowned for their tolerant attitude to things like soft drugs and prostitution, but many Dutch simultaneously maintain a lingering aura of their Calvinist history, which betrays itself in aspects ranging from bland food to a disapproving raised eyebrow in the face of even mild hedonism. These are a people who will defend your right to do whatever you like without actually agreeing with the activities in question. A foreigner will need to understand this contradiction to understand the Dutch.

Helpful too is a respect and understanding for differences in etiquette. Dutch people do not like to queue, and servers have no qualms about helping the person who has cut in front of you. While the waitress who spills soup on your lap may be very efficient in cleaning you up, she might not actually apologize. People are not keen on letting you off the train or tram before shoving in, and criticisms can be leveled in a disconcertingly blunt manner. None of this is considered to be rude: It's just the way things are done, and taking it personally can lead to needless anger and frustration.

If you are having problems befriending the natives, an expatriate social life can offer a helpful buffer against isolation and culture shock. But this comfort has its disadvantages. Your potential friends are limited in number, and mild discontent can amplify into resentment when egged on by others. Most importantly, in relying solely on compatriots and other foreigners, you are turning your back on a chance to learn more about your adopted country and to develop a deeper insight into its culture. Do enjoy your expat friends, but for a fuller experience, consider joining a local choir, club, or sports team--you might not make lifelong friends, but you will probably find the people you meet friendly and colorful. Besides, any opportunity to mix with nonscientists is a good thing, no matter what country you're in!

Next time: The scientific establishment

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