“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
I was that child who grew up with an atlas. My atlas was the key to my happiness, my gateway to faraway lands, for I loved to travel. As a child, I didn’t really get a lot of opportunities to travel, but that didn’t stop me from dreaming about these faraway, exotic places. I would spend hours immersed in books and my atlas (that was the era before smartphones and the internet!) reading about a place, its culture, history, and even about all the ancient civilizations. After I read about the Mayan civilization, I had a great desire to see Merida and Ixtapa in Mexico. I would jot down notes in my journal, make extensive plans about visiting all these places someday. Thankfully, I did get the opportunity to see the world and even live a life of an expat in three different continents and four different countries. My childhood dream did come true.
But the best part is something that I didn’t even expect – I learned some extremely valuable life lessons, values, and skills from my life abroad that changed me and shaped me into who I am today. It’s been an incredible journey, one that I’ll be forever grateful for. I was aware of these values, but as they say – “only in water can you learn to swim”. I have called the Netherlands my home for the last 6 years, and here are five very important life lessons that I learned from the Dutch.
What is resilience? “Resilience is defined as the psychological capacity to adapt to stressful circumstances and to bounce back from adverse events.”
The Dutch are well known for their resilience, and it’s kind of easy to understand why. One-third of the Netherlands lies below sea level. Since the early Middle Ages, the Dutch have been building dams and dikes to protect against flooding and kept reclaiming land from the sea. That’s no mean feat. Even with the constraint of this vulnerable low-lying land, the Netherlands is the 17th largest economy in the world – thanks to resilience, an essential life skill.
You don’t have to read Dutch history to learn this, you can see examples of resilience in everyday Dutch life. Even the smallest of the kids ride their bikes in the rain or snow. It’s a simple yet powerful lesson that teaches the children that life isn’t always about rainbows. They learn from a very young age that there will be adversities and they learn not to give up – a very important life skill. A few years ago, my daughter broke her arm and we took her to hospital. We saw a person cycling back with a plaster cast on one leg!!!
I always thought resilience is a trait that you are born with, but living in the Netherlands has taught me that it’s a skill that can be learned and at any age. I hated bad weather, especially rain, with a passion. But I know now that it is very little I can do to change my circumstances, however, I can change my attitude and grow grit. Adversities will be there in life, but now I know “it’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself that determines how your life’s story will develop.”
The Dutch are known to speak their mind. They usually mean what they say and say what they mean. This article from BBC explains Dutch directness beautifully – “Straightforwardness is so intrinsic in Dutch society that there’s even a Dutch word for it: ‘bespreekbaarheid’ (speakability) – that everything can and should be talked about.”The Dutch value honesty and directness, and directness is considered more being as authentic.
However, I had an absolute culture shock and I must admit I never thought being direct was a great skill until I started interacting more with the Dutch and noticed how liberating it is to speak your mind finally without the constant fear of offending someone. I was raised to be a polite and nice person avoiding confrontation as much as I could, which meant repressing and suppressing my feelings and emotions. Research shows that repression of emotions, thoughts, and feelings have serious consequences on our mind and body including depression, anxiety, insomnia just to name a few.
I had always been a people pleaser and I thought other people’s needs are far more important than mine. I thought that was empathy and kindness. But kindness and niceness are not the same. The constant urge to say ‘yes’ to other people just to make them happy has a toll on your mind and body. Fellow writer Charlie Lukas on Medium wrote very beautifully in this article that “Kindness is real, but niceness is fake. The opposite of niceness is authenticity.” You definitely need to stand up for yourself or you let people cross boundaries and they treat you as they like, and not the way you would have liked them to treat you. This way you will earn respect and that, in turn, will increase your self-worth.
Directness in the Netherlands is also usually not intended as a personal attack, it is rather expressing your personal opinion and being up-front. So if my Dutch neighbor refuses to take care of my child this afternoon when I have a dentist appointment (and it would have been oh so convenient for me), I would know that my neighbor doesn’t hate me or my child either (they would let me know that too if that would be the case, I believe), it’s simply they don’t have the time, or it’s not convenient.
An earlier version of me would have said ‘yes ‘ to everything so as not to offend anyone and not to care about my own needs. I STOPPED doing that. I started standing up for myself because no one else will. That nurtures my self-respect and self-worth which in turn creates a sense of self-appreciation.
One thing that I have loved about the Dutch culture is their modesty and humility. Humility is the quality of being humble. The Dutch usually do not brag, “typically downplay wealth and frown upon those who show off wealth”. They are more down-to-earth.
As this article in Psychology Today states, “Researchers have linked it to pro-social dispositions such as self-control, gratitude, generosity, tolerance, forgiveness, and cooperativeness; and associated it not only with better social relationships, as might be expected, but also with improved health outcomes, superior academic and job performance, and a more effective leadership style.”
Research suggests that humility and modesty help us handle stress more effectively and enjoy better physical and mental health. And humility strengthens social bonds and benefits relationships because humble people are good at analyzing themselves.
But the most important part about humility is to be able to listen to others without judgment, bias, and superiority. We love to share our opinion about almost everything but hardly have any time to listen truly. So by being humble means, when our friend discusses the poor performance of her child in Maths, we do not need to be boastful about how well our children are doing in that subject, because then we have just shown our dominance and superiority.
Listening to others without judgment is a gift. When I discuss my problems with you, that means I am trying to share and connect with you. If you start boasting about your own success and how well you are handling your life when I am suffering, then that makes me feel insecure. This is when an empathy gap is created, which is the difference between our perceptions of ourselves and others’ perceptions of us and are unable to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.
Now let’s get facts straight – humility and modesty are not the same as having low self-esteem. Being humble means you truly see and accept your strengths and limitations, but you are not constantly showing off to people your wealth or success. However, having low self-esteem means you only recognize your flaws and weaknesses and lack confidence. A great example of dutch humility would be Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte riding his bike to the office and also to the palace and guess what, he locks his bike as well!
The Netherlands is an egalitarian society. According to Merriam-Webster, “Egalitarianism is a belief in human equality especially with respect to social, political, and economic affairs.” This article in Expatica explains how common it is for a general manager to exchange words with their cleaning personnel, without the constraint of hierarchy. Status and respect are obtained through study and hard work and not through family ties. This equality and respect make everyone more proactive and they, in turn, can give direct feedback when it comes to decision making. Also, many people choose to work as a freelancer/contractor/consultant because it suits their lifestyle and needs (think child care, household chores, etc.) and do not think of this as derogatory.
During my ONA (The Orientation on the Dutch labor market) exam for permanent residence, I was asked this question – which part of dutch work culture I really liked. And my answer was – equality between men and women when it comes to work-life balance. The Netherlands is not a patriarchal society and as a woman it makes me feel good when I see men and women share their responsibilities when it comes to family and children. I often see dads taking care of their kids at home while the mother works and perhaps another day in the week they exchange their roles. In this way, it’s not just the women who sacrifice their careers. That’s why working part-time for both parents is quite common and both parents get to spend some time with their children.
The Dutch are renowned for being frugal. There is even a saying: ‘let’s go Dutch‘, which means in a group everyone pays their own bill. However, it is the simplicity part of the culture that I am more drawn to. Simplicity is an essence in Dutch life in many ways.
The word ‘simple’ gets a bad rep these days. We are more towards extravagance, pomp and grandeur, and lavishness. However, after living in the Netherlands for about six years, I realized it’s the simple pleasures in life that make life so meaningful.
Dutch food is quite simple. A meal of a simple sandwich made with ham and cheese and a glass of milk for a lunch is still quite common. Stamppot and Hutspot are some of the examples of simple but healthy and hearty Dutch meals. Simple doesn’t have to be bad though. Oxfam’s “Good Enough to Eat” index ranked the Netherlands as the number one country in the world for having the most plentiful, nutritious, healthy, and affordable diet.
Dutch design is also quite simple, minimal, and in the lines of the Scandinavian and Nordic designs. Dutch design focuses more on functionality, minimalism, clear lines, and innovativeness.
Birthday parties are quite simple as well. Where I come from and all the other places I have lived before, birthday parties needed a lot of planning about food, themes, entertainment, and also spending a fortune. However, this brought so much stress in me that I rarely got to enjoy my daughter’s birthday. I forgot who was the star of the show, what was the occasion and concentrated rather more on the details and the elaborate affairs, trying to make everyone else happy. My perfectionist nature would kick in and would make me feel dreadful.
A Dutch child’s birthday party, on the contrary, would consist of only four or five kids depending on the age of the child, a cake, and a few snacks along with some homemade lemonade. The other good part of the birthday party is a present for the child which would usually cost around 5 -10 Euros. The idea behind that is the kids do not need something fancy, expensive, or extraordinary to make them happy. they need something simple.
I would often see my dutch neighbors with their little kids would just go for a walk or a bike ride to the heath or the forest or by the canals when they are going out. My neighbor explained that the kids do not need a ride to the mall or ‘special’ places often. The kids are happy to enjoy the abundance of nature. Most Dutch would also pack a simple lunch when they go out and happily make a picnic out of it.
I am a total convert now and appreciate simplicity in my life. It brings me peace, joy, contentment, and a sense of gratitude. It reminds me that life doesn’t need to be complex and practicing simplicity makes me appreciate more of the little things like the sunshine, a walk in the forest, the cool breeze of the sea, or the plants in my backyard. It allows me to live a life of fulfillment.
I am a firm believer in lifelong learning and I am positive that it is our experiences and life choices that shape us into who we are actually. We are born with some traits and characteristics, but there are many skills, values, and practices that we can develop over time: Resilience, Authenticity, Humility, Egalitarianism, and Simplicity are some of them. There is so much to learn from other cultures, and from each other. So open your eyes and you might see something incredible; open up your mind and the world will look more beautiful.