Business communication

Netherlands-flag-140The following section focuses on the communication aspect of business practice. Issues such as verbal and non-verbal communication are discussed with an emphasis on general business etiquette. The chapter also includes information about Dutch working practices in general and habits that may be relevant for business negotiations.

Miscommunication during a business encounter may have serious consequences for the success of a deal. Whereas, we may not have any problems communicating with business partners at home, this situation may change when doing business abroad. In a foreign country you usually come across people from different cultural backgrounds and thus their style of communication often differs as well. Without an awareness of this you may experience culture shock when dealing with your cross cultural business partners, causing yourself embarrassment and perhaps making your counterpart feel uncomfortable too.

Face-to-face communication

Introductions may be difficult as they depend upon the circumstances of a particular situation. Generally, the best practice is to be introduced by a third party. However, in certain situations this may not be possible. When introducing yourself it is essential to shake hands in a firm manner.

Dutch behaviour in public tends to be low-key, so try to moderate both your voice and your body language (not doing so is a criticism often levelled against Americans). The Dutch may look to you to ‘break the ice’. A good starting point can be a comment on the beauty of your host’s home-town (the Netherlands has some of the finest urban architecture in the world). Fall back topics, depending on the interests of the other party, are football, ice skating, music, the Old Masters and famous Dutch people, of whom there are plenty.

The Dutch have a well-developed sense of humour, relatively harmless and of the earthy variety rather than witty. Like the English, they have a fondness for puns.

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Language Matters

The educated Dutch are masters of foreign languages, particularly English. Being a small country with limited resources, the Netherlands has relied on international trade for its livelihood and, as a consequence, the ability to speak other languages has been essential. French has also been a popular language with the Dutch elite in the past.

Basic secondary education in the Netherlands includes language teaching in English, German and sometimes French, Spanish or Chinese.

It will rarely be necessary to use interpreters when negotiating with Dutch business people. In fact, doing so may even be regarded as showing a lack of trust.

Business Relationships

To quote the words of William Z Shetter of the University of California-Berkeley in his book The Netherlands in Perspective, “The Dutch occupy one of the world’s most densely populated countries, and they structure life in it by means of a seemingly irrevocable commitment to a meticulously detailed but at the same time flexible system of interlocking organization” (Shetter, W. Z.; The Netherlands in Perspective: The Organizations of Society and Environment; Springer 1988; p. 14).

Inspired by what the Dutch call “the Polder Model” – the slow decision-making process that characterizes Dutch politics, where all parties have to be heard – everyone is entitled to their say. Moreover, once it has been said, there’s a good chance that management will be challenged if it has not taken what has been said into account. This has been a startling revelation for the managers of so-called Benelux subsidiaries (a favourite of Anglo-Saxon corporations) where, on issues that would pass uncommented upon by the Belgian rank-and-file a failure to take into account the opinions of Dutch employees has almost caused a riot.

Being a people of intermittent extremes – despite their professed addiction to the middle of the road – the Dutch do tend to let their dedication to detail and money get out of hand. Seen from the viewpoint of their closest neighbours, the expansive and Burgundian Belgians, the Dutch businessman or woman is determined, ambitious, “a real fox”. In supplier/customer situations it is often a question of “all or nothing” – the relationship is either a roaring success or it goes right off the rails.

Making contact

In his book The Netherlands in Perspective, William Z Shetter quotes the classic Dutch etiquette guide Hoe hoort het eigenlijk? (Now what’s the right way to do it?): “Making violent gestures is still considered vulgar and talking with the hands remains impolite. Well-bred people gesture as little as possible, and if they do, it is done gracefully and harmoniously… Greeting someone with a big hug is also something that isn’t done. In public we should use nothing more than words to communicate with, words which normally are not amplified by gestures. We don’t use gestures of revulsion, horror, satisfaction, or surprise. That is the way things should be done, and that is in keeping with our national temperament, because we don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves” (Shetter, w.Z.; The Netherlands in Perspective: The Organizations of Society and Environment; Springer 1988).

A handshake is the usual form of greeting in the Netherlands, accompanied by an appropriate phrase like “good day” (note: even posing a rhetorical question like “how are you?” may cause confusion). In business meetings, with a number of people present, it is perfectly normal to circle the room shaking everyone’s hand and introducing oneself each time with at least one’s family name. Take business cards with you as they might be exchanged at the beginning of the meeting. Normally, welcomes and responses will be warm without being overly intimate.

In a social as opposed to a business setting, women and members of the opposite sex who already know one another may kiss – generally three times starting with the right cheek (the left cheek from the point of view of the person kissing).

The ‘intimate zone’ of most Dutch people tends to be 50 cm +. Foreigners may be surprised that chairs are set relatively far apart. When meeting for the first time, ensure that you maintain steady eye contact when listening. Avoid intense eye contact as this may be felt to be invasive.

In his book The Low Sky, Han van der Horst says: “In the Netherlands there is a distance between people. Literally, the Dutch will sit next to someone else only if there is no alternative. Even in the bus or train” (van der Horst, H.; The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch; Midpoint Trade Books 2012).

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Personal titles

To the unsuspecting foreign business person coming to the Netherlands for the first time, all educated Dutch people seem to be a doctorandus (drs.) or an ingenieur (ir.) [this is not to be confused with the more lowly high-school ingenieur (ing.)]. Both qualifications are the equivalent of a Master’s degree. However, these titles are most often only used in official documents.

Otherwise, titles and qualifications are used sparingly, without necessarily resorting to the level of informality characteristic of the British or the Americans. With the exception of university professors, it is not usual to address individuals by their professional titles, in contrast to the practice in Germanic or some Nordic cultures. Generally, you start using someone’s first name during the first encounter and ever after. If you have already received a letter or an email from your counterpart signed with his first name, you can start using a first name during the first visit. Exceptions might occur within formal settings and where  the younger and older generations come together.

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