There have been many observations of the Dutch way of doing business. To me, Dutch office culture is based on a paradox: How can a meeting start out so much like an American meeting, but then end so differently? Dutch meetings and American meetings both start by getting to the point. But Dutch meetings end by not really ending. I was talking to a French manager, who put it this way: ‘For most cultures, a decision is the end of the discussion. For the Dutch it’s the beginning.’
Unlike the Dutch, the Americans expect an agreement and to end the meeting. Dutch meetings seem to exist as an excuse to have more meetings. American meetings will sometimes end with ‘let’s agree to disagree.’ Dutch meetings are more like ‘let’s disagree to agree.’
The downside of the non-hierarchical Dutch management style is that hard decisions can be hard to come by. Put another way, the Dutch change their minds so much it’s a miracle anything gets done.
Once, I was hired to perform some tailored standup at a corporate event for a product launch. At least that’s what I thought. Because that’s what they told me. But I should have known better.
I was invited to a Dutch meeting to plan the event. But instead, I witnessed my hosts second-guessing everything: ‘I know what we said at the last meeting, but at the meeting to review the meeting, we decided we need another meeting.’
Why so many meetings? It was explained to me: ‘Iedereen moet z’n plasje er over doen.’ Literally: ‘Everyone needs a chance to piss on your idea.’ The key phrase is ‘Ja, maar…’ ‘Yes, but – what if…?’ It’s like every Dutch manager grows up with an inner insurance salesman – a little built-in Actuary to calculate every possible risk:
‘Yes, but what if he’s not funny?’
‘Yes, but what if our audience has no sense of humor?’
‘Yes, but what if there’s someone in the audience who’s having an affair with someone else in the audience and he makes a joke about inter-office affairs and they are offended?’ (actual quote)
For the product launch, I went from being ‘Hired’ to ‘Maybe Hired.’ The follow-up meeting was a conference call. That turned out to be a bad call. Literally. It was a bad connection. It was an especially bad sign, since they were a telecommunications company.
I once heard a saying: ‘A camel is a horse, designed by a committee.’ That’s what happened in the conference call. They wanted tailored stand-up. But also live role play. One wanted no more than 30 minutes. Another wanted no less than 45. In the conference call, I said ‘I’m still unclear what you all want. Why don’t we start from the beginning?’ Bad move.
Afterward, I got an e-mail saying I’d lost the job. It was an angry e-mail, blaming me for a lack of professionalism. The e-mail was in fact a series of e-mails from everyone on the conference call.
Babette: ‘In the conference call, Mr. Shapiro asked us to start from the beginning. I couldn’t hear everything he said, but did he even read the briefing?’
Ingrid: ‘Babette said that Shapiro said he didn’t read the briefing.’
Monique: ‘Ingrid said that Babette said that Shapiro said he didn’t even bother to read the briefing. We have chosen not to work with Mr. Shapiro – for obvious reasons.’
What’s funny to me is that most of these women probably had a degree in Communication. I found out later that the client really wanted neither stand-up nor role play, but a video. At times like these, I guess I’m just glad I could help them figure out what they didn’t want.
There’s another unique quality about Dutch meetings. I’ve had the pleasure of attending meetings in a few different cultures. As an amateur cultural anthropologist, I’ve noticed that business meetings are a bit like foreplay. In that sense, Dutch meetings are from Mars; Belgian meetings are from Venus.
In Belgium – even Flanders – I’ve found that the culture is more inspired by the French. Belgian meetings are more like foreplay for women.
Yes, your meeting starts with coffee, but it’s nice coffee. Espresso coffee. You drink your coffee at a café table, where you can watch your coffee being made, just for you. A conference room? Non! No one’s thinking about that right now. Tell me, what would you like with your coffee? Perhaps a cookie? Not just a cookie, but a nice cookie. Nothing you have to unwrap – these were made fresh, just for you. And you look like you might enjoy some of our fine chocolate as well. Perhaps there’s a menu for the fine selection of fine chocolates to go with your fine coffee, just for you. Take your time, what’s the rush? How was your journey? How are you feeling? What’s on your mind? Business, you say? Oui, oui! Let me take you to my conference room…
Dutch meetings are like foreplay for men. ‘Here’s some coffee. Let’s get to business! Business! Business! (cheese sandwich) Business! Ahh… That was good business. Want a cigarette? The smoking area is outside. Doei!’
Gregory Shapiro is the author of ‘How to Be Orange: an Alternative Dutch Assimilation Course.’