Let me begin by saying that there is no right or wrong behavior, only cultural differences. I’d like to tell you a little about social code in the U.S. compared to Zeeland, the traditional countryside of the Netherlands.
And yes, these are the more extreme ends of the measuring stick as to make the differences more clear. And funny, I hope.
In America you can make friends by striking up conversation just about anywhere; the queue at the post office, a cozy cafe or even a supermarket aisle. Europeans may feel startled and suspicious when someone randomly comments on their nice hat (to name one example), and will wonder what on earth possesses a stranger to talk to them like that. But it’s all part of a regular day for any American.
Consecutively you are free to invite this friendly American who likes your hat to ‘go grab a coffee or something’ which is sufficiently vague that it could also mean tea, lunch or even getting absolutely hammered together. It could also mean nothing at all and even though the friendly stranger who now feels like a real potential to be your new friend (you have after all exchanged phone numbers and Facebook profiles) it is more likely you will never hear of them than that you will.
When you say you’ll be in touch to a Dutchman, it actually means you’ll be in touch.
We’ll be focusing on the social code of the Dutch and what I’m familiar with through my family; a traditional, tight, Protestant countryside family. I grew up in Zeeland.
It’s almost exclusively from established connections that a ‘Zeelander’ will source his new friends: church, the sports club, school or family. One would simply not consider making a more ‘exotic’ connection. It must have something to do with habits formed some time during or before the dark ages, when your town, school, family and church was all you knew and all you needed. No way you’d trust anyone outside these interdependent close groups.
Ok, so let’s pretend the amicable American wants to meet for coffee. This will without exception take place in a public café and contain excited talk about relationships, politics and other passions. A sincere, warm hug will be exchanged to seal the new connection and your American shares a plan to go kayaking, come by your house and be best friends forever.
Now, the Zeelanders only go out for coffee on very special occasions like when your sister and you haven’t seen each other in two years or a friend just told you she’s pregnant. Meeting someone you don’t really know very well would not be considered an event that justifies a splurge like that.
Your new Dutch buddy will be sending a couple of letters, reflect if there is a connection to pursue and then invite you to come by for tea and a cookie at their home.
Now, when you are invited into a Zeeland home, you have reached a most exclusive stage, usually reserved for family only. A host might pretend to be casual and have asked you to arrive ‘in the course of the morning’ or ‘in the course of the afternoon.’ Both are secret language for precisely 10:30 am and 3:30 pm. Don’t get there a minute early nor more than 10 minutes late.
You will be greeted with a firm handshake (this is your first physical touch), sat down in the living room and asked what you’ll have to drink. Light classical music might be playing. You may then continue to sit and wait till you’re served or casually walk around the living room, studying the artfully displayed family heirlooms and antiques Europeans use to make their place feel cozy. You are by no means supposed to leave the living room, except perhaps if you need to use the bathroom, which you will manage by timidly peeking your head into the kitchen (as if intruding on some secret activity) and ask where it is. Your host will walk with you and demonstrate.
You will then sit together in the living room –or garden if weather permits– and have coffee or tea (with milk if you like) and one cookie. All is presented on grandmother’s china with special crockery and a silver spoon to apply sugar to your beverage. You should never ask for water because it would seem silly that you came all the way to drink from the tap.
Another handshake will finalize the meeting after no more than an hour and a half. Please understand there is absolutely no way that you will be invited to stay for dinner. Lingering past the strike of 12:00 pm or 5:00 pm is exceedingly rude and will become the talk of town. Your host won’t hesitate to abruptly end the conversation at 5:08 by saying “Well, must be getting to cook some dinner.” This is when you’ve stayed too long. If the visit was pleasant enough you might receive three kisses on the cheek next time you come over.
So let’s pretend the utmost positive scenario where the American will Facebook or text message you (or God forgive even call) and suggest meeting at their home. You may begin anticipating this possibility after at least three pleasant coffee dates, sooner would be creepy.
You’ve made it to someone’s personal haven back in America. Upon arrival another hug and an inevitable five minutes of apologies for the state of the place will ensue. And then the most entertaining thing happens; you are shown every corner of the house by your host! From the kitchen to the loo and the guest room to the pantry, it is the most intimate guided tour. No wonder they were apprehensive to invite you in the first place.
The TV may very well be on, children’s toys are dangerously distributed across the staircase and if you’re lucky you’ll stumble upon some dirty laundry. Everyone is very relaxed and casual about the whole thing, which feels profoundly comforting.
You’ll most likely end up at the kitchen table; a place connected with family meals in Zeeland and very unlikely to be invited to. When I’ve offered my American guests to sit in our living room, it appears to be met with mild shock and they’ll sneak into the kitchen when I’m preparing the coffee and not looking.
I’m not sure which way suits me better though at the moment I am more familiar with the Zeeland way and often feel confused by the American manner. It takes a considerable effort to reach a stage where you can visit in someone’s home in the U.S. and my patience has been profoundly tested. I may even forget to show my American guest around when they arrive and feel somewhat confused when they wander into my kitchen unannounced.
The Zeeland way contains some ancient style and a sense of luxury. I must admit that the new generation of the Netherlands is decidedly more casual about the whole thing and cities will have different standards than the traditional village homes of the Zeeland countryside.
I’d like to make an effort at striking a balance between the two where I can feel comfortable but hope to also expose an American guest to some exotic old-world elegance.