It was my first night at a new hotel and I was reaching limits of my patience as I waited for the wi-fi signal to finally grace my computer with some Internet. Getting fed up with failed attempts to connect, I went downstairs to the reception in search of some solution to the problem that was standing in my way of writing a new post on the blog. A tall blond with a high ponytail smiled at me kindly and asked how she can help me.
“I’m having problems connecting to wi-fi in my room and I was hoping you could help me” I explained.
“No, the Internet is not working today” she stated matter-of-factly.
“Do you know when it’s going to be working again? Is anyone working on getting it back?” I persisted.
“We notified them but they won’t come until tomorrow. There’s nothing that can be done” she announced calmly.
Having lived in UK for over a decade I expected to hear “I’m really sorry” or “we’re doing our best”, but the absence of profuse apologies for the inconvenience and not a trace of worry in the voice? Now that was something new. Too surprised at the receptionist’s casual response, I didn’t even find her reaction rude, as I inevitably would have if the whole situation had taken place in England. Instead, I felt resigned yet calm, accepting there’s nothing I can do about the Internet, and understanding that neither could the receptionist. It wasn’t her fault the wi-fi chose to give up. She wasn’t a technical expert to be able to fix it, so why should she apologise for the situation that was not her fault? Just so I can feel better? If it wasn’t going to change the outcome by magically bringing the Internet back with the spell of “apologies for the inconvenience”, then why bother?
In the few months I spent in Amsterdam following this incident, I noticed a pattern. The Dutch had a completely disarming manner of just stating facts unapologetically.
“Can I have wi-fi password please?” I could ask at a cafe only to hear a simple “No”.
“Do you know what place this is?” I would ask the driver as we were passing a beautiful park. “Yes” he would reply, feeling no obligation to provide the name of the mentioned location until prompted further.
I was fascinated with this new found straightforwardness. No unnecessary explanations and lack of profuse apologising were beautifully paired with disarming smiles and child-like openness. I could have a middle aged couple lean over my dinner table at a restaurant to instruct me to be careful when eating my bitterballen as they’re hot inside or a commuter waiting for the train strike a random conversation, but none of these acts of fraternising were prompted by the need for polite chit-chat. The Dutch would speak when they wanted to speak, they say what they felt when they felt it, without a single consideration for what someone might think. Living in UK where one’s expected to apologise even when someone bumps into them, and having been raised in Poland where “what will people say” is ingrained in us since the day we were born, I found the Dutch freedom to communicate as they pleased rather refreshing.
Curious to see what would happen and eager to push myself out of the comfort zone,I decided to try some of this radical honesty. I decided I would speak truth and nothing but the truth (albeit sometimes softening the message just a bit – you know, the “I’m not sure that this is the best approach” instead of “I can’t believe you suggested something so stupid”) for the duration of my stay in the Netherlands. I soon also incorporated regular practice of pushing back when needed, speaking my mind and paying attention to my feelings instead of worrying continuously about someone else’s. For a person who would rather choose to stay quiet than risk saying the wrong thing this was not easy.
The Transactional Analysis, a psychological theory I have often applied in my coaching work, provides a simple explanation of our interactions with others by stating that when we’re young we seek answers on two important questions: “Am I an OK person?” and “are other people OK?”. In the perfect world, we would all be raised with the clear message that we are OK and so are other people. In this ideal state, we would be able to speak our own truth and assert our needs without imposing our views on others, as we would recognise we are entitled to our opinions, space etc. just as much as the other person. However, the “I’m OK, you’re OK” position is rare to spot in life, with the majority of us oscillating between “I’m OK, it’s YOU who is wrong/mean/selfish etc.” and “you’re right/smart/strong and I’m the only one who is so far from being OK”. This emotional see-saw usually results in moving from self-deprecating thoughts to lashing out at others in anger. Having worked with my Dutch colleagues for a while, I could see some of them occasionally failing to sustain this balancing act 24/7, but on a national level I still felt that the Dutch got it right more often than not.
Perhaps it was the relative safety and comprehensive social support of their country toppled with good work-life balance that resulted in kids in Netherlands growing up with healthy self-esteems that allowed them to turn into the curious, confident and fun adults I’ve met during my stay there. But perhaps there was some added magic that the geography of the country threw into the mix? After all, the Netherlands (meaning “the lower lands” to depict the fact that many parts of this tiny kingdom were situated below the sea level) with its completely flat landscape could have contributed to the psychological sense of freedom and the “what you see is what you get” mentality. Like their land, the Dutch were straightforward, unambiguous and open.
Now that I no longer work in the Netherlands I miss the country’s plain landscape. I miss its unique brand of tolerance and honesty. I miss the simple “no”s and people speaking their minds. I miss the world with no self-imposed censorship and the courage to be oneself. The world where both you and I are OK just as we are.
I may no longer be in Amsterdam, but I want to carry the Dutch openness and honesty with me wherever I go, speaking my truth and having the courage to be myself.