Internationalism 1: Dutch Power Distance AKA Why We Protest So Much

This article presents the first in a series of five about international students at the UvA English department, intended to explore some of the differences and similarities faced when studying abroad. In order to structure these as clearly as possible each of the articles will explore a single ‘pillar’ of Hofstede’s model of Cultural Dimensions – a model which has received worldwide attention and use since its conception. The more thoroughly studied of the pillars are the following: Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity and Uncertainty Avoidance. In this article we will be focusing on the first.

There’s no denying that going abroad can catch most of us completely off guard in one aspect or another. Whether it be being confronted with a language you don’t speak a word of and realizing you forgot your dictionary, spending your first week in a foreign country trapped in the confines its bathrooms, or accidentally forgetting that lying on a Spanish beach at 1 PM will inevitably end with you resembling the gambas you’re having for dinner more than you were counting on, transitions from one country into another can often leave us wondering how we could have missed something so obvious. Fortunately, hand gestures can usually get the job done when spoken communication fails us, most sunburns will heal once we get back home, and any upset stomachs soon return to the comfort of familiar foods.Yet sometimes we stay a little longer than a week or two. Sometimes we decide to stay for a whole semester (or a full year, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious). And doing so means we need to adapt. We learn to slather on enough layers of sunscreen, to speak key phrases such as “where’s the toilet?’ and ‘two beers please’ and to pick foods that we can probably digest in one go. And then, just when we think we’ve got this whole cross-culture thing covered, we might find ourselves struggling with something entirely different, a term that’ll bring a smug smirk to the face of that intercultural communications student dying to give us a monologue at a party: that dreaded culture shock.

We’re probably all pretty familiar with the term in this globalized, digital day and age, having heard of it at one point or another. And more articles than I can count have been written about its effects, causes and phases over the past few years alone. So instead of writing another one of those, I decided it might be interesting to get a little more up close and personal. To focus on the international student experience in the Netherlands specifically, and get a feel for some of the quirks, laughs and bumps in the road that may be experienced when confronted with a country full of Dutchmen. And who better to give us a comprehensive framework by which to do so than our very own Geert Hofstede, Dutch organisational psychologist and proposer of the model of Cultural Dimensions? In his now internationally applied system, introduced in Culture’s Consequences (1980), he suggest four pillars by which to differentiate cultures: namely Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity and Uncertainty Avoidance. In this article we will focus on the first, for which the Netherlands scores the very low score of 38/100.

Intrigued by this score and the implications it might have on students coming from abroad I set out to investigate, asking some of the UvA’s very own collection of international students some of their experiences around this subject. Before we dig in, however, it might we wise to explore some base definitions.

Power Distance is among the more straightforward culture dimensions proposed in Geert Hofstede’s model. He defines it as follows:

Power distance is a term that describes how people belonging to a specific culture view power relationships – superior/subordinate relationships – between people, including the degree that people not in power accept that power is spread unequally. Individuals in cultures demonstrating a high power distance are very deferential to figures of authority and generally accept an unequal distribution of power, while individuals in cultures demonstrating a low power distance readily question authority and expect to participate in decisions that affect them.”

We take from this that power distance presents itself most notably in social interactions involving an imbalance of power, since here the acceptance (or rejection) of power-based hierarchy will impact most tangibly. A child and its parent, for instance, or employee and employer. The PDI tells us the likelihood of obedience and the expected codes of responsiveness and formality, and it is of course to no surprise to anyone who has spent a few weeks in the Netherlands that there is a reason we score so very low on this index in particular. The Netherlands is famous for its people’s characteristic bluntness (not to be confused with its equally characteristic love of blunts, that being a different topic altogether), as evidenced by the apparent need for books such as Dealing with the Dutch, by J. Vossestein. Part of this bluntness might be explained by this low score in power distance, and it affects interaction in many contexts. Laura Legille states: “your waiters […] are brutally honest and don’t exhibit the kind of fake politeness you would find in Luxembourgish cafés and restaurants, so that did weird me out in the beginning”.

Another example of this difference can be found in child-adult relationships: “[comparing with the US and France, in terms of early childhood] “When it comes to teachers you raise your hand when you ask questions. There is never free, open discussion. […] There is this respect, even beyond respect, this recognition that no matter what they say is true.” (Jeremy Bernard). He adds, jokingly: “In my family we have a saying that – thank God – died out with my generation; that children are meant to be seen, not heard.” Babette Stolk, a Dutch-born student who grew up in Germany, concurs this statement, stating: “politeness is in general very important and I have experienced, being Dutch in Germany, that I was a little too direct or informal when talking to parents of friends, resulting in being seen as rude.” She also states: “In the Netherlands I find everything a lot more informal and people are a lot more direct. They don’t think that hard about their words, but they just speak their minds and I feel that is a lot more respected and encouraged here than it is in Germany.”
I too remember this dynamic change during my first months in the Netherlands, especially inside academic institutions, where the expected teacher-student relationship stands in sharp contrast with my own experiences in Spanish education systems. The idea that a student might openly state disagreement with a teacher’s statement is far from a given in Spain, where power distance presents itself at a score of 58, and such interactions would be, as stated also by Jeremy: “If a child wants to talk back to you, it’s because you asked them to”.

It is fascinating to see how powerfully a change in power distance can affect our experiences of participation within a culture, and how much of a given it may be to its native partakers. The Dutch are famous for many things, and once a newcomer has survived its first waves of swearing cyclists, bone-chilling rainstorms and acrid clouds of plant-based smog, we may find ourselves eager to prepare ourselves for the next volley. Knowing what to expect when it comes to power dynamics in the Netherlands can prove to be a valuable tool to help us understand and – if we’re feeling particularly courageous – participate in Dutch culture, and to help prevent any unpleasant misunderstandings. Especially if we’re already feeling things might end with a mob, torches and pitchforks any minute now.

[1] Image by Mariano Mantel

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