Kop Profiel The Netherlands

Overzicht eerdere


'Don't kill me, doctor!'

Titia Ketelaar
Cloggies, tulip-eaters, coffeeshop-addicts, abortionists, tolerant, liberal and stingy: the image the Dutch have abroad. But is the Netherlands really a country full of sinners and funny folklore?

For young people in the Netherlands, smoking cannabis i almost as normal as drinking alcohol. It was estimated that one billion guilders worth of cannabis was consumed in 1995. (Source: CBS) Photo Magnum, Martin Parr
Photo Magnum, Martin Parr

TRY TO PICTURE a Dutchman and most non-Dutch will give you the story of the little boy with his finger in the dike trying to stop the country from flooding: blond hair, blue eyes, a Volendam pair of trousers and, of course, the inevitable clogs. In the background there is a windmill and, preferably, some tulips.

If this is not the picture that is portrayed, it will - no doubt - be of the 'other' Dutchman: the sex-crazed, drug-using advocate of free abortion and euthanasia, extremely tolerant of others and with a liberal attitude to everything that is banned in other countries.

And no wonder this image of the Dutch exists. One look at foreign papers gives an excellent insight in what other nations think: The Guardian, January 1999: 'Amsterdam Brothels go legit'; Daily Daily Telegraph, October 1998: 'Dutch carry cards that say: Don't kill me doctor!'.

Needless to say that the Dutch aren't too pleased with this image. A 1993 studystudy by the Dutch Ministry of Economics and the Dutch Tourist Board found that potential tourists considered the Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam, to be unsafe and dirty. The antidote was using the 'friendly' Dutch image - lots of tulips and clogs and windmills. One stereotype to counter another. ''There must be some truth in stereotypes if people from different countries all think alike about one nation'', says professor Nico Wilterdink from the University of Amsterdam. He conducted extensive research on national stereotypes and found that thinking in stereotypes is necessary for people to order the world: ''distinguishing 'us' from 'them'.''

''Stereotypes are based on part of the truth, but they are simplifications and generalisations. For example: the Dutch policy towards drugs stands out internationally. This leads to the generalisation that the Dutch are so tolerant for accepting the policy and that becomes 'all Dutch are on drugs' or something similar.'' Wilterdink calls it 'psychologising politics'.

So what do foreigners living in the Netherlands think of its inhabitants? Are the 'cloggies' what they expected to be? The general comment seems to be that 'image is nothing'. Not surprisingly, they find out that not all Dutch are on drugs and that only an estimated 5,000 out of 16 million Dutch wear clogs.

''When you live in this country longer than just a short stay, you realise that their famous tolerance is based upon clichés'', says South African Russel Bark, after living in The Hague for a year. ''They keep telling me how wrong apartheid is, but if you hear them talking about Surinamers or Morocans, well, they are not as tolerant as they believe themselves to be.''

He also finds the country is less liberal and too organised - ''there's no spontaneity and there are too many rules'' - and its inhabitants too focused on money. ''The first thing they ask is 'wat kost het?'. And in the supermarket they look at cents. Does it matter if something costs 4,95 guilders or 4,99 guilders?''

Helmut Hetzel, Benelux-correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt for nearly ten years, finds the Dutch to be 'friendly', surprisingly humorous, but often 'meddlesome'. ''The famous Dutch finger does exist. They feel a sort of moral superiority toward other peoples and cannot resist telling that something in your home-country should be different.''

Hetzel also misses the profoundness of conversations, especially in public and political debates. ''As a German I notice that: in Holland you don't discuss. Or you do, but without depth. It's no coincidence: the Dutch are not a nation of philosophers, like the Germans are. They have just had Spinoza, but he came from Portugal. Holland is more a nation of painters, lawyers and writers. And of course a nation of merchants.''

If the existing stereotypes are wide of the mark, it might be time to try and portray the country in a different way. The question is how - if the tulips, windmills and clogs and the liberal attitude towards drugs, sex, abortion and euthanasia are not the Dutch image, then what is?

NRC Webpagina's
1 JULI 1999


For young people in the Netherlands, smoking cannabis i almost as normal as drinking alcohol. It was estimated that one billion guilders worth of cannabis was consumed in 1995. (Source: CBS)
Photo Magnum, Martin Parr

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