Here are two easy words to learn in Dutch: vriend and collega. I’m betting all you non-Dutchies get those right away, but if not, those are the words for friend and colleague. What was interesting and frustrating to me upon arriving here in Amsterdam was the difference in implication of those words in English vs Dutch.
Let me explain. When I started working in Miami, Winsy Dunwoody, a new fellow planner immediately invited me over to dinner at her house with her fiancé. I could have been a psycho killer or a total bore but she was willing to find out, open her home to someone new in town and make them feel welcome. I’ve been in Amsterdam for 13 months now and have never been invited to a Dutch colleagues’ home.
Even the word colleague is more formal than what we tend to use in English: co-worker. Perhaps the language is more formal, but it doesn’t mean that Dutch people are unfriendly. Jokes are made at work and they’ve even been willing to speak English at lunch with me. But those first few weeks when you move to a new place and you most need the kindness of new friends, it is not part of Dutch culture to cushion your arrival.
What’s at work here is a mental distinction between friends and colleagues. In the US, especially in the advertising industry, there is an expectation that many of your closest friends will be a selection of the people you work with. As such, everybody is willing to try you out when you arrive. It’s ok if you don’t hit it off and become best friends forever, but the thinking is that you just might.
In the Netherlands, a country whose population is just a bit smaller than that of the state of New York, 80% of the people are born and raised Dutch. They aren’t as accustomed to outsiders and they live in a relatively small space with all the people they have grown up with. What do they need new friends for? And more than that, work and home life are kept more separate here, so to move from the collega bucket into the vriend bucket takes a lot of time.
What about my own effort? Well, as an example, I’ve had two parties at my house since I’ve landed. The first one was after being here three months when I was settled in my own apartment. One Dutch colleague came but I had invited maybe ten. Then I recently had a birthday party for both my boyfriend and I – at a year in – and three out of fifteen turned up.
Social connections are supposed to be one of the most important influences on our happiness, so I’m lucky that there are lots of other foreigners here to befriend. Being so far from home and sharing this Dutch experience actually makes us expats more likely to stick together. And since there are not so many Americans here, I am learning a lot about the other countries my new friends come from.
Still, I’m not satisfied. I’m sure if I became fluent in Dutch or took on a Dutch boyfriend, making Dutch friends would be easier. And perhaps there is just no easy way here. I might be getting less of a foreign experience by filling my social life mostly with expats, but I am learning a lot and making some progress. I think I will make more of an effort with my Dutch ‘vrienden’ in the new year. Any suggestions for New Year’s Resolutions? Any make-Dutch-friends-quick tips or have you had similar experiences?