Netherlands - Cultural Clash


When traveling, it can often be difficult to navigate the cultural differences.   What you might consider unacceptable behavior might be completely acceptable in the place where you are visiting.   And sometimes you might not learn until years later that you have experienced a cultural clash. That was the case during my 2005 visit to the Netherlands.

I arrived in Amsterdam with five friends, all of whom are of Cuban descent.   Three of them were born in Cuba and fled to the USA to escape the Castro government.   I was the lone "gringo" in the group.

Amsterdam is a beautiful city for walking and is home to some fabulous museums and great restaurants.  We had just finished eating, when we saw an ice cream shop.  We decided to stop for dessert.

Lourdes, Elaine and Alicia in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Inside the small shop was a teenaged girl.  After learning that my friends were originally from Cuba, she started telling them, in Spanish, how much better off Cuba has been since Fidel Castro took over.   That was absolutely the worst thing she probably could have said.   At first, my friends tried to explain in a nice way why that was NOT their experience.   But she wouldn't stop.  Even though she had never been to Cuba before, she continued to share her "expertise" on the wonderful health care system in Cuba and the other "great" things Castro had done for the country.   The reaction from my friends ranged from shock to anger.

At the time, I couldn't believe how "rude" she was.   Why would a clerk in any store think it is okay to get into an argument with a customer?   This seemed to conflict with Amsterdam's reputation as being an accepting culture.   Amsterdam has more people from different nationalities than any city in the world. 

Years later, I got my answer.  I read that people in the Netherlands, and in particular in Amsterdam, are very direct speakers.    They are not being rude or argumentative.   They don't sugarcoat anything and say exactly what they think.

I found this quote in a BBC story:

In the Netherlands, there is “the sense that people have the right to say whatever they want and be as direct as they want."

Perhaps if I had known this at the time, we could have simply said "I'm not interested in your opinion."  But in my culture, that would be rude.   

This was my second visit to Amsterdam.  I would love to visit again, if for no other reason than to have one of the delicious Stroopwafels, a sweet flat waffle with caramel.  But next time I might pass on the ice cream.   

Dates of Travel

  • March, 1985
  • September, 2005

Places Visited

  • Amsterdam
  • Gouda



This post is part of my series "One Photo - One Country."  I'm am selecting one photo and writing one story from every country I have visited.   Your comments and questions are welcome.  

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