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Dutch customs

"Where did you study?"

An interview for a part-time cleaning job in the Netherlands

Nijmegen, The Netherlands, Spring 2004 —

I went to a bakery, called De Postduif ("the carrier pigeon,") across from the main post office, to ask for work. A sign in the window said that they were looking for somebody to clean the place.

Later, the owner called me and we made an appointment — which was difficult, because my Dutch is poor. On the telephone, that's rough.

When I met him, he introduced himself to me by surname only. About 55 years old, this guy was old Dutch. He tells you his surname, and then you address him as "meneer so-and-so."

He showed me around the bakery. In the dry-storage, us below the shelves, he asked me how I'd clean this room. I didn't know what to say, in English or in Dutch. Top down, I said.

When we went back to the main room, we stood for a few moments and talked while he had a notepad on the countertop. Normal stuff, difficult though because — I'll say it again — my Dutch is bad.

It was not necessary for me to speak Dutch. I could have spoken English. But this was at a time when I was forcing myself to speak Dutch, and compelling others to speak Dutch with me. It's the only way to learn the language*.

At least this fellow indulged my effort — he did not make any attempt to switch our conversation over into English, and I've got to give him proper credit for that. That's not easy to find.

But here's the part about the interview that made it really Dutch — meneer D_ asked me about my education — and he listened, attentively, to my answer. Education is important to the Dutch. The topic seems to come up in any introductory conversation, with a Dutch person who thinks in a traditional way. And, it comes up in a traditional interview — even for a job cleaning a bakery at minimum wage for eight hours per week.


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* It's important to make an attempt at language. That's common wisdom. And it is true in Holland — but not in the normal way.

You don't need to speak Dutch. You can communicate in English — you can speak, and you can hear what a person wants to tell you. But but you can't listen — you cannot participate.

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