Expat Magazine

Having an Open Mind to Understand a Difficult Culture Better

By Clogsandtulips @clogsandtulips

This post was orginially promised to me by Benny of The Language Hacking Guide back in early December and he's finally gotten around to getting it to me. He's now in Amsterdam to reach fluency in Dutch in two months. He's already 3 weeks into it and feels that he has why the Dutch continue to speak English to language learners, despite their effort, all figured out.
Having an open mind to understand a difficult culture betterHello from Amsterdam! I'm here to attempt to learn Dutch to fluency in just a matter of weeks (with the advantage of already having some German). One thing I heard consistently from expats before coming here is that the Dutch will only want to speak English with me. It is true that I have met some people reluctant to help me, but I've also been meeting several who are very eager to encourage me and I have spent several evenings already speaking just in Dutch (despite my current very poor level).
The way i do this is to try to keep an open mind, I could accept by default that everyone will only speak English with me as the myth says, or I could try to understand why they would only speak English despite me clearly wanting to learn their language. I am starting to see very clear patterns that I will elaborate on near the end of my mission. Being aware of these patterns, how I may be actually at fault rather than the Dutch people and taking this into account is helping me to learn much quicker than it seems most expats here would.
To give you an idea of what I mean, I want to share a similar realisation I made a year ago about my bad blood with Parisians:
9 months in Paris
 Back in 2005, I was ready to take on French for the first time, so since I prefer cities it just seemed logical to move to Paris to do this.
I had only been on the road for a year and a half back then so I was still quite bright eyed and had dreams of meeting my own Amélie Poulain, running into amazing new people every day in la ville lumière, and speaking flawless French in a short matter of months.

To say that I was disappointed wouldn’t do what I felt justice – despite trying hard to get along, I found the Parisians arrogant, unfriendly, rude and plain old mean. I really dislike promoting stereotypes (the hundreds or thousands of times I’ve heard “You’re Irish and you don’t drink??” has never seemed to lessen how annoying it is), and I really tried to see their good side, but after 9 months, I had given up.

It’s the only place I’ve ever lived in, where my attempts to speak the language were met with disgusted grimaces and where I never received any form of encouragement from locals. I would dream of the day when a Parisian would call my French pas mal.
Despite all that, I stayed committed for the entire 9 months and did finally start speaking French. Things improved hugely when I moved down south to Toulouse (so I actually liked the French in general quite a lot), and some time later to Quebec, but in the earlier stages it was one of the hardest languages I’ve learned – not because of grammar, exceptions or any of that (which all languages have), but simply because the Parisians were extremely unhelpful and discouraging.
My newfound devotion to not speaking English had backfired (luckily that’s the only place it’s ever happened) because it basically meant that I had little options to socialise at all; there were plenty of English speakers around, but I was committed to speaking French no matter what. Since I hadn’t really figured out yet how to practise a language away from its home country, I was also quickly losing my Spanish and Italian.
After work, I tended to just retreat back home and watch TV or study, which wasn’t helping much. My long-term goal to be a polyglot was seeming more and more impossible and the experience was a lonely and frustrating time for me. Paris is not a time I look back on nostalgically.
5 years of stubbornness
And this is where the closed-mindedness comes in. I had 9 months of “proof” in terms of my memories, that Paris was hell on earth and Parisians were the devil’s minions. And I was not shy to tell anyone who would (or wouldn’t) care to hear it.
Of course, people would argue. Plenty of people love Paris and would tell me how nice Parisians were. This made no difference to my convictions.
I could argue away their case with any twists of logic I could find. If it was a pretty girl, then a sexist comment about how that’s why she was treated nice would come up. If it was someone on a language programme, then it was because the Parisians were paid to be nice to them and endure their French. And of course if someone was there as a tourist or for a few months mostly speaking English, then it’s because they simply weren’t immersed enough to see the real truth.
I would dismiss the counter-proofs as irrelevant and embrace anyone else with a similar opinion to be flawnted as my comrade against evil. It’s something I’ve seen time and again from narrow minded people, but I was blind how to how I was doing the very same myself.
This opinion may have continued with me if it wasn’t for my blog and a general quest to try to rid my life of unnecessary negativity.
Being public about these missions and suggesting unconventional language hacks has lead to disagreements and arguments with people. I was initially surprised about this, but I should have expected it; if you challenge anyone’s long held beliefs that they have never questioned before, you are going to hear all about it.
When someone has such a long-term investment of years in a belief (languages take decades to learn, only the rich can travel, luck governs all, or in my case Parisians are arseholes), then they will passionately defend that belief, no matter what the benefits to being a little open minded may be.
Starting with a clean slate and opening your mind
Since my French has gradually and continually improved despite not being in France/Quebec any more, especially through hosting Couchsurfers, I’ve had the pleasure to meet some really nice Parisians. I had continued to mark them as the exceptions, since as travellers they were “bound to be” more open minded.
But in Bangkok, I realised that I had been carrying this weight for too long. It was time to get over myself and have an open mind about my opinion even if I “knew” it was true. I resolved to spend 3 days in Paris with the mission to leave with a positive impression of Parisians.
I actually succeeded within hours.
All it took was to really try and to challenge my own opinions and expectations. In those first 9 months I was waiting for them to prove themselves to me, and I never really analysed why they were treating me like that. “They’re shitheads” is an easy dismissive response of course, but it’s simply not true. Let me tell you the experience that changed it for me:
I had just arrived from a 13 hour flight from Bangkok at 6AM with no sleep. Usually I tend to sleep at Couchsurfers’ houses, but I wanted to my own space this time and to just chill out by myself for a few days before going home. So I had booked the absolute cheapest hotel I could find (€35/night for an unimpressive roof over your head; far from the luxury I was getting in Thailand), but I was pleased to see when reserving that it also came with in-room wifi.
So when I got there, I really just wanted to check my e-mails and then collapse. After checking in, I asked for the wifi password and the receptionist said that the wifi is down, has been for weeks and won’t be repaired until the end of the month. I needed to check work e-mails, I didn’t need this problem in my exhausted state; I said that it’s false advertising and he shrugged and said (in French) that frankly, it wasn’t his problem.
Then it happened – I realised at that very second how I was reacting over my entire 9 month period. I was constantly fighting with Parisians and judging them by my standards of how people should act. In Ireland or other countries, a hotel (even a cheap hotel) receptionist just wouldn’t say that. “The customer is always right”, and if something isn’t perfect then it’s the business’s problem to solve it.
Look at it from their perspective
But I wasn’t in Ireland or Brazil or Thailand anymore. Also, hanging out with French people way more outside of France (ironically) than in it, meant that I had gained that glimpse into the culture that I hadn’t in those 9 months.
Although I still have lots to learn about French culture, the way I see it (sorry for more stereotypes!), the worker is given more respect in France than in some other countries, which alternatively focus more on the customer. Workers in France have quite a lot of rights and laws favour them more. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant because that’s the way it is. Judging the Parisians by my rules meant that they were going to bite back. I was doing this with workers and with potential friends.
We love blaming our problems on others. The fact that I had experienced an isolated 9 months wasn’t their fault, as I had maintained; it was mine for dismissing the “negative” aspects I didn’t like. I should have been learning from these differences, but I was too stubborn to acknowledge such a possibility.
So this time I took a different appraoch. Even though I was tired and actually did need to check e-mails, I simply changed the subject and tried to relate to the receptionist. I told him about when I worked as a youth hostel receptionist in Rome and how I hated it when I got blamed for things that were out of my control, so I understand there’s nothing he can do. I tried to get on his side and said that he probably gets a lot of arrogant and angry foreign guests at the hotel blaming him for things that aren’t his fault.
He suddenly became way more friendly and we chatted for a few minutes. Using a few other tricks that I’ve learned from more exposure to the French, you know what? I actually got a wifi password! Ridiculous, but there was a “staff only version” that he gave me for being nice. No amount of complaining or threatening to talk to the manager etc. would ever have gotten me that. That’s just not how things work there.
After a rest, I went out and had a pleasant conversation with pretty much everyone I met for the rest of my stay, both worker and random young person. Changing my filter from just seeing the negative to starting to see the positive, actually gave me a positive experience in the end. If only I had realised this sooner, I wouldn’t have been carrying around this unnecessary baggage for so long.
On my last morning, I was getting breakfast before going to the airport and chatting to the guy at the boulangerie. Just before I left he actually congratulated me on my level of French; I’m already confident about my level of French and in other parts of France and in Montréal I had been complimented before, but this was coming from a Parisian. That’s well beyond the pas mal that I had always dreamed of, and all it took was to see things from the other person’s perspective.
So, do the Dutch really only speak English to you?
The whole point of sharing this story is to try to get people to step outside themselves and see that sometimes it really is their own fault for not understanding a culture properly.
With that in mind I can say that, yes, I have been spoken to in English even when i tried to speak Dutch. I could jump to conclusions and say that nobody will help me learn the language, or I could realise that actually the fact that I was doing it in a nightclub with a pretty girl who would have had to endure several other guys try to make small talk with her, it's actually pretty logical that she didn't want to indulge in my Dutch.
I've found that by focusing on my pronunciation and avoiding things like using an English R at the start of words/syllables (since at the end it's actually OK), means that they don't even know where I'm from so they won't thrust English on me so quickly. The English switch is because they want to help you, but when it's clear you aren't just another tourist and when you share your passion and they can see you genuinely try your damnedest to say something in Dutch, then they suddenly start to listen.
I've only been here for just over a week so far, and have lots to learn still. But now most people who I make pleasant conversation with will indeed help me. Rather than deciding the Dutch in general are only interested in practising English with foreigners, I realised what I might do to encourage them to help me more. I'm in their country, so it's only logical that I figure out how to adapt to a way that makes them comfortable.
If you have other tips to help me with my mission, please let me know in the comments :)
I'm also curious to hear what you think of Benny's newest challenge and his progress. Please feel free to discuss in the comments.
Photo: Benny Lewis

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