The Uptown Hostel

Space Expo Cultural Gab

What’s that?
It’s a frosty January evening in Amsterdam. I’m visiting a friend who is making me dinner because I had a hectic day at work. Browsing through his newspaper, I come across an article in which several Dutch are interviewed on a political subject. I read out some answers to my friend and his roommate. She and I burst out into laughter over these ridiculous comments, while my friend remains quiet. “I don’t get what’s so funny” he finally admits. We both look at our friend in disbelief before we realize his humour ignorance is genuine. Right there, on a regular Monday night, we become three witnesses to an actual cultural gap.

My friend is an Australian who has lived in Holland for over 5 years. He speaks Dutch that well you sometimes forget he is not one. His roommate and I are born and raised Dutchies. We are all fervent travellers and that’s how my friend and I met. Over the years we spent many a night eating, drinking, smoking, laughing, talking and dreaming about life. You could say we know each other well. The bigger my surprise when confronted with this humour failure between us. We explained the joke to my friend accordingly: The Dutch culture is full of contradictions and unwritten rules that we hide behind our famous tolerance. We are proud people who can be overly passionate about things we believe in. However, you do not show a proud growl in public because fanatic nationalism is not-done. We believe you should be free to smoke grass, but 85% of the Dutch do not smoke it. We are proud of our tolerant society, but we blame our neighbour for showing off his car.

My friend now smiles and says: “I noticed this, but I always thought I was missing something because the Dutch constantly give me this tolerant smile in public”. His roommate grins: “It means we forgive you for your foolish act because you are only a tourist”. “Yeah laugh about it” my friend complains, “but as a ‘wannabe-Dutch’ you are forced to learn through trial and error where you can and cannot go, nobody tells you”. We agree that that can’t be easy and sympathize with my friend’s hardships. Then I realize I too feel ignorant when I visit my friends abroad. I always recognize the universal, tiny, blond girl sympathy smile but at those times it’s mixed with the she’s-only-a-tourist one. “Nonetheless” I say “I do believe cultures overlap”. My friend and I often express mutual values, morals and humour. It is just that cultural core that is hard to penetrate from the outside, but we don’t think any foreigner ever enters the heart of it. While opening our second bottle of wine we conclude that cultural gaps do also have their charm. It keeps life and friendships interesting, as long as you have a (tolerant) smile ready and the will to explain..