When I first came to the Netherlands in 2001, I brought a bag of cultural habits with me that have brought an equally mixed bag of success with them. One of these was my English tendency to apologise for everything and almost even for existing.
I was born and brought up in England where the practice of saying sorry has become entrenched in the English culture. We even say sorry when someone else treads on our toes. After all, it’s our fault for leaving our feet in the way, isn’t it? That might seem daft, and I can’t disagree, but that’s just an example of how it works.
I then moved to South Africa, which has many of the attributes of both the English and the Dutch cultures combined. However, although South Africans tend to be more direct than their English counterparts, traditional courtesy is still of the utmost importance, so the culture of apology persists there as well, especially in the work and business environment. As a result, when I came to the Netherlands, I was surprised to encounter not just resistance to my habit of apologising for everything, but confusion and clear misunderstanding as well.
In my background, an apology is a simple means of diffusing a potential conflict or argument. Conversely, if someone apologises to me, I can instantly forgive them. Without an apology, the argument, conflict or feeling of ill will may continue to simmer and not be resolved. This, I hasten to add, is the Englishness behind it.
However, here in the Netherlands, an apology seems to have a greater level of seriousness and perhaps a more limited application. Some years ago when I was teaching a group of office staff at one of the country’s leading banks, we discussed my habit of apologising during the class.
“Why do you always say ‘sorry’ or ‘I’m afraid’ when you’re going to tell us something we won’t like? You’re not really sorry at all and you’re definitely not afraid!”
We all laughed at that. But then they went on.
“Why do you apologise for wanting to use the photocopier? It’s not a crime.”
“All these apologies, aren’t they a bit hypocritical?”
And I had to admit they had a point. It must have seemed quite unnecessary and not very honest even though these almost obligatory linguistic ‘prefixes’ are only intended to avoid what might be an awkward situation. But then what about apologising to customers for something that’s gone wrong? Surely, I said, that’s a legitimate use of an apology.
“Oh no,” they told me. “We aren’t allowed to apologise to customers. That would be seen as admitting liability, and we can’t do that.”
And this is where our cultural understanding, or misunderstanding, of ‘I’m sorry’ diverges. To the English mind, the use of these words simply indicates a general empathy for the situation the other person has experienced; it doesn’t imply acceptance of responsibility. It is merely the beginning of the conversation on how to put the matter right. Indeed, it’s a kind of code understood between English speakers that allows the dialogue to proceed in a civil fashion. According to my Dutch students, this is not necessary in the Netherlands, and could actually result in problems. When someone says ‘I’m sorry,’ it is taken more literally and is interpreted as an admission of guilt.
This could then explain why the English tendency to apologise for everything is regarded by those in the Netherlands with bemusement (at best) or irritation (at least) or complete scepticism (at worst). There are even those who might see it as a dangerous habit. Conversely, the English find it hard to accept the lack of apology in many instances.
That said, I think it’s true to say that many international organisations with large customer service centres have adopted the policy of the empathic apology to cater for their multi-cultural clients. I have personally been treated with exemplary sympathy by the online and call-centre employees of some of the Netherlands’ largest companies. Nevertheless, in more national and local companies, it can still be an issue for the culturally challenged English speaker.
In a recent exchange I had with the administrators of my apartment’s owners’ association, I received a detailed and perfectly polite explanation of something that had gone wrong. However, even though it was definitely their responsibility, there was no hint of an apology. As an import to the country, I’ve accepted this, I even understand it, but it still rankles with the English mindset that lurks within me.
What it’s taught me overall, though, is that culture should never be underestimated. In addition, because language is a reflection of our culture as well as our means of communication, we need to spend more time examining language than virtually anything else when we move to a new country. When it comes to the Netherlands, maybe we should forget the windmills, dykes and tulips. Perhaps we should even forget the philosophy of a flat country, and rather think of the language of an equal or flat society as being more important.
After all, if everyone is equal, there is far less need for the kind of respect that demands an apology for every minor infraction. If the English in the Netherlands understand this, we will find it much easier to adapt.