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Be gezellig, don’t boast and be sure to complain

Be gezellig, don’t boast and be sure to complain

How to be Dutch

How does one ‘be’ Dutch? Greg Shapiro, self-proclaimed ‘American Netherlander’ and comedian from Boom Chicago, Comedy Central, answers this question meticulously in his book How to be Dutch. Using quiz questions in the style of the official integration exam, Shapiro pokes fun at the reader, himself and especially the Dutch.

The book is a sequel to How to be Orange: An alternative Dutch assimilation course, and takes a closer look at Dutch culture. Socialising, cycling and eating liquorice cannot go unmentioned, but Shapiro, who has spent some twenty years in the Netherlands, is long past being surprised by people who eat raw herring. Instead he presents a variety of facts that will be new even to people who were born and raised here. For example, who knew that the Netherlands is one of the world’s largest agricultural exporters, second only to the US in exports of dairy products, meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables?

As Shapiro sees it, the Dutch have every right to take more pride in the achievements of their own country. “Look at Flevoland. Just 60 years ago, it was mostly underwater. Now it’s an entire new province! The rest of the world looked at the new Dutch map and said ‘It’s a miracle!’ But ask any Dutch people about Flevoland, and the general response is ‘Mwah, it’s okay… It’s not gezellig.’ But tooting your own horn is not in the Dutch nature. As he writes after listing the many Dutch inventions and famous people, “If you boast for giving the world so much – then you’ve not yet learned how to be Dutch.”

Which is not to say everything here is perfect. When it comes to racism, Shapiro is harsh but witty. “At what age do Dutch children learn about slavery?” he asks the reader. Answer options: A: Primary school; B: Junior high school; C: High school; or D: By accident. The correct answer is D. Perhaps, he suggests darkly, because Dutch history books don’t want to brag either.

Then there’s his explanation of the term zwarte school: “A ‘black school’ is defined as ‘a school with at least 60 per cent students of non-Dutch origin.’ The Netherlands has a reputation for tolerance and acceptance – so any students who aren’t ‘Dutch enough’ are simply labeled ‘black’. Note: Dutch schools do not practice segregation. As many Dutch parents put it, ‘There are plenty of white kids in the ‘black’ schools.’ It’s just that they don’t seem to want their white kid to join them.”

But the majority of the book is lighthearted, from biking etiquette (If you knock over other bikes when parking yours, should you stop to pick them up? And should you indicate at a roundabout?), through narrow houses and steep stairwells (“The rationale behind the bizarrely steep, twisted and inhumane Dutch staircases? To punish humanity”) to the Dutch reluctance to prescribe painkillers (“‘Life is pain’, your doctor will say”).

Sandwiched between each chapter are photos of words that are quite normal in Dutch, but raise eyebrows for English speakers. Examples include a croissant with a sausage in it – a worstcroissant – and a cleaning company called Robbers.

Finally, Shapiro shares his most important insight to date: complaining helps in the integration process. “It’s that point when you say ‘The service is terrible, the food is terrible, everything is so expensive and it’s so damn small … I’ve had it! I hate this country! I’m leaving’, THAT’S when Dutch people will say ‘Yes! Now you know how we feel. Come, live with us, you can stay’.”

To say that How to be Dutch gets to the very bottom of the Dutch soul would be going too far. The book is mainly a collection of fun facts and anecdotes. But Shapiro manages to describe the situations in which he finds himself with humour and broad appeal: foreigners will share his surprise, while Dutch readers will squirm with recognition. Yet there are some things that, after two decades here, Shapiro still can’t explain. Under an advertising poster for a so-called ‘Big Dick Rabbit’ – a plush toy with male genitalia – he simply writes: “I have no explanation for this.” Then again, who does?

Integration, Shapiro style

Can you pass the How to be Dutch integration test? Here are a few questions from the book. Answers can be found at the bottom of the page.


1. You are biking on a bike path marked ‘no motor scooters’, when you encounter a motor scooter. What should you do?

A – Take no notice and wait for the police to take action

B – Roll your eyes and make a rude hand gesture

C – Make contact with the scooter and point to the ‘No motor scooter’ signs


2. Which is the best example of Dutch hospitality?

A – Your neighbour invites you over, and you drop by with a gift

B – Your neighbour invites you over, and you wave at them through their front window

C – Your neighbour invites you over, so you make an appointment for some time next month, and you try to make zero contact in the meantime


3. How many times does the Dutch national anthem reference other countries?

A – 1

B – 2

C – 3


Answers: 1B, 2C, 3C



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