By Greg Shapiro
Granted I’m just a comedian, but I do get some lovely, candid snapshots of corporate life in the Netherlands – by performing at the bizarrely revealing rituals known as ‘Dutch corporate events.’ Let me take you on a mini tour. And – Happy 20th Anniversary, XPat Journal! Here’s a column that’s fit for a king.
Dutch culture is known for its attitude of Doe Maar Gewoon: ‘Just Act Normal.’ Even the Dutch king and queen seem to make an effort to be open and approachable. So – when there’s a visit from the king – you might expect Dutch business leaders to be calm and relaxed. You’d be wrong.
King Willem-Alexander was in attendance for the 50th anniversary of a Dutch agricultural company. And there were so many pre-meetings and protocols! Before the king entered the room, I had to read off a whole list in front of the audience: when to stand, when not to stand; what to say, what not to say. After going through the list with the audience, I remarked, “Wow, this guy is so high-maintenance”. Luckily – as I heard later – the king laughed. I was thinking, ‘Hey, let’s not bow down too low – don’t forget we’re paying his salary.’ (Wisely, I didn’t say that part.)
The event occurred shortly after the National Geographic article This Tiny Country Feeds the World, about how the Netherlands is amazingly the world’s second biggest agricultural exporter. And guess who’s number one? The United States. So I was happy to report to the Dutch king that – in terms of agricultural business – it is indeed: ‘America First, the Netherlands Second’. And then I had the line “Well, the king has a busy schedule, so let us all rise as he leaves the theater”. Willem-Alexander, sitting in the front row, was apparently taken by surprise. He shrugged, as if to say “I have to leave now? I just got here”. But then his entourage arose and escorted him away. Part of me wonders if the king would have preferred to dispense with the formalities and just doe maar gewoon. But not as long as everyone around him is so formal.
If you’re going to cheat, do your homework and cheat properly
Bosses Who Jog to Work
In general, Dutch bosses have a reputation for being non-hierarchical and down-to-earth. Even the Dutch prime minister is known for biking to work and cleaning up his own spilled coffee. Once, I hosted an event for a company with a new CEO who was almost too eager to prove how normal he was. The new boss wouldn’t wear a tie. The new boss wouldn’t have his office on the top floor. The new boss would encourage Work-Life Balance. In fact, to prove he was okay with his team making time for outside projects, he wanted to announce how he himself was running a marathon for charity. I helped him make the announcement. And then he wanted to ask his new team for donations. I pointed out how – since he was still technically their boss – his team might feel awkwardly obligated to donate. He made a point of saying “You’re not required to donate!” But he still sent assistants into the audience with donation buckets, as everyone reluctantly emptied their pockets of coins. It was spectacularly awkward.
Netherlands: Second Is First
I once hosted a charity event involving a footrace in suits and stilettos. The race took place outdoors in Amsterdam Zuidas, with a 50-meter track and three lanes.
Women had to race from start to finish wearing high heels. Men had to compete in dress shoes with suits and shirts fully buttoned. My job was to host and keep things moving, but it wasn’t clear who was acting as referee. After the second heat, I realized that some of the gentlemen were clearly not bothering to race fully buttoned. A couple were even jumping the starting gun. Nothing better to demonstrate white privilege than tall Dutchmen in business suits cheating at a charity event.
And then there was one guy who clearly took off too early. The runner in Lane Two even pointed it out to me as Lane One took off. But my job as host was to keep things going, not stop the race and keep doing it over. I wondered if Lane Two would protest. But luckily he seemed perfectly happy to have come in second. I found him afterward and told him I appreciated his sportsmanship. He told me, “Oh, the second-place prize is actually worth more than the first. So I came in second on purpose”. So I learned a great lesson that day: if you’re going to cheat, do your homework and cheat properly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Shapiro is a comedian and author of How to Be Dutch: the Quiz and How to Be Orange. He is also the voice of Trump in the Netherlands Second video. He is touring the Netherlands with his solo show The Madness of King Donald. And his YouTube show The United States of Europe has over 3 million views. For more information about Greg, visit www.gregshapiro.nl.
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