A few seconds after I have been overtaken by a lady wearing impressive goggles, a memory of a couple of years ago drifts through my head. I had stopped in front of a jet of water gushing out of the swimming pool wall to get a back and neck massage as I sometimes do at the end of a few laps. A lady in swimsuit, standing beside me in the pool remarked in Dutch, ‘ I noticed that your legs aren’t deep enough in the water while you swim. So you don’t have much power in your strokes’. Then she looked me up and down and continued: ‘you’re younger than me and should be swimming much faster’. ‘Oh’, I replied. ‘Thanks for the tip. I’ll keep it in mind.’ And I did. Another time, I kept adjusting my goggles because I couldn’t get them to block out water and a man who was watching me offered some advice as well as a demonstration of how I could do it so that the goggles would act like the seal they were meant to be. He was very friendly and I thanked him. If I had seen these people before I don’t remember, and I don’t believe I have seen them since (blame the goggles).
I remembered this because I have seldom had such conversations with strangers in other parts of the world. My co-swimmers mean well and want to help. Many people I know who are born and brought up in the Netherlands have a combination of one or more of these traits:
eerlijkheid (honesty or directness) + wereld verbeteraar (do gooder) + zelf verzekerd (self-confidence)
So I see the remark from the lady as ‘free feedback’ on my lack of swimming prowess, and the instruction about getting the goggles on properly as a genuine desire to save me the struggle. ‘It helps if you wet them first’, he said. ‘Then pin the centre on the bridge of your nose with a forefinger while using the other hand to stretch the rubber band over your head and to fix the glasses in place’. ‘Thank you’, I said.
I think that the success of this very tiny place on the world map makes a lot of Dutch people feel like things get done well around here and that they’d like to share their knowledge and ideas with all concerned, which sometimes comes across as a zeal for unasked advice. To add to that, the much applauded ‘speakability’ – or conditions under which anything can be talked about like – ‘how children are made’ with under five year olds, and a remarkable talent for getting to the point without much ado for which the Dutch are famous, and you have these conversations happening to you on a regular basis.
They aren’t the same as ‘can I help? ’ and also not the same as ‘this is how you should do it’, but somewhere in between. You get used to it, as I did, and then you smile and thank folks for their special brand of ‘speakability’.