In the last few years, I have been more and more in touch with different cultures. First in my studies and day job as a geologist, then through improv for a bit more than 10 years, and eventually through moving to a new country where my partner Laura is from: the Netherlands.
My experience showed me that the international improv community is very alike: an international improviser from France is not an “average French person”, and an international improviser from Singapore is not an “average Singaporean person”. We have so much in common: our artform, passion and most of our center of interests, very often we tend to believe in the same fundamental values, we develop friendships that are so authentic while we sometimes struggle finding an equivalent in our own city. And so we go, smile on our face, convinced that we are so alike, and sometimes forgetting that we are not only alike.
One of the differences I have faced a lot, and tried to understand, is in the way communication is handled. Here is the first part on that big topic: what I discovered in the Netherlands.
France has a culture that focuses on the receiver
France is a country in which we have a loooot of unwritten rules. Too many. There are so many ways to get someone offended in France, because you did/said something that “we don’t do/say”, that basically any foreigner is considered a rude bastard, and any visitor considers French people pretentious pricks. At least at first.
For instance, one of the biggest no-go zones in France is to embarrass someone. And having to answer “no” to a request is embarrassing. So you have to navigate what you do/say/ask to not push anyone to have to say “no”. Ever. No is not really an option if you are polite, so as a polite person yourself, you don’t want to put another polite person in a position where they would have to appear impolite, right? 🤯
It can go as far as this. If I host a dinner at my place, I will not ask my guests to bring something, to not embarrass them if they don’t want. But as a guest, I will ask if I can bring something, because I don’t want my hosts to have the burden to ask. The host will probably answer “don’t worry, I take care of everything”, as the guest, I will bring something anyway and the host will act surprised. It will certainly end up with too much wine for a single dinner. Everyone knows their role in that little game, and if you miss one of these tasks, you will probably be considered rude.
Anyway, all that to say that in our communication, the most important person is the receiver, which means that all the effort of communication is centred around the sender. They have to figure out everything, and anticipate the reaction of the receiver to not hurt their feelings, which means a few things:
- They will spend a lot of time and attention to the details on if and how they communicate something.
- They will be very sensitive to how other people react and how they feel, to permanently adjust what is appropriate to say or not.
- They will be considered dishonest by others as they will filter a lot of what they think.
- They will take offense of anything and everything if it doesn’t fit in their standards.
The Netherlands has a culture that focuses on the sender
The Netherlands is a good opposite in many aspects of communication. Geographically speaking of course, and even culturally compared to the entire world, France is really not that far. But there are some key-points that are drastically different, one of them being that the Netherlands has a strong focus on the sender in communication.
The Dutch culture has almost no taboo. It is considered allowed and healthy to ask any question, knowing that the deal is that you have 50% chances to face “no” as an answer. And that you will need to not take offense if someone tells you no. Also, probably that answer will mean nothing else than the actually meaning of “no” to your question. For me this part is very unsettling, because in France it would mean SO. MUCH. MORE.
The effect it has in everyday life is that people will express anything they feel expecting you to take care of your own boundaries actively. It is common that people would invite themselves at your place for dinner: they assume that you would just say “no” if you don’t want it. Most of them would help themselves in your fridge: same assumption. They would state opinions or ideas as facts in your face: if you feel uncomfortable, you would say it. It is both terrifying and somehow weirdly relaxing at times, as there is very little chance to offend someone.
In this case, the most important person is the sender, and the integrity of what they think and what they want. It is assumed that everyone is entitled to be an equal sender and that if you have any trouble, thoughts, things you wanna say, you would say it. It also means a few things:
- They care more about the core of things than the appearance, so there is very little ceremony and useless fluff. It makes it efficient as hell!
- They have very little respect for hierarchy and consider anyone equal, which is very nice compared to the layered complex social constructs of bullshit we have in France.
- The debate around equality is actually biased and sometimes very difficult to even start, as the basic cultural assumption is that anyone feel equally entitled to speak up, which denies the very existence of privileges.
- They are often perceived as (and sometimes simply are) rude. There is no such thing as offending someone, the verb is only passive: the receiver feels offended, and that’s their responsibility.
So what did I learn?
First of all, there are plenty situations where I can simply be more relaxed. I can take most of what is said to me as face-value and I don’t need to double-guess that much what people actually mean. For someone with social anxiety (hello! 🤗), it feels very nice!
I learnt the value of asking, which opens the door to being also more vulnerable and be ok with that: I can open up and not be afraid to make someone feel uncomfortable, as they would probably tell me. The horizontal way of seeing authority is also fitting me very well, and I can really appreciate that concept that is way closer to who I am than all the pretend France is draping itself with.
But most of all, it allowed me to notice that difference in the concept of communication that is at the core of the culture. And as much as I am not an average French person, and Laura is not an average Dutch person, we can still feel it very much, explore it, explain it and try to understand it better!
That being said, I think there are lessons to take in improv, on and off stage. And I have a theory about it. It will be the topic of:
Part 2: How the only way to connect more is to understand our differences