Sidewalk biking: a favourite pastime in Amsterdam.

That Must Be Allowed!

On Dutch Etiquette

An important thing to know about the Dutch and especially Amsterdam people, is that you have to take extreme care in making a remark when you believe them to be rude. It doesn’t really matter if you are Dutch yourself or foreign. These days, lots of people from the Netherlands have limited manners and at the same time a very thin skin. A difficult combination for all parties involved.

A popular Dutch maxim of the last thirty-or-so years is ‘Moet kunnen!’, which loosely translates as: ‘That must be allowed!’ Admittedly that sounds a bit weird, but so does the original maxim if you ponder on it for anything longer than a few seconds. There is an inner conflict in the phrase between the imperative ‘must’, and the freedom implied in ‘allowed’. Of course you should not reflect on that for too long, since the feeling communicated through the maxim is usually just ‘that should be no problem’ or ‘I am ok with that’. Nevertheless, I prick up my ears whenever I hear it being uttered, because ever so often it is an indication of intolerance hiding under the guise of tolerance. 
I believe its roots are in the sixties and Provo, and in Amsterdam. The phrase might be called the bedrock of the Dutch version of so-called ‘permissive society’. The maxim applies to all kinds of social behaviour which is not strictly guided by laws, but sometimes also translates into discussions by lawmakers in parliament.

Most in the Netherlands believe the maxim to have some validity, if not for them, maybe for others. In contrast to it stands the opinion that behaviour not bound by laws is bound by codes of conduct or has to bow for religion inspired etiquette. Or simply, that what is possible is something you check with others first, instead of just doing what you like without regard, while at the same time expecting others to think ‘I’m ok with that’. Even though Dutch people are famous for their political model of making compromises, in everyday life it does not always show.

Now you can imagine what happens if someone who comes from group B (let’s call them, for the sake of discussion, a dogmatist) confronts a person from group A (obviously they would be the anarchist). For instance, in the case of the popular activity of ‘sidewalk biking’. Lately in a talkshow there was this young girl, a comedienne, who complained about a male senior in her neighbourhood, who, every time she passes him on her bike, on the sidewalk, says to her: ‘Young lady, the sidewalk is not for cycling!’

You would have believed the older man to be the most disgruntled of the two. While he wasn’t on the show, I can surmise that he probably felt threatened by the possibility of a bike at speed which might hit him and leave his vulnerable limbs injured. And surely he grew up when, back in the day, biking on the sidewalk was a heavy faux-pas.

Unexpectedly though, the girl showed a heavy chagrin about it and asked: ‘Why does he do this? What for? I can take part in his little drama, and I will every time with the biggest of smiles, that’s no problem for me, but why does he have to bother me about it? I am careful enough not to hit him, I behave like a considerate individual. Nothing has ever happened, what’s his problem?’

The talk show host suggests: ‘Maybe the man is bored?’

Her answer: ‘Yes maybe, but I really suffer from this, and that is unnecessary you know.’ (“Maar ik heb er echt last van, dus–eh, dat hoeft gewoon niet.”)

‘Eh! What’s that hanging from my bike.’

The comedienne, by the way, just won the premier Dutch comedy prize for her act where she makes fun of all kinds of situations where people are ‘unnecessary’ unfriendly. The way she expressed herself does indeed indicate some inner conflict about what exactly is unnecessary: the old man speaking out, her suffering from it, or her being unfriendly about it.

I could tell you tons of stories like this: from stories by others, to personal experiences where I asked someone else to please take note, to situations where others have asked me. This is so common that, when you are bothered by another vehicle cutting you off (yes, cars as well) you should be primed to expect the moot reaction: ‘You can pass, can’t you!’ (“Je kunt er toch langs!”), even though passing distance will be below half a meter / 1.5 feet.

Depending on the circles you travel in, there are many other faux-pas in The Netherlands, but increasingly less so. I will give you a second example of a confrontation, this time in parliament. This one is interesting because you can see that both parties involved do not have the slightest idea what’s proper behaviour in the situation, but they still feel the need to call each other out.

A few years back, Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders was being called out by prime-minister Mark Rutte on his characterization of the Turkish prime-minister as a ‘muslim monkey’. His was a distasteful play on a Dutch proverb about the truth coming to light (‘the monkey appears from the sleeve’).

While Wilders is defending himself in a juvenile manner, denying what he has said previously, Rutte scoffs and utters something like ‘ah, come on’. Wilders reacts by saying ‘Why don’t you act normal, man?’ At which Rutte laughs and says: ‘Act normal yourself!’ (“Doe zelf eens normaal!”)

You can see the problem here: it is not clear what is supposed to be normal behaviour. It is so problematic that even politicians are not clear any longer on what constitutes decent and respectful behaviour outside of what has been codified in laws.