Amsterdam: let us be nice(r) to each other

The “attitude”

Some expats say the problem is “the Dutch”, some Dutch might say it’s “too many foreigners”, and we all generally like to blame it on the tourists. It is a well-known phenomenon: Amsterdam’s population is not exactly welcoming. Maybe the tourists don’t notice it that much, but when living here you might start feeling this sort of tension building up. Let’s start with the obvious: the cycling culture. Bikes are all over the place and have a general disregard for “rules”. There are bike traffic jams, the cyclists are stressed, they have this habit of overtaking each other, they ring their bells furiously. They also run over anyone who attempts at crossing the cycle path – sometimes even when it’s red for bikes. Above all, they like to frighten tourists to death (other than this, we are all very normal, and we all act very normally).

Amsterdammers have ‘an attitude’, it is something that Dutchies from outside of Amsterdam easily pinpoint. I’d say it is a characteric akin to capital cities, but it takes a peculiar shape in this city. Amsterdam is geographically small and very densely populated (for Western European standards, at least). Streets are narrow, houses tiny, and you really don’t want to own a car because you just don’t know what to do with it. There’s no space. The Central Station, the ‘entrance gate’ to the city, is always overcrowded. Same goes to public transportation in central areas of the city. The process of getting into it is an interesting rushing phenomenon, when everyone is trying to squeeze in as fast as they can. Also, youngsters tend not to give their seat away to older people on public transport. People find it extremely normal to squeeze into pubs of which you would think, at first sigh: ‘okay, this place is about to implode’. On the weekends, you struggle to find a place to sit at a nice esplanade or cafe and, once you find it, you have to secure it with your life. If it’s sunny the parks are full; the same goes to any of the areas by the water around the city. People have to fight for their space. Between 2010 and 2015 Amsterdam gained 34,000 inhabitants, a tendency of growth that has been in course since the 90’s. Besides this, we host 5 million visitors every year. I guess these numbers only add up to the general feeling of tension when cycling to work every day, or when we go grocery shopping. Moreover, Dutchies are not well-known for their friendliness, rather for their adventurousness, for their business skills, for their pragmatism (oh, and for cutting in line).

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See this cafe by the water? It’s ALWAYS FULL.

It’s getting to me

I consider myself a kind person, but the last year I have found myself acting (super) aggressive to tourists, other cyclists, or car drivers. I got very often unnerved at the fact that so many places in the city are always full. It was sometimes as if I couldn’t breathe properly. I was often irritated when running errands around the city, being more straightforward, smiling less, and generally more prone to project this über confident attitude when I went places. Nothing wrong with being confident but I am aware of my conscious effort in ‘projecting it’. I noticed that, especially when I find myself in Dutch environments, that attitude does benefit me, as thought it was a ‘code of behavior’ the natives understand. There is a Dutch expression that really defines this. Stoer zijn or stoer doen (to behave sturdy or to be sturdy). This is a valued characteristic in The Netherlands, it is an expression with a positive connotation. When you say “Oh, wat stoer!” it is as if you’re saying “Oh, how cool!”.

I’ve recently traveled to London, Copenhagen, and Oslo, and I was startled by the fact that, in all these cities, people were friendlier and generally more polite than in Amsterdam. How come? Weren’t the Brits supposed to be fed up with foreigners? Isn’t London the most touristy city of the entire Europe? Aren’t the Scandis supposed to be as cold as the weather they have to endure?

Fight for yourself

Dutch kids are brought up in a way that stimulates them to become independent from an early age. Teens are encouraged to find part-time jobs, and around the time they hit 18 – 20 years of age they’re usually already out of their parents’ house, and it is possible that they won’t get much financial support from them (or nothing at all) even if the families have high incomes. As a Dutch young adult, you have to fight for yourself. Maybe this helps explain the general “stoer zijn” mentality. Historically, Amsterdam is a thought city, where, some centuries ago, citizens themselves got organized to protect their own borders (yes, I read Geert Mak), its own liberties (which the rest of The Netherlands only tolerated because of the city’s wealth) and above all, there’s the thing they’re the most famous for: having conquered land from the water. It all boils down to fighting for their own right to exist. “Stoer zijn” was not a matter of choice. It isn’t hard to imagine that this cultural aspect combined with the wealth, and the pressures of a  globalized world, where more or less everything is provided for but, at the same time, the competition is high and the pace is fast, plus the concentration of a lot of very skilled people in this one place that has become so trendy, all this might produce a highly individualistic society.

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For instance. One arrives at this well-known yoga school in Amsterdam, greets the girls in the changing room, and feels total frustration when getting zero response in return, not even a smile or a friendly look: nothing. And it’s a y-o-g-a s-c-h-o-o-l (I have told this story contless times). How many of us started not giving a damn and reproducing the same sort of behavior, I wonder? I also remember that one time when the chain of my bike got loose making it impossible for me to break (we use pedal breaks in The Netherlands), this leading me to total panic, and to begging a young Dutch guy cycling alongside me for help. The response? I am busy. Yeah. I was free-cycling on a road full of tram rails and that creature was too busy to, for a moment, help me out avoiding killing myself (oh, I have always wanted to expose this bizarre account on the blog). Okay, I will give you time to vent your incredulity here.

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It all boils down to having a heart, right? @bodyartexhibition, Troppenmuseum

What can we do?

Okay, Amsterdammers have this gene of sturdiness, independence, rebelliousness. That’s where their allure and coolness lies. And we can all learn from the way they stand up for themselves. Also, from the way that, by disregarding certain social conventions and focusing in what’s really important, they manage to create a society that works. Whatever our standards on the topic of chivalry or good-manners, it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t think of the other side of the coin, of the benefits the “Dutch individualism” comes with. It translates into great things that we, expats and immigrants, also benefit from, and that most of us lack in our countries of origin. Stuff like a good balance between work time and leisure time, more balanced wages regardless of gender, good communication at work, some consistent parental protection laws, or “just” a lot of respect for your personal freedom (live-and-let-live). In quite a lot of aspects, we live in a little paradise here.

As much as I get angry at some peculiar sorts of selfishness, I cannot forget that assholes exist in every country. And that the acts of kindness I received from the natives have highly outnumbered the sort of unfortunate episodes I described above. Also, I can’t forget how I was allowed to build a safe life here, where opportunities are abundant, where I feel much more respected as a woman, where I have access to a remarkable quality of life, where my personal freedom is respected. I can’t forget how I get inspired by the people and the general urban space and atmosphere of Amsterdam.

Nonetheless I caught myself wondering: could we just start acknowledging each other more, or try to engage in everyday life small gestures of kindness (sometimes just a smile might make a huge difference), do our best at stopping at a red light if there are people waiting on the zebra path? Or simply start by refraining from cutting in line or, by the way, just giving a hand to this person who’s desperate not to crash their brains onto the middle of the road?

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“Hey, that’s great but, I am not smiling when nobody smiles back at me”. But what if it started with oneself? Let’s be honest, we all are part of the problem to a certain degree. It is easy to blame it on others and say it’s “the Dutch” or “too many Italians” or “tourists go gome”. And we certainly can’t change the world at one go. What we can do is starting by setting the example ourselves (I am also self-talking here). How about each one of us start taking responsibility for ourselves, and taking the initiative to make it better? How about being the one who smiles in the first place? What about keeping on greeting people regardless of the outcome? How can each one of us contribute to make this place the most enjoyable it can possibly be? Could we just be nicer to each other? ‘Cause I think that’s something we could all benefit from.


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14 thoughts on “Amsterdam: let us be nice(r) to each other

  1. sarmaweb says:

    Let us accept the cycle culture. When you see the rash driving of cars, honking of buses and noisy culture out side many countries, Dutch is far superior. Let us not use rash words to describe cyclists or degrade cycle-culture. The best think to happen in Netherlands, especially, in Groningen is use of cycles by citizens in the world of globalisation and carbon foot prints. Let us respect cycle-culture and cyclists.

    • Amsterdive says:

      Oh yeah, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the cycling culture here. That’s one of my favorite things about The Netherlands (I’ve written about that here: https://amsterdive.com/2017/08/06/im-still-in-love-with-youuu-booooy/). The thing is that some cyclists behave in an uncivilized way in Amsterdam (me included) which might create serious problems in busy arterias of the city, and add up to the stress that most Amsterdammers experience. In Groningen or others Dutch cities, cycling is a way more pleasant experience. So I wanted to discuss the reasons that lead to this sort of ‘agressive’ behaviour in Amsterdam.

  2. Ardnaxela says:

    haha, good summary of the Dutch society we live in. I agree but I think that the “being nicer” matter does not only apply to NLD but also to other societies. anyway, it’s a nice initiative of yours, made me think about my own sturdy attitude against tourist/Dutch/etc!
    a smile always got me a smile back 😉

    • Amsterdive says:

      Thank you for the feedback Ardnaxela. I definitelly agree that the ‘being nicer’ thing applies to capital cities in general, where people have to deal with lots of input and stress. However, having travelled to London, Copenhagen and Oslo recently, where people were generally friendlier, really got me thinking. Because I have the feeling that, in part, the Ammsterdammer’s ‘attitude’ plays a role in how welcoming the city is (or is not). For instance, people from Copenhagen are way kinder and more low-key than Amsterdammers, and Osloites even more so. That led me to trying to analyse why we are the way we are in Amsterdam.

  3. Nicole de Bruijn says:

    I married a Dutch man and every year we make a trek to Amstelveen to visit the in-laws. In my first trip, I fell madly in love with Amsterdam. I am excited when I arrive, feeling like I’m coming home, and cry when I leave. That said, I have noticed in that last couple of years, there’s a certain intolerance rising for tourists. I had a cyclist run over my Achilles tendon while I was standing on the sidewalk– and they were biking where they weren’t supposed to be! I have been elbowed in the back by a man in a cheese shop and to to get out of the way, tourist. I was called a “stupid american” and told to “go back home” while in an amusement park. But at the end of the day, these incidents don’t dampen my love for the city. For every one of those people, there are ten more stories I can tell about amusing bartenders in cafes, about shop owners who want to know where I’m from, about a wine shop owner sharing a glass of wine because I inquired about their favorites, and the prevalent attitude of accepting a person for what they are, warts and all. The pendulum is swinging towards conservatism and intolerance all over the world, but soon it will swing back. I am a firm believer that the attitude we give the world, will be given back to us, that what we put into the universe is returned tenfold. I agree we need to be kinder to each other, and we might be surprised at the transformation in our own lives.

    • Amsterdive says:

      It is great to read such a constructive testimony. Thank you, Nicole. I definitelly feel that the prevalent attitude in the city is still one of openness, acceptance and friendliness. Except for when we are on traffic and crowded / touristy areas of the city. And I really do hope that Amsterdammers find a way of dealing with the challenges the city is facing.

  4. Chef-HN says:

    Nice article Ana!

    After 10 years in Amsterdam I can see how I have also become an Amsterdamer -stoer!- and sometimes too much of straightforward to my like.

    We definitely need to remember that is not about competition but instead about collaboration and mutual uplifting, for us and the ones around us.

    Thanks for the reminder! 🙂

    • Amsterdive says:

      I do like that I’ve become more direct and straightforward, as opposed to my culture of origin in which you can’t say certain things (otherwise people will take them personally). This originates a lot of misunderstanding and frustration, making people prone to gossiping and “talking behind your back” instead of solving problems openly and on the spot. I value the Dutch directness a lot because it avoids many other problems.

      I love that you mentioned the idea of collaboration and mutual uplifting as opposed to competition. That’s what it’s all about, indeed! Thank you so much for the kind comment 🙂

  5. Riny Reiken says:

    Waar… wat een drukte in de stad en toch is het fijn om een Amsterdammer te zijn.. in deze magische plek en heel divers m… het is vaak meer massa-toerisme geworden, we moeten de variëteit en kleur zien te behouden, met elkaar 🌻 allemaal SAMEN gelijk heb je Ana 👍

    • Amsterdive says:

      Inderdaad, het drukte is een grote uitdaging in Amsterdam. Ik hoop dat de gemeente maatregelen neemt om het verkeer op bepaalde routes te verbeteren. Dat zou schelen. Voor de rest, zouden we ons moeten realiseren dat het belangrijk is om een stuk rustiger te worden op het manier hoe we met het verkeer en met elkaar omgaan. Zoals je zegt: we moeten het samen doen. En ja, een lach kost niets en beleeftheid maakt onze samenleving veel aangenamer. 😉 Dankjewel Riny! ❤

  6. Arvind Rao says:

    An influx of new people – whether they be tourists or people moving in – is always a double edged sword.

    Mingling with new cultures, new ideas flowing in, the economic upside of tourism and the new “settlers” coming in is one side of it.

    And the other side – well, having to mingle with new cultures, dealing with new ideas, the economic downside of tourism and new “settlers” – everything costs more and more unproductive time is spent due to overcrowding.

    This is the script playing out in every major developing or developed city in the world. It is hard to find a balance. One idea is for civic authorities to plan well in advance, in anticipation of the tipping point where a city’s capacity for providing a comfortable existence is about to be stretched. And develop newer cities where businesses and tourism can find room to grow.

    • Amsterdive says:

      Your analysis in ‘on point’. Hands up for the idea of developing new cities. Investment and development has always been very focused primarily in capital cities, whereas smaller cities and rural areas tend to be neglected. This is a scenario that will have to change. I do believe that you are going to see an accentuated influx of people going back to the countryside as well, in the long run. But this is all on a national level. Then there’s the international scene. The richest countries will have to realize that they need to work together to fight inequality in the world (and war scenarios). We really need to commit to this for the sake of our own survival. By improving the quality of life in less developed countries you dimish the need for migration, therefore the massive influx of people into the same countries.

  7. Niko says:

    “In 2015 alone Amsterdam gained 34,000 inhabitants, a tendency of growth that has been in course since the 90’s. ”

    Not true, not even close. 34 000 in 5 years, yes.

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