We are celebrating our 75th anniversary as British Council in the Netherlands in 2020-21 by sharing 75 personal stories from people who have a special connection to both the UK and the Netherlands. Read the 75 NL-UK stories and join us in celebrating our 75th anniversary. Expand the boxes below to read the full stories by Eldridge Labinjo, Abi Daruvalla, Jamie Coomarasamy, and Charlotte Rixten. New stories will be added in the months to come.
75 UK-NL Stories - Communication
I think many of us will be familiar with the saying ‘there's a good book inside all of us’. That may or may not be true, but in my personal experience what is true, is that we all have a message that at some point needs sharing. The problem is often not being able to, or knowing how, to best share that message.
A few years back while working for a new client, I was asked to have a session with Mike, who drove a London black cab.
Then as now, he had a lot to share, but unfortunately he was having diﬃculties in giving his message a voice, literally. He spoke so softly that it was diﬃcult to understand him.
I asked Mike, “How do you get a pint in the pub” and he replied softly, “yeah, I often don’t get served”. This was not only sad, it’s also not a great excuse when it’s your turn to get the drinks in!
While there was some physical aspects regarding his use of breath and posture, it went deeper than that.
I asked him about the message that he wanted to share. If he thought it was relevant? Was it valuable? Was it important for others to hear?
Considering the questions thoughtfully, he replied in a quiet yet firm voice, “yes”.
I asked him to keep that in mind and said that I was going outside into the corridor and would not come back into the room till I heard him say my name.
While not soundproofed, the room was well insulated and had pretty heavy doors. After they swung shut, the silence felt complete.
I waited and waited, time dragged out behind me like a scene from the film Interstellar. With an acute spike of relief in my chest, I finally heard my name and enthusiastically stepped back inside! However once Mike started talking his volume dropped back to an almost inaudible whisper. Undaunted we doubled down.
Typically for the UK, there was a small tea station outside the room further up the corridor. Before going back outside to make two cups of tea, I reminded Mike of how it was the message that counts.
Click, the boiling kettle stopped and the ferociously bubbling water calmed. Silence. As I stirred the tea, wincing at the clinks the spoon made against the inside of the mug, I contemplated how much sound the added distance, room insulation and heavy doors would be blocking.
Eventually, I heard my name, Eldridge.
Back inside I placed the now tepid mugs of tea on the table and asked Mike to put his hands on his stomach and chest. Then I said;
“Now, use your voice to tell that message Mike, the one you know we need to hear. Remember, that feeling you had when you said my name so loud that I could hear it outside this room. Feel what you felt. Feel what you feel”.
Then with a strong, audible and resolute voice, he began to share his message.
A few weeks later Mike and I had a follow up session. He was happy to tell me that he was getting served in the pub, but more importantly his message was being heard!
I asked Mike what’s changed and with a confident voice that carried to the back of the room he said, “If I have to speak in public or make a presentation, wherever I am, I just imagine that you’re standing behind the door”.
Mike later became the top ranked applicant from around the world for a PhD studentship at the MRC (Medical Research Council) Centre for Environment and Health, a joint collaboration between Imperial College and King's College.
He is currently looking at the medical eﬀects of London Underground air pollution, particularly regarding the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
His willingness to go further, stretching beyond his comfort zone, in service of a message that helps others, is what Mike tapped into.
In some ways it is paradoxically typical and at the same time extraordinary.
Working with people all across the UK, that strong sense of public ethos and service to others, is palpable. It is something that I help others tap into and makes my work even more rewarding.
After all a great presentation is a present, shared and presented in the present, because we need to hear it.
Sometimes when I am training a group of international scientists or face-timing my family in the UK, their faces go blank, usually followed by a silence where there should be a response. What has happened is that I have switched languages from English into Dutch without realising. This usually happens as a result of what I call trigger words, words that are either very difficult to translate, like uitstraling, or represent a very Dutch concept like kennismakingsgesprek.
In fact I speak reasonably good Dutch (please note this phrasing reflects an unmistakeably British penchant for understatement). And of course most Dutch people speak good English - but probably not as well as they would had they lived in the UK for over 40 years. Because even if you are married to a native speaker or work in an international environment, there is no substitute for living in a foreign country surrounded and submerged in its language and culture.
Coming to Amsterdam as a young journalist in 1979, the task of learning to speak Dutch with sufficient proficiency to feel comfortable both professionally and personally seemed insurmountable. I thought it would be easier to fly to the moon. And indeed it took a very long time to achieve any level of competency. What helped were the Dutch people who refused to speak English to me, didn’t constantly correct me and were patient enough to listen to my fumbling attempts to find the right word.
Today it is just irritating when a Dutch person responds with “say it in English” when I can’t find the right word. Because my problem is not a lack of vocabulary, but difficulty with being able to explain something, in any language.
So, what have I learnt from over 40 years in Amsterdam? That at the end of the day, it’s not language that counts, but communication.
“If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much”. The Dutch crowd I hung out with in Moscow in the early 1990s used to love that catchphrase. The member of that crowd I’ve been married to for more than twenty years still drops it into conversation from time to time. And what husband would argue with his better Dutch half? Certainly not this one. Ironic humour, a love of British TV shows, national football teams that (usually) just fall short in international tournaments - there’s so much that our two countries have in common. But, over the years, I’ve come to realise that the ‘interesting differences’ we discuss at the North Sea Neighbours Conference (formerly the Apeldoorn Conference, of which I’ve been an Advisory Board member for the past few years) are what keeps the spark in the Anglo-Dutch relationship. And surely no difference is more interesting than our contrasting approaches to speaking our mind; the direct Dutch yin to the embarrassed English yang. My wife can (as she knows) often make me feel uncomfortable, but it’s usually when she’s being my not-so-secret weapon; disarming my compatriots with a comment fired as directly as a dart at a dartboard - a game at which our two countries just happen to excel.
Wherever I live, first in the Netherlands, then in Australia and Scotland, I have always felt at home. Every time I move, I work on becoming an integral part of the place, rather than moving through town like a long stay tourist. A little change and distance can grant a lot of perspective. For example, returning to the Netherlands, I found that here there is a type of realism that creates a certain rush or hurried emphasis on life. Even our love for bikes I’d link to a dislike for the inefficiency of walking more than anything else. We like to put this attitude in to terms like being direct, nuchter or down to earth, but it’s more than that. It is in the land.
My English boyfriend James grew up down the road from Roseberry Topping in Yorkshire, a place I'm sure must lie between the hills where J.R.R. Tolkien made his sketches for Hobbiton. That type of mystery, of not manmade, is hard to find in the Netherlands. A certain type of Dutch person likes to repeat that God created earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands. It represents a certain realism centred on the idea of a manmade world. There is no mysterious grand force here, only industrious people. It might explain why I too have always seen home as a thing you make, rather than a certain feeling.
The people seem as straightforward as the fields, but the more distance you take the more you notice how much it is actually vals plat. Meetings for instance are vals plat. In a Dutch meeting you do not say ‘aye’, you and all ten others instead repeat the same argument. The trick is in being the last person to do so, as if you are the one summarising and presenting the group decision. Not that it really matters what is said in these hour-long meetings anyways, the actual content comes in all the small talk after the meeting. Those are moments where I miss the Brits and their coded language. It might seem more hilly and less straight forward, but when you take the time to amble through it, you might enjoy its inefficiency.