Jarrett Fastman is an American undergraduate studying at Maastricht University through CES. He has been following our Summer Programme in European Studies and will soon start our Open Enrolment semester programme titled Psychology & Neuroscience in Europe. During his first course here, Intercultural Communication, Jarrett discussed the Netherlands with Sybrand, an international businessman born and raised in the Netherlands who several years ago relocated to the east coast of the United States.
Here are extracts of his conversation with him.
Having lived for many years in both Amsterdam and Maastricht and now steeped in American culture, Sybrand is in a unique position to comment on the cultural differences that confronted him upon settling in a new country. I arranged a video conference with Sybrand in which he was kind enough to thoroughly discuss his cultural perspective, which differed interestingly from my own in several respects. Though there seems to exist much common ground between our native cultures, my conversation with Sybrand illuminated a number of subtle yet potent points of cultural contrast and misconceptions I had held regarding the local culture in Maastricht and the Netherlands as a whole.
This photo, taken in downtown Maastricht on the afternoon of 11 July, exemplifies perhaps the most conspicuous cultural trend in the Netherlands: bicycles seem to be the dominant form of transportation. Nowhere in the U.S. could one expect to find a comparable prevalence of bicycles and bike racks. This makes sense on a practical level, as in a city like Maastricht, with its narrow, winding streets, bicycles are simply more efficient. There is, however, an interesting cultural aspect to this disparity as well: it seems like everyone rides bicycles, from children to businessmen to the elderly.
I brought this topic up with Sybrand, together with the one of equality and power distance. I first expressed my conception that the Dutch are somewhat more egalitarian than Americans. I mentioned that I had seen many different types of people riding bicycles in Maastricht, including well-dressed ‘professionals,’ and that this suggested to me a relative absence of social hierarchy. My rationale for this certainly stemmed from my own cultural background, where a businessman riding a bicycle to work is a rare sight. This is at least partly because it could be associated with low status and therefore be considered degrading, an embarrassment–a car is an important status symbol, and riding a bicycle might imply that you cannot afford one. Thus the prevalence of the bicycle as a mode of transport, aside from its practicality in a city as dense as Maastricht, suggested to me a lack of concern for status and a relatively low power distance in society. Sybrand explained that my uninformed analysis was only partly true–a relatively egalitarian society might be a factor in the universality of bicycle use in the Netherlands, but the bicycle is entirely unrelated to status; it is practical, environmentally friendly and “keeps you young and healthy.” Where I, as an American, might see an adult riding a bicycle to work as something done out of necessity and therefore an implication of low status, the Dutch simply see it as a healthy decision.
I am very grateful to Sybrand Roell for agreeing to speak with me on this topic. Having reflected on our conversation, I certainly feel that I now have a fuller grasp of the ways in which Dutch culture differs from my own. As I will be living inMaastrichtfor over five months, I believe that what I learned from Sybrand will be of great use to me in remaining culturally aware throughout my stay.
About the author:
Hi! My name is Jarrett Fastman and I am a New York, USA native studying neuroscience at Oberlin College. In the long term I hope to perform clinical research on mental illness and to continue my hobby of music production. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to study here in Maastricht and explore Europe!
CES students are bright and eager personalities from all around the world who attend classes at all faculties of Maastricht University through the comprehensive CES programme of their choice. Programme topics range from ‘Business & Economics in Europe’, 'European Culture & Arts', 'Psychology & Neuroscience in Europe', 'EU Politics, Policy & International Relations', ‘European Society & History’ and 'European Law & Human Rights' amongst many others.