Diplomatic English for Nederlanders

12 Tips for Reducing Dutch Directness

Are you Dutch? Have you ever been told you were too direct? Not polite – or even rude? Then this post is for you.

The Dutch are, in general, proud of their directness. They are also skeptical – if not downright bewildered – by Anglo Saxon indirectness. This article is intended as an introductory guide for interacting with native-English speakers. It is culturally biased and therefore this advice may not be appropriate for speaking English to other ESL (English as a second language) folks. The recommendations that follow are perhaps a bit “old school” (=old fashioned), but like most matters of cultural norms, it is best to know the rules, and then you can break them by choice, not by accident!

Why be diplomatic? Well, if just treating others in a way that they experience as respectful and polite is not sufficient, I suggest that you view diplomacy in a purely self-serving light. Diplomacy gets things done. Offending people, in general, does not.

Real Anglo-Saxon diplomacy is neither weak nor fake. It is a way to achieve things. It is a way to be strong without making people angry. It is a way to build alliances. And it is a code that is not easily understood. I hope these tips help you better navigate this very important dimension of business communication.

1. Use “helping verbs,” (modals) and qualifiers to soften your delivery.
The examples below are diplomatic requests and suggestions that are understood as polite by native-English speakers. Comments like these “grease the wheels of communication” (facilitate communication). “Slijmerig!” say the Dutch. But what is too direct, or too fake and slimy (unctuous), is all “in the ear of the beholder” (A reference to the expression, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”)

You can say:
May I say a word or two about that?
Would you agree with that statement?
Do you think we could work with that plan?
Can I add something to that?
Shall we agree to disagree?
Let’s come back to that subject tomorrow.
Do you want to wrap it up?
Could we get more information about that?
Can you provide some more detail?
Maybe we should…
Perhaps we can…
Later we might…

2. Own your opinion with a limiting “I” statement.
When you signal that an opinion is yours, and therefore perhaps not universal, perhaps not a FACT (!); others will feel permitted to disagree, and that actually helps them relax and listen. You can say–
I feel that…
I find that…
I think that…
It seems to me that…

3. Share context and sources.
When you are sharing info from another source, reference the source. You gain more credibility that way. And you give folks a starting point. When they can “see” you reading that Economist article or watching that doc, they are already involved in your story. You can say…
A recent article in the Economist says that…
On Netflix I saw a documentary about…
I researched this topic in school and….
Bill Gates believes that…

4. Sorry!
Take responsibility for your part in things that have inconvenienced or hurt others. Saying “sorry” shows that you care if you have caused trouble, done damage or given offense. “Sorry,” when used correctly, expresses empathy and connectedness. It says, “I care.”
Do not use this word unless you mean it! Reserve “sorry” for sincere apologies. And please do not use “sorry” as a passive aggressive way to express irritation or anger.

5. Thank you and showing appreciation.
These things “go a long way” (=have a lot of value) in building good relationships.
You can say–
Thank you, thank you so much, thank you very much
I appreciate…
I am grateful for…
We could not have done this without you.
Your contribution is very much appreciated.
You did a great job.
Well done!

6. Use acknowledgment phrases to preface your statement, even if you plan to disagree. This shows respect and signals that you heard what the other person was saying.
I see your point, but…
I get what you mean, however…
Yes, it does seem that way, but I think that…

7. Be complimentary.
Go on, find something sincerely positive that you can say, even if you are about to disagree. For example:
I like the way you presented that, but…
That was a very clear description, but…
Your proposal is very attractive, but…

8. Be afraid.
You can say “I am afraid that” when you need to give bad news. This prepares the listener for a negative message.
I’m afraid that I don’t see it that way at all.
I’m afraid we will have to wrap up this meeting now.
I am afraid that we will not be able to deliver the product on time.

9. Talking is like driving. Please signal!
Let people know when you are going to shift gears from a positive to a negative.
Use words like but, but still and however to show that a contradictory statement is coming.
We would love to use your services, but…
This proposal looks good, but still…
This schedule is acceptable, however…

10. Listen when others are speaking.
Show that you are listening with attentive body language and facial expression. Put down your phone, turn your body toward the person who is speaking and make eye contact. Ask questions and make comments that connect to their content.

11. Be receptive rather than judgmental.
In English we say, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.” You do not have to crush the other person if you disagree with them! If you allow others space for their opinions, you lower their psychological defenses and they may, therefore, be more receptive to YOUR opinion. After all, your goal is to persuade and win them over, not to send them home angry, right?

12. Diplomatic language should be sincere.
Remember that even the most skillful diplomatic language can seldom hide aggression. Find your authentic inner diplomat and treat others the way you like to be treated, with respect, understanding and diplomacy.

Would you like to be more skillful in the use of diplomatic language? Contact The English Center to learn more about private, group and in-company Business English communication training, always with a talented native-speaker teacher.

Call 31 20 823 0569

Here are some polite questions for you, all using the modal verb “would.”

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Brenda de Jong-Pauley MA, September 2020

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