Twisted Dutch Dimensions and Time Management

Dutch time management

Culture shock wobbles the senses and the dimensions distort. So the following probably isn’t true!

Living in another country with a different culture can be quite a whirl. I’ve lived in the Netherlands for more than 10 years and still find a lot of it strange, but it’s when English friends and family come to visit that I see how far I’ve come in accepting various Dutch oddities as the norm.

As I was standing in the queue to buy cheese from the market a few days ago I turned my attention to the Dutch understanding of dimension and its impact on their time management.

Horizontal queueing

In the UK (at least, 12 years ago when I last lived there), standing in a queue meant that people before you stand in front of you, and people after you are behind. It’s an incredibly simple 1D system, and it works because everyone know who’s next.

It means that when the cashier asks “Who’s next, please?”, most people standing in the queue think the cashier must be a bit of a dumbo because it’s clear that the next person is the person at the front.

The Dutch ‘queue’

In the Netherlands it’s different. People stand next to each other. “Who’s next please?” is a genuine question, and it’s followed by a mental stare-down (or race) between customers contestants to get served first, much like getting served in a busy bar.

I’ve been waiting the longest by the cheese stall. I should be at the front of the queue, but new comers arrive and stand next to me. Are they hoping to sneak in and be served before me? Are they just being friendly and hoping for some friendly conversation? I’ve no idea.

On the road

The same crazy horizontal queuing applies to traffic as well. We drive at 80 km/h (= speed limit) and approach a tractor travelling at 20 km/h. Tractors seem to drive everywhere at 20 km/h – on fields and on the roads alongside the fields they’re supposed to be on.

Dutch tractor
Image source:

We overtake the tractor and return back to the right side lane (for UK readers, recall we drive on the right here…). Traffic lights approach and the lanes split into two.

(A typical road situation in the Netherlands is a single carriageway which splits into 2 lanes at an intersection with traffic lights (I’m ignoring the additional lanes for left at right turns which are irrelevant to this riveting example) then merges back into one lane on the other side.)

So we’re at the front on the right hand lane. The tractor catches up. (Incidentally, this shows how long traffic lights stay red, and is not an argument for the comment by your elderly passenger “See, it’s not worth overtaking, is it, dear?”)

I see the tractor in the rear view mirror. It’s getting larger. It’s getting closer. It’s still coming. It’s getting closer, it’s….gone!

Where did it go?

It’s there next to me in the fast left-hand lane! What does it think, that it’s going to pull away faster than a car? That it’s acceleration of 0 – 20 in over 3 minutes and a top speed of 24 km/h can outperform any car that would fail it’s MOT if it couldn’t manage 80 km/h on an 80 km/h road?

Insane. These tractor drivers may as well be in line control in the UK.

Horizontal queueing! (Growl)

In this case I’m OK; I’m at the front and can zoom off ahead of the tractor (zooming is a term relative to the tractor, and not associated with, for example, BMW drivers who’s primary driving direction is perpendicular to the flow of regular traffic (and tractors).

Cars further behind me fall foul, and end up playing chicken with a sideways moving tractor into their lane. Tractors usually win this game of chicken, I guess because the driver has more experience working with poultry.

Rotational direction

twisted Dutch dimensions
Dutch crossroad (straight) ahead

The drive continues, and a signpost warns me of an approaching cross-road. The cross-road sign in the UK is like a “plus”, with the vertical section indicating the road we’re currently driving on. It makes sense, like an arrow pointing straight on means “ahead”. So what’s with this “X”? Why rotate things by 45 degrees?

X means fail.

X means unknown

How does X mean cross-road?

It’s just wrong!

Time line

The 45 degree rotation of the roads and the 90 degree rotation of the queue make me wonder whether anything happens with the Dutch time line.

It makes sense. The Coriolis force, for example, means that a straight line on Earth is actually a curved line. Is there a warped perception of time too? (Indeed, we’ve already noticed a few time related issues in the Netherlands so I think we might be onto something here…)

It’s a huge generalisation, but most Dutch meetings I’ve been in don’t start on time. A meeting at 2:00 pm doesn’t start at 2:00 pm. It means you think about stopping what you’re doing at 2:00 pm, and think about making your way over to the meeting room. Actually, one meeting comes to mind where this wasn’t the case; the chairman started on time saying “We shouldn’t reward the late and punish the punctual”.

(At least, that’s what I understood from it. I used the same line when I started one of my meetings on time. I was told to wait until the others had arrived. (By which I mean, this is what my conscience told me; I was sitting on my own in the (correct!) meeting room!)

Parallel time

Queuing in parallel may seem odd, but parallel time management also exists.

In the UK, we generally present and questions follow. The speaker speaks (we listen at the same time! i.e. we listen in parallel which might be why we have 2 ears arranged thusly on our head), then we speak afterwards with our questions.

In the Netherlands everyone speaks at the same time. Officially, it’s called interactive presenting. In reality, it’s making the job difficult for the presenter who’s wondering why on earth he prepared several slides to be presented in series instead of displaying them all at the same time in “tile mode”. Then he doesn’t need to repeat “I’m just coming to that point” (instead of thinking “shut the hell up and let me tell you at the right time!”)

Time for a rethink

I’ve moaned about pointed out this twisted view of time and spatial positioning to my Dutch wife who’s been my guide through the Dutch part of Earth’s surface area. She claims that the parallel view of things makes things more efficient. I concede it should be, but the confusion means it’s not.

I’d be a fool not to agree with Einstein who I suspect supported 1D time in series:

“The reason for time is that everything doesn’t happen at once.” – Einstein

Then again, surely a whole nation can’t be wrong? Another quote comes to mind:

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley

So maybe it’s all in my head. The Dutch time management system is different, but it does work; I got home from the cheese stall with my cheese. I might have waited longer than necessary for it, but with the locals all around me I did get to immerse myself into the Dutch way of life a little deeper! 🙂

(Incidentally, check out some other time travel quotes here!)


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