The second hardest part of emigrating (it will probably surprise you)

Aside from leaving my people, for me, the next hardest thing wasn’t leaving the weather. It wasn’t leaving behind the good things, like Woolies, or Dis-Chem (or doctors who were more liberal with writing prescriptions). It wasn’t about feeling like a “foreigner” or learning my way around here. It wasn’t the language, or getting used to new systems, schooling, rules and ways. For me, it’s been about integrating into the workspace – ditching old habits (or trying to), re-establishing myself, learning different cultures and ways of working, and trying to find new confidence.

It’s something that I don’t think we speak about enough, but when it is raised with some of my fulltime working South African friends, we can’t stop speaking enough. And wondering why there is so little advice/conversation around adapting to work here. There’s lots about the weather (always take an umbrella with you), the straightforward Dutch, the rules and the biking. But no one really speaks about multi-cultural working, the emphasis on work-life balance (this is a good thing, by the way, but still a foreign concept to the South African in me), and how starting out again, even after a long career, sometimes feels like having a leading role in Imposter Syndrome.

I came from being a “somebody” (ex magazine editor, mom blogger, writer, PR/digital person) who was well known’ish in small pockets to a nobody. The magazines and papers I worked on rang no bells here, the bulk of the clients I’ve worked with are unknowns in Netherlands, and I knew so little about the culture and people here, that I always felt on the back foot.

This, together with working with intimidatingly smart youngsters who speak multiple languages, and me being an overthinker (“Do they hate me, or are they just being Dutch direct?”) have resulted in some wobbly and angsty moments.

Also, there’s no guide on how to navigate different cultures and people. Is it offensive to joke about the sacred French “lunch hour”? Are the Dutch angry when I make a bad cheese sandwich joke, and is it rude to call someone from Britain a “Brit”? These might seem like small things, but I’m wading daily in a big sea of unknowns and new people and cultures. What might be funny in South Africa isn’t always the case here, and I’m always on mindfulness alert.

While sometimes overtime is needed, it’s frowned upon to work on weekends, reply to emails at night and work when you’re feeling sick. What were once examples of a good work ethic (and an unwritten work requirement in many workplace settings) are now black marks against the name you’re trying to build up. I’ve been called out for offering to help a client on my day off (they urgently needed something and it wasn’t going to take me long), and for working on strategy documents on weekends. This emphasis on work-life balance should feel like a relief, but sometimes it’s terrifying… sometimes I don’t know how to be different, and it’s another part of my work identity that I’m trying to reinvent/tweak/cement. There are no medals here for martyrdom here – who knew?

The Dutch straightforwardness is a chapter on its own. Their direct way of talking is refreshing, sometimes funny, and crystal clear, sometimes to the point of discomfort.  The Dutch aren’t rude, but there is no sugarcoating or wide angles to get a point across and as a sensitive South African still learning, it’s still uncomfortable for me, but something I’m getting better at. Much like my bike riding, perhaps.

I’m keen to hear how others have experienced working in the Netherlands, and if you’ve struggled to adapt to the workplace. Let me know here, or email me.

PS: If you’re considering moving to NL, and want a consulting session on what to expect/how to get in, do let me know too!


Feature image: Kireyonok_Yuliya on Freepik

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  • Stefan Diedericks

    3 May 2023 at 9:21 pm

    Completely agree with you Tanya! Unlearning, learning & relearning workplace engagement in an adoptive country is filled with uncertainty. Only way forward is through - […] Read MoreCompletely agree with you Tanya! Unlearning, learning & relearning workplace engagement in an adoptive country is filled with uncertainty. Only way forward is through - so hold on to that core knowledge within yourself that says “you are enough” and keep on shining your amazing light! Read Less

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