No less than 110 different nationalities are represented at the EUR. An impressive number, but intercultural communication poses an equally impressive challenge to the university’s staff.

Being an international university creates a potential for major misunderstandings between Dutch staff and the many internationals. Internationalisation means more than just doing everything in English. The Erasmus Academie therefore invited cross-cultural psychologist Ms Madde Willemsen to lead a seminar about intercultural communication on 8 December for EUR employees who regularly deal with internationals.

Cultural norm

Ms Willemsen started the seminar by asking the attendants – ranging from the head of security at the EUR to the university’s senior spokesperson – if they had a question for her. “What does it say about you that you arrived late today?”, was one of the first questions asked. This seemed a rather off-topic remark but interestingly, turned out to be quite relevant and said more about the person asking it than about Mrs Willemsen, who had simply got stuck in traffic. This type of question, she explained, is about what sort of behaviour is expected from people. Apparently, in Holland it is a cultural norm to be on time.

But what is culture? This is an important question, since the culture we come from determines for a large part why we act the way we act. When Ms Willemsen asked everybody to explain this concept, it appeared it is as elusive as it is large; it is very difficult to define. Roughly speaking ‘culture’ is a set of habits, ways of non-verbal communication, shared history, values, politics, religion and language. But because these elements are often only shared within one culture and differ in the next, intercultural communication is fraught with danger; there is a real potential for misunderstandings or even offending the other.


Ms Willemsen explained that problems often start when in a multicultural environment like the university, people do not mix. The internationals – naturally – tend to form a separate group. According to Ms Willemsen, it is critical the university forces the different nationalities, including the Dutch, to mix, by organising activities for instance. Things also go wrong when one sees one’s own culture as better than the other. Furthermore, stereotypical ideas about cultures can hamper communication. If one for example believes that all French are arrogant, any communication with a French person will not get off to a good start. By the same token, one must also realise that oneself is likely to be stereotyped by the other.

The Dutch have a way of being quite direct, if not blunt, in their approach to others, everybody agreed. Consequently, a stereotypical image of the Dutch can be that they are loud and rude. One of the participants, Femke van der Vliet of the ISS, noted that the Dutch can be as direct in English as they are in Dutch. It is important therefore that in a foreign language Dutch people really try to be polite, while realising others may find them rude even before a conversation has started.  

Little things

However, little things must also be kept in mind, such as non-verbal communication, which should be kept to a minimum, Ms Willemsen explained. An innocent hand gesture can mean something quite vulgar in another culture. Also, do appreciate the different approaches to personal space and do not invade the other’s. Find out beforehand how people in a certain culture greet if you are to meet a foreign delegation for example and find out facts about the country. The CIA’s online ‘World Fact Book’ can be a great help here. Yet, one cannot know everything of course, so some flexibility is necessary too.

Lastly, Ms Willemsen asked everybody to sit in small groups and think of cultural conventions, so as to even better realise how different things can be in other cultures. A good example was the differing hierarchical make-up of societies, including the resulting need for using the polite form in some of these cultures’ languages. But the line between formal and informal can be blurry; it is no easy task getting it all right. Communication always relies on both the speaker’s eloquence and the listeners interpretation. It takes two to tango. But, as was demonstrated by Mrs Willemsen, EUR employees can do much to prevent getting it really wrong.