Saturday, April 28, 2012

Typisch Nederlands

In every Dutch language class you take, no matter if it's A1 ("Hi, my name is...") or C2 (how to translate Shakespeare), there will be a chapter in the book titled "Typisch Nederlands".  This chapter will cover things "typically Dutch", such as zuinigheid and the use of a flessenlikker, and will invariably discuss re-using tea bags and spaarzegels.

I'm not sure what it is about these things that make them so "typically Dutch", but they seem to make it into every textbook explaining Dutch culture to expats, even though I've yet to see a real flessenlikker and don't know anybody who re-uses their tea bag (I do know people who dunk a teabag into a whole liter of water, but that's not the same thing).  What's more typically Dutch for me is angling for a good point-of-entry when taking the train or bus, so that you can get a seat; it's buying 3 kg of potatoes because they're €1 even if I'm not entirely sure I can use them all in time; it's always asking the price of something at the markt before expressing any interest in buying it.

Don't get me wrong--spaarzegels, those little stamps you can buy along with your groceries in return for a discount later, are unique to the Netherlands, as far as I can tell, and definitely fall under the category of "Very Dutch Things".  And zegels in general--be they the points you can clip from the Douwe Egberts coffee packs, or collecting UPC labels from Pringles cans, or getting the requistite 5 stickers for a toy--are quite popular.  But they've always puzzled me--I mean, I can understand, say, collecting a few stickers and getting a free puppet--if you would have spent the money anyway, why not get something back?  But having to pay for my own discount in the future is something that I've never been able to understand:  you pay €0.10 for every zegeltje, and once you've collected 520 of them, you get €52 of "free money" at the store.  Apparently some people see a value in this, as every other person answers "Ja" when asked if they want zegeltjes.  But the numbers work out in direct opposition to that other typically Dutch trait, zuinigheid.

If this were the US, I could understand--after all, Americans, in general, are susceptible to hype, and marketers are ruthless at generating it.  But this is the Netherlands, where cutthroat business practices go head-to-head with equally cutthroat consumer practices.  You'd think that more people would realize that it doesn't matter if you pay €0.10 now or €0.10 later for your items--you're still out €0.10.  And this isn't the only thing that doesn't make sense from an accounting perpsective:  things that are "on sale" one week (turban towels for drying your hair, €2) are later relegated to the "regular" racks...for the same price.  Buy-2-get-1 typically works out to a unit price that's almost the same as what you'd normally pay, especially if you get something more expensive than what you'd typically get (these sorts of deals are especially popular with shampoos and the like).

There are two potential explanations for this:  1) the Dutch are horrible at math and have no memory of what things cost last week, or 2) the word "sale" (korting, sale, opruimen, etc.) automatically switches off the typisch Nederlands skepticism and need to press for a good price.  Either way, it just goes to show that humans, in general, are not a rational species.  


  1. Growing up, we had S&H Green Stamps from the grocery that we would paste into books and then send in completed books for prizes. I think we got some camping gear once; for us, it was an early version of sticker books :)

    'Loyalty points' aren't much different, saving for free flights, hotel rooms, magazine subscriptions using miles or marks on a coffee card. All other things being equal, I'd reflexively go where I felt like I got something extra (but not if I really thought about the quality of the coffee!)

  2. Sticker books were before my time :-)

    I totally get saving "points", regardless of how they're counted. I just don't get paying to save points.