The Downfall of Modesty
When we met during Innovation Day at TEDx Amsterdam, we at TED spoke with Michael about the differences between the way North Americans present ideas and the way the Dutch do. We asked Michael to elaborate in this short interview.
What you have discovered about how Dutch culture/language affects the way people pitch ideas?
I have lived here for almost 8 years. In that time, I’ve learned a lot about the language and culture of my Dutch compatriots.
One thing I noticed is how the concepts (or Protestant ideal) of modesty, reserve, and self-control can be found in the Dutch language itself. It does so in a very unique way – through grammar and syntax.
English generally follows a word order based on subject-verb-object. In Dutch, however, the word order for the object and verb is reversed. Sometimes, sentences in Dutch have multiple verbs in play, further adding to the complexity of making the point.
In practice, these different sentence structures for English and Dutch mean that both languages have their own particular means to get to the point.
This notion of modesty and reserved importance in Dutch culture finds its way back into language by virtue of the fact that one doesn’t go straight into action words, but rather focuses on the object or subject in play instead. While North American presentations often border on the extremely direct, borst-kloppende (chest beating), and self-aggrandising, in my experience the Dutch have always preferred a more subtle and nuanced approach to presenting their ideas and opinions.
Hyper-normalizing, overemphasis on equality (almost at all costs) has some very real consequences on how people share their stories
The language, like the culture, prefers to sit “shoulder to shoulder” next to everyone else, rather than stand up and celebrate its uniqueness. This hyper-normalizing, overemphasis on equality (almost at all costs) has some very real consequences on how people share their stories, ideas, or even pitch for investment.
This is actually terrible if you want to drive a point home. Modesty, reserve, and self-control are tools best suited for making friends, not positing game-changing ideas. Especially if you want them to spread. In pitching, as with life, I’ve learned that if you want people to do something for you – invest, join, share, etc. – you’re actually going to have to ask them for it explicitly. And there’s nothing modest about that.