A Dutch businessman I know is fond of opening Anglo-Dutch meetings with the maxim: “While the English are too polite to be honest, the Dutch are too honest to be polite.”. Meant as an icebreaker, it invariably raises a polite chuckle. A cheerful smile and a wink tend to take the sting out of the words – but his caution is well worth heeding.

“While the English are too polite to be honest, the Dutch are too honest to be polite”

I know from personal experience that in their initial contact with the Dutch, the British often don’t even realise that a cultural gap exists. Their immediate impression, not least from the confidence with which the Dutch speak their language, is that we’re all on the same page. We might not be…

The advantages of body language and other non-verbal communication that can help to avert potential misunderstandings are lost in written messages. Suggestions can be misinterpreted, even to the point of giving offence, without the contextual clue of a smile or a frown.

A translator would automatically smooth out any wrinkles and where necessary polish the text to avoid causing unintended offence. But not all documents can be translated: some correspondence that lawyers may classify as less important, like e-mails and letters to colleagues, will be drafted directly in English.

As a native speaker, I’m regularly asked to give this sort of correspondence ‘a quick once-over’ – no more. After all, how much work can it be? The language is efficient, the words are technically correct, it conveys a message. So why do I make the changes I do?

C’est le ton qui fait la musique

You’d be very hard pushed to find a Dutch lawyer who doesn’t have an excellent command of English. In fact, Dutch people in all walks of life pride themselves on their linguistic skills. They also take pride in another national trait: their directness.

It’s a combination that can become problematic in communication. In writing, tone is largely determined by word choice and sentence structure, which in turn are based on cultural background. Tone matters: it can make or break a business relationship. A Dutch writer must consider how their writing will be perceived by an English speaker. A reader in the UK may understandably infer from a high standard of written English that the writer is a native speaker. And by extension that they share a similar cultural background. In those circumstances, Dutch directness – expressed in English – could be perceived as blunt.

It’s essential that Dutch lawyers drafting in English be mindful of their ‘directness’ and how their language will be perceived by the non-Dutch reader. Uncharacteristic straight talking is more likely to be seen as a trifle brusque, to use Basil Fawlty’s famous British understatement. Or even, to put it more directly, rather rude.

“Translation is not a matter of words only:
it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”
Anthony Burgess

Perception is everything

Remember that words and expressions may not mean the same thing to both sides and may even have a completely different connotative meaning.
Tip 1: Don’t confuse plain speaking with plain language. Put on your ‘English’ hat, adopt your ‘English’ mindset, when you review your text.

Tip 2: Reading your text aloud is often helpful.