Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Moving to another country often means speaking a different language. And even though English is obviously not my first language, I generally do okay speaking English, which is mostly because back home a lot of the television we watch are American shows that are subtitled (instead of dubbed like in France and Germany). But speaking a different language also means learning a whole set of different rules about how to say things in a polite way.

Because back home, my people are not just known for their liberal policy on weed, prostitution and euthanasia, but also for their directness. Let me give you a couple of examples of Americanisms as we like to call them:

Example 1. You want to ask a technician to run a PCR for you.
In American:
You: Hi, how are you?
Technician: I’m good, how are you?
You: I’m good, thanks. Did you have a good weekend?
Technician: I did, thanks, how about yourself?
You: It was fine thanks! How’s your dog doing?
Technician: Oh thanks for asking, he’s much better now that he has the new eye drops.
You: Oh good, I’m glad to hear that. Also, would you be willing to do this PCR for me please?
Technician: Sure, no problem.

In Dutch:
You: Good morning, can you do this PCR for me please?
Technician: Okay.
(and then later we’ll talk about the weekend and the dog)

Example 2. You’re in a labmeeting and someone shows data that don’t make sense because there is no proper control group. You think they should include that control group to even make the slightest chance to submit it somewhere
In American:
You: Thank you for that wonderful talk. Those are all very intriguing data. I was wondering one thing though, which is: what would you hypothesize would happen in the untreated group?

In Dutch:
You: Don’t you have a control group? It makes no sense to do these experiments and not have a proper control group. You can forget about sending this to any decent journal.

Example 3. You’re talking to your advisor about data. Your advisor tells you:
In American: Those are very interesting data.
In Dutch: Those are very nice and interesting data.

In American: Those are interesting data. Perhaps we should follow this up.
In Dutch: Those are crappy data. You have to do that experiment again.

In American: Those are interesting data (looking at a Western blot). What do you think that big black band is?
In Dutch: That is a horrible Western blot. There is only background staining and no real bands.

I have to say that I sometimes miss this directness because it makes it so much easier to understand what people are actually saying. I can imagine that for Americans that move to my home country, it has to be hard to get used to all this impoliteness and directness of saying things. I still sometimes make the ‘mistake’ of saying something in a way too direct tone in a labmeeting, but am definitely trying to work on my Americanisms. Example 3 by the way is (almost) an actual conversation between Dr. BrownEyes and his advisor. We have spent several evenings trying to figure out what his advisor’s Americanisms actually mean.


  1. This is actually different in different parts of the US, how much politeness and chatter you need before actually getting down to brass tacks, as we say.

    Cities tend to be more direct. The East and Midwest tend to be more direct (though the Midwest will still be polite, they just don't mince words). South and West Coast have more chatter. More rural areas have more chatter.

    Also, economists are very direct without the praise sandwich (praise sandwich = praise, criticism, praise). This freaks out folks from other disciplines.

  2. I think it might be even worse in the UK! I am Dutch as well and did my PhD in England, and I really had to get used to this lack of directness. In fact, you could often not even work out at all whether someone thought your idea was brilliant or rubbish. I can see that the Dutch way can be somewhat upsetting at times, but at least it's clear!