Annelies Breedveld writes speeches for the Dutch ministry of Defense. Usually she writes in Dutch, occasionally she gets to write in English, for American audiences. While she’s less sure of herself writing in English, she loves it, because “you get to use the Bible and use words like ‘hallowed ground.’ The Dutch don’t like that language as much.”
Corresponding with her to publish one of a speech in Vital Speeches International, I asked her why the Dutch don’t go for lofty language. Her answer contains a number of lessons for American speechwriters:
Holland is a Calvinistic country. The most used proverb in Holland is: Act normal, that’s crazy enough. In our protestant country, showing appreciation for earthly pleasures is considered to be superficial, attitudinizing and arrogant.
You see this in different aspects of Dutch life.
It’s considered cheap to flaunt your riches. In the Golden Age where the Dutch travelled the world through the VOC, rich gentlemen did not build palaces but ‘moderate’ houses at the Amsterdam canals. Inside, lots of expensive paintings. Outside, moderate and nothing to see.
One can also see this in cultural life. E.g. Paul Verhoeven went to America to shoot films because in Holland nobody shared his grand vision and they all thought he was way too arrogant and self-assured. “Who does he think he is…” It’s a bit like the famous crab story: if one climbs out of the bucket, the others try to pull it back.
This also reflects on the perception of national pride. Until recently, our soldiers were not accepted as much as heroes as in the USA. There has been a positive change in public appreciation of our soldiers since our efforts in Afghanistan. So I can at least work with that increased recognition. But still, nationalism or patriotism is something the Dutch in general just don’t like.
And it’s maybe for the better: As a small country we do have the 9th economy of the world, only because we have such an open economy. You cannot afford to be too arrogant and dominant if you have to work with so many different countries to earn your living.
(There are only two exceptions to this rule of being moderate:
When our Dutch soccerteam plays: almost everybody goes crazy. They dress up in Orange—the colour of our Royal House—and act most extraordinary. The same goes for the Elfstedentocht—the Elevencitytour. Only in very harsh winters, this skating tour in the northern part of Holland takes place and the whole country gets hysterical.)
What this means for my speeches is that—except for praising the soccer team and our skaters—you cannot use lofty language.
Everybody would think your speaker has gone mad or is—indeed—sentimental, emotional and has lost his ability to judge things normally. They would be disturbed, wouldn’t take him/her seriously and wouldn’t hear the message.
When you write for an American public, you can go all-out.
Americans seem to love notions on success, patriotism, the flag, being brave and making sacrifices for big ideals as were written down in your Constitution.
As a speechwriter, it’s of course great to be able to use this whole new language-instrumentarium that normally lies rusting away in the cupboard …