Amsterdam keeps surprising me. I spent an interesting evening in a famous entrepreneurial location in Amsterdam Centre. When leaving, we had to wait for our coats at the wardrobe downstairs. In this club, coats are personally handed to all visitors. In front of us was a line of ‘foreign’ people. They appeared to be refugees who had been invited this evening by entrepreneurs who were willing to help them integrate and find a job. A great initiative.
The guy in the cloakroom was happy to help us Dutch entrepreneurs to put on our coats. ‘You can’t do that to them you know’, he said. To explain the ‘them’, he pointed to the refugees that stood in front of the location, talking a while in front of the entrance before they left like all people in Amsterdam do. He said some Syrians that were more ‘integrated’ than the newcomers in front of the door, warned him that his help to put on the coats would not be appreciated; ‘please do not try it, you will get trouble’. ‘You know’, he said, ‘they feel they submit to you when you help them with their coat. And you cannot touch the women. It would feel like you own them. So I just give their coats to them and that’s it’. ‘Well, you can help me’, one of the female entrepreneurs said I think to console him and it worked, he smiled and helped her to put on her coat.
Amsterdam is a modern, diverse and tolerant city. However there are moments that I think we are just retarded – this was one of these moments. Almost all my life I have been going out, working, discussing, learning, experiencing with people from the Middle East. How come I never had any problems with coats, handing coats, helping people into coats? Who invented a scheme where refugees ‘feel they submit’ in such cases? Not the refugees themselves, I am sure about that. Also I do not think anybody has bad intentions here. This is what happens when people are confronted with difference: they try to find rules how to behave or not behave. People want to do good and try to be on the safe side. The tragic is that they miss the point: the contact is in personal involvement and not in cultural rules.
The generally present inclination to follow rules is what I call ‘retarded’. I feel embarrassed when I meet with that in an entrepreneurial place in Amsterdam Centre. The good thing is: we talk about it. We talk about almost anything in Amsterdam. No borders to what we want to express. But also, when it comes to diversity: way to go… We need to have more confidence in our personal approach than in the supposed rules of intercultural contact. Forget about the rules. Be human. The refugees will love it…