almost a diary, traveling

English in Amsterdam

Let me briefly remind you of the fact that you will be socially slaughtered and then eaten (most likely without your consent) should you ever attempt to talk in English to a French person without any previous attempt to clarify whether he or she is able and willing to communicate in the aforementioned language (you should also add a “Monsieur” or “Madame” at the end of any question you ask a stranger, should you actually expect an answer).

Most of the times and in most of the countries I have ever been, asking if someone I want to talk to in English is able to speak is not only a matter of politeness and respect but the most natural thing to do as not everybody will actually be able to speak English.

But in the Netherlands, things are slightly different. When I ordered coffee (and yes, it *was* coffee) in Amsterdam on Saturday, I suddenly wondered whether it is actually more impolite to ask if a salesperson does speak English than not to ask, as asking does imply the assumption the person could not be *able* to speak English in a country (ok, I’m in Amsterdam, not in Gouda) in which everyybody speaks English.

When I asked some Dutch people at a party what their preference would be, the result was mixed. Some prefer to be asked, some don’t. Should you now ask me for a generalised recommendation, I would say – don’t ask, but be *very* polite in language and tone.

Given the special nature of the service sector in this town, there are a lot of impolite English speaking people on the streets. They, too, will get their coffee, of course. But they won’t get the waitress’s smile. And seriously, given the temperatures here this weekend, such a smile can provide life-saving warmth.