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LAS Alumni and student-assistant for UC Tilburg Ruben Bastiaanse discusses the peculiarities of ‘Dutch Window Culture’

“Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg” – “Be normal, that is crazy enough” any random Dutch individual

The great thing about living, working and studying with internationals is that they can draw your attention to the peculiar aspects of your ‘native’ culture; those aspects you have always, unconsciously, taken for granted.

In that regard, if I would have to count the number of international friends that were struck and confused by the way in which Dutch people utilize and decorate their windowsills, I would probably need an extra set of hands.

In the first place, many of them are struck by the size of Dutch windows: go to Belgium, France or Germany and the windows there are markedly smaller. Secondly, many of them note the considerable frequency with which Dutch people do not use their curtains or blinds: travel south- or eastwards and one is confronted with visually impenetrable fenestration. Lastly, Dutch people seem to have a healthy obsession with symmetry when it comes to decorating their window sills.

The American sociologist Hernan Vera has argued that these elements of what I would call ‘Dutch Window Culture’, turn Dutch households into “semi-public spaces” (Vera 1989:225). These spaces are regulated by unwritten rules of reciprocity: passers-by are given the opportunity to peak into the private domain of others (by which those inside show that they have nothing to ‘hide’) but immediately expose themselves to the risk of being noticed; of being surveilled. Dutch people will however know that the golden rule in this communication game is to be inconspicuous about your breach of privacy: “look but don’t look, even though the open window is a blatant invitation to exchange information.” (Vera 1989:223) In such a way, Dutch windows mediate the interplay between the societal and domestic domain, thereby offering gradations of public and private (Norwood 2013:96). It is social control at its finest.

Yet what is up with this almost compulsive need for symmetry? Some speculation might help us here. If one considers these “semi-public spaces” to be governed by unwritten rules, then some form of control is needed: control over the delicate relationship between public and private. The French philosopher Michel de Certeau would call these acts of control “spatial practices”: “practices in relation to build environments that are both determining (disciplinary space that structures how space is used) and allows for human agency, creativity, and resistance” (Norwood 2013:93).

The symmetrical decoration of Dutch window sills can be seen as an example of this: it allows citizens to show their conformity to the guiding social norms yet at the same time, it grants them just enough freedom to be creative and to be in control of their privacy: the interplay between (opened or semi-opened) curtains and decorative vases makes some windows truly stand out.

Image Dutch window culture

Image 2 Dutch window culture

Image 3 Dutch window culture

My mother also conforms to the unspoken norm, although she did not get the symmetry quite right:


Image 4 Dutch window culture


But, thank God, there are also people who let their creativity roam truly free…


Image 5 Dutch window culture


Bibliography

Vera, H. (1989). On Dutch Windows. Qualitative Sociology, 12(2), 215-234. doi:10.1007/BF00988998

Norwood, F. (2013). A Window into Dutch Life and Death. Euthanasia and End-of-Life in the Public-Private Space of Home. In Lynch, C. & Danely, J. (Eds.) Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course (pp. 92-106). New York: Berghahn Books.