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First, the context:

  • I work in a small company (~12 people) where almost everyone works together for more than 10 years (some for more almost 20 years) and I'm by far the youngest person. I work there almost 2 years.
  • Everyone is Dutch except for me and I don't speak the language well.
  • I have the job title of "Manager of R&D".
  • I have a tendency to feel unliked and neglected.

The problems:

  • Since the beginning and in several occasions I was not involved in important decisions or meetings with customers and I feel that I could have had the chance to give my technical opinion or, at least, learn by listening and interacting with people from different backgrounds. Not only I feel bad because it seems like my co-workers do not care or do not trust me, but I am also missing many chances to learn and improve myself. Even recently, I was not informed or invited about a meeting with a very important client where I believe that me (as the Manager of R&D) should have been present.
  • Every year we choose a few conferences to go to. I am never invited to go to those conference.
  • While everyone in the office is nice to me, there is not a very strong connection or intereaction. Very often there are discussions about topics unrelated to work, or even interesting things about work discussed among all, and all those discussions are in Dutch. I feel really isolated because everyone is laughing and having fun and I just have to keep working.

While it seems to me that I am right, I also wonder if I'm giving too much value to minor things. It may be that my boss of my colleagues thought that I had more important things to do, or it can be seen as an optimization of resources... but on the other hand it seems to happen to often that my colleagues and boss do not value my opinion and do not respect me. I also feel very isolated in social terms.

My question is: should I express and explain my concerns to my colleagues? If yes, what is the best way to do it and avoiding looking like an extremely insecure and delusional person? If not, what actions should I try to implement to overcome this feeling and situations?

  • I'm assuming, as you don't speak Dutch well and you work there, that the office language is English? I know from experience it can be hard working with people that don't speak your native language, and when you can't explain what you mean in their language the conversation gets awkward. – Jay Gould Jan 30 at 8:00
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    As someone who lived in The Netherlands myself I'd pick the proverbial Dutch Way: tell them directly. I'm sure your boss won't take any offence and he will tell you the reason without any problem. The thing I loved most is that you don't need to speculate, you can always speak out and you'll get a direct honest answer. – Adriano Repetti Jan 30 at 8:06
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If everyone else has been working together for the past 10 years and you've only been there for 2 years, to some extent it's normal that they're reacting that way. They don't know you as well as they know each other. However, you have a very valid point that this shouldn't damage your career.

I see a few possibilities here:

1) It's all just a cultural difference and they just don't know you as well as they know each other. In that case, try to make small talk when appropriate, ask them for feedback and then discuss it, etc. Work on your Dutch as well, so you can more easily jump into existing conversations. (I know it can be challenging, I've heard that Dutch people will immediately switch to perfect English if they see that you're not speaking Dutch perfectly. Keep trying!)

2) You just can't fit into that team's mentality. I've been in such a team. The way I found out was by trying to start some small talk and ending up literally disgusted by an otherwise nonchalant answer. In that case, it depends on how much of your own character you're willing to compromise in order to fit in, or how easy it would be for you to move to another job.

In the meantime, try to weed out those opportunities when you actually can complain and talk to them. For instance, if you weren't invited to a meeting where your contribution would have been significant, you can find out who organised it and say "why was I not invited to that meeting? I think my opinion would have been valuable". About the conferences, find out who is responsible for inviting people, express your interest and inquire future eligibility etc. What if you never expressed interest so they just thought you don't want them?

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    As a Dutchie, I do tend to switch to English when internationals are involved in the conversation, especially when there is a need to exchange pertinent information. We've been taught very functional english - we can get things done, even if it is more tiring and less comfortable, especially when trying to express emotion or relate experiences. And so I have observed that a lot of people switch back to Dutch for social or non-essential work-related talk. This contrast must be stark and disconcerting. It would definitely make me feel like more of an outsider, if I were in OP's position. – SambalMinion Jan 30 at 15:22
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An answer to emphasize the 'work on your Dutch' in another answer.

Years ago I worked in Amsterdam as a post-doc. All science was done in English. Coffee, tea, and after-work was all in Dutch, unless people were speaking directly to me.

After 3 months, I took 2 weeks off to do an intensive Dutch course. I then continued further doing night classes. I forced myself to use Dutch in most daily interactions (at the store, scheduling sports events, meeting new people). Yes, everyone usually tried switching to English (well, except my nice elderly upstairs neighbors). I continued onward in Dutch. By the end of the first year I was comfortable in conversational Dutch.

So:

  1. Take Dutch courses.

  2. Read a Dutch newspaper daily - it will expand your vocabulary. I subscribed to the Handelsblad, you might prefer the Volkskrant (sorry, spelling is really rusty after 25 years away).

  3. Speak Dutch as much as possible to everyone, and persist in it.

  • I couldn't agree more. However, I should add that the ability to speak Dutch is, in my opion, not as important as a firm ability to understand the language. Speaking the language is the best way to learn, but understanding it is required to fully integrate socially. – SambalMinion Jan 30 at 15:28
  • @SambalMinion - I suspect some is down to how different people learn languages. I could always read better than I could speak, and speak better than I could write. But, carrying on a mixed Dutch-English conversation was also complicated. For me, improving my speaking helped me improve my listening since the rhythm of the language became second nature. Your mileage may vary... – Jon Custer Jan 30 at 15:36
  • Not so much, it's more about efficiency. Speaking is really essential to language acquisition. For example, blatantly imitating an accent helps you learn to parse speech in that accent. (Adank, Rueschemeyer and Bekkering (2013). 'The role of accent imitation in sensorimotor integration during processing of intelligible speech'.) However, I work with several expats that excell in the workplace, are well integrated and understand the Dutch language perfectly, while speaking very little Dutch. They just suffered a lot longer before getting to that level of comprehension. – SambalMinion Jan 30 at 15:53
  • For me I knew I'd made it when I started dreaming in Dutch... Sadly I don't anymore after 25 years away. – Jon Custer Jan 30 at 15:54
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Asking for attention and respect is hardly easy. These things are earned, not granted by your title.

Also, regardless of your position, in-house-time often counts a lot within a company's culture. I know places where people are proud of having very old access badges, and sometimes put pictures on those from when they were much younger (so the badge looks older).

That being said, 2 years should be time enough for you to the get the hang of the culture. You should have a good idea as to why you are not called for the conferences. (Are those academic events? Business events where everyone will be speaking dutch? Social events which serve as a prize for outstanding work?).

I once was a foreign student myself and got an internship were people would always speak their language, which I had been learning from little more than a year by then. Yes, it's hard to communicate. Yes, you are not the center of attention. But I had a good manager by then who would value my deliveries. My opinion is that you should probably work to improve your Dutch mastery, take Dutch classes, read more dutch. Until you manage to hear and speak with no additional effort and get a fairly weak accent, you'll always be compromising on the social aspect of the work.

One thing you should consider as well is that being called to important meetings and events is a social privilege, not a right. But it's a trade-able privilege. If you are scheduling a meeting, consider asking more people to join, they'll appreciate and possibly re-tribute. Maybe throw a party at your house and invite everyone in the team.

The point on the last paragraph is that instead of asking what you want from others, try giving.

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