Greg Shapiro: Dutch Corporate Culture – ‘A Camel is a Horse Designed by a Committee

People who have a degree in communications studies can’t necessarily communicate, says Greg Shapiro.

Sometimes you work on a project that goes so wrong you tell yourself ‘Well, it will make a good story…’ This is one of those projects.

They say a camel is a horse, designed by a committee. Nowhere is this phrase more true than in Dutch office culture. Famous for being non-hierarchical, Dutch office culture puts an emphasis on consensus. Everyone should agree on everything.

Yet – far from being agreeable – most Dutch meetings I’ve attended feature the most negative, contrary, cynical conversations I’ve ever had. ‘Yes, BUT…’ is the favorite phrase. And how do you know the meeting is done? ‘Iedereen moet zijn plasje over hebben.’ Literally: everyone has to take turns pissing on your idea. Then you’re done.

I heard from a Dutch talent agency that there might be a job for me. The job was from an event organizer, working with an internal event organizer at a big company doing a product launch. For the product launch, they wanted someone to do tailored standup. I can do that.

Role play

They may also wanted live role play. I can do that too. The briefing was filled with contradictory information from the internal and external organizers. Yes tailored standup. Also yes role play. 30 minutes max. But also minimum 45 minutes.

Then came the conference call. There was one Claus from the client company. One Ingrid from the internal organizer (I guess?), one Ingrid from the external organizer (I guess?), and one woman named Babette whose function I still don’t know.

I said ‘I’ve read your briefing, and I’m still unclear what you want. Why don’t we start from the beginning?’ Bad move. There was no one person taking charge of the conversation. Again, I heard conflicting requests. AND I couldn’t hear very well, due to distortion on the conference call, whenever two people spoke at once. The ironic part: The product launch was for a telecom company.

Angry email

Afterward, I got a call saying I’d lost the job. The talent agency had received an angry email saying the client was shocked at my lack of professionalism and refused to work with me. I asked to see the email. Here’s the summary:

Babette: ‘In the conference call, Mr. Shapiro asked us to start from the beginning. Did he even read the briefing?’

Ingrid 1: ‘Babette said that Greg said he didn’t read the briefing. Extremely unprofessional.’

Ingrid 2: ‘Ingrid said that Babette said that Greg said he didn’t read the briefing. We have chosen not to work with Mr. Shapiro – for obvious reasons.’

So there you have it: a literal game of Chinese Whispers, based on 0% of the facts. Conclusion: I lost a thousand euros.

The ironic part here: Most likely all of these women went to school to study ‘Communication.’

And – as it turns out – what the client really wanted was neither standup nor roleplay, but a video. So they had no idea what they wanted in the first place.

The moral of the story is: when I ask for the email chain saying I lost the job, don’t let me see it. Because I did a ‘Reply All’ telling them they’re idiots. And I’ll do it again.

Greg Shapiro is a comedian and has dual Dutch and American nationality.


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