Gender neutral language push in The Netherlands Longread on cultural changes towards an inclusive society

Gender neutral language got a big boost in The Netherlands over the last few weeks. The City Council of Amsterdam issued a language instruction to its employees to refrain from the traditional ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ and instead use the more inclusive ‘Dear Amsterdammers’. In a similar move the Dutch Railways changed their announcement policy to ‘Dear passengers’ or ‘Dear travelers’. What is behind this change and why is it such an important and for some emotive issue? Let’s shed some light on this.

Gender neutral – the language

The use of gender specific pronouns or nouns and even verbs are different per language. Some languages have hardly any specific gender words and other languages are rife with them. The Dutch language used to have a lot of gender signals in its language, but is loosing them slowly. Many languages and also Dutch have gender neutral expressions to address people.

Next to that cultures also use certain words, expressions or symbols to signify something male or female. Think of using blue or pink for a newborn boy or girl. Which was introduced in The Netherlands shortly after the 2nd world war. Often these cultural signs are also linked to being strong and good versus weak and bad. An example of this is drinking tea. This is used in the Netherlands as an expression of a weak, effeminate behavior.

Gender neutral awareness

Gender questioning

In the recent decades, thanks to gender studies and gender activists, we have become more and more aware of the use of gender specific language and the effect that has on people in society. It started with women objecting against female forms of jobs descriptions. Forty years ago female directors were called directrice in Dutch and male directors directeur. Nowadays both female and male directors are called directeur, manager or CEO.

From the transgender and queer community came the understanding that people identify not only as man or woman or as the gender they might appear based on the outside. They are either transgender, gender fluid or gender questioning. Some call themselves even the third gender. This has translated over the last few years in new policies in the Netherlands, whereby superfluous asking of gender by governments or companies is pulled back or where people are also offered the option ‘other’ where they are asked to tick a box for male or female in a form.

Gender neutral in the public debate

This now has culminated in the next step of a more gender neutral use of language: reforming language policies in large organizations. Why say “Ladies and gentlemen, your train is delayed by 5 minutes” if you can also say “Dear travellers, your train is delayed by 5 minutes”. Or as a city official you can welcome people at a meeting with “Dear attendees” or “Dear people of Amsterdam”. Same information, different impact.

Small changes, which hurt nobody but will make people who are gender fluid or gender questioning more at home and more welcome.

But not so for some conservative often right-wing commentators in the Dutch media. Taking a cue from the language from the alt-right in the US, they cried wolf. They said that it was an attack on cultural and/or national identity or that it would cause confusion. The more low-key commentators wondered who was helped by these changes. They claimed that so few people took offense of the old expressions, why change it?

It all seems to be a rear guard fight by these commentators. Apart from a few jokes, most people just shrugged their shoulders. As long as it is clear who is addressed and who not, most people don’t mind the change in the language used to address them. Maybe a hopeful sign that in these times of rising populism at least in some areas tolerance and compassion is still evident. Small changes in language can after all make a big difference for how welcome, secure and or appreciated people feel.