I encountered this phrase first when I was volunteering at an international NGO that focuses on sexual reproductive health and rights. One day, lying on top of the visitors’ table was a bucket full of condoms with a note “denk aan de *buren”. I thought initially why does one have to “think about the neighbors” when taking a free packet of condoms (taking the message literally, of course) unless you will use it while your neighbors can hear you next door? Or perhaps it has a double meaning? I did not ask my colleagues what it meant because of the fear of sounding too naïve.
When I got home I asked my Dutch husband. He clearly explained that it’s not to be taken literally and it is a frequently used figure of speech. Simply put, I should only take one condom at a time and leave some for others.
One important note on Dutch culture – even if something is given for free – you are expected to only take enough (or a piece) especially when what is being offered is for everyone to share. But of course, this is abused. Many people would take advantage of the freebies. The Dutch may be a direct bunch of people but this I guess is the most indirect phrase to send a message to stop being a free-loader. And yet, there is an intimacy to this phrase. You don’t see this kind of note in public events or fairs where products or services are being promoted. You don’t see this note next to a bowl of free ball pens at an expat fair, unless the promoter really wants to send a strong message that says ‘one item per person’.
‘Denk aan de buren’ also has a literal meaning. After that ‘condom incident’, I notice we use the phrase at home regularly especially to our son. When he makes some annoying sound that might disturb the neighbors, we remind him ‘denk aan de buren’. And of course, being the Smart Alec that he is, he would reply: “why would I think of the neighbors all the time?”
‘Denk aan de buren’ also reminds the Dutch to behave and dress properly in public and not do something ‘asociaal’, a behavior that falls outside the social norms like shouting in public, pushing people, or skipping the line. This also explains the Dutch habit of watching the television or listening to the radio in a very low decibel. Despite most houses built next to each other, we don’t normally hear loud, annoying noises from the neighbors. It is basic respect and courtesy to others or to the people next to you.
So next time you want to hoard some of those delicious garlic shrimp on the buffet table or the free pens in the fair, just ‘denk aan de buren’.
Let’s play Dutchies
*buren is plural for buur (neighbour)
**buurvrouw = female (vrouw) neighbour
**buurman = male (man) neighbour
**buurmeisje = girl (meisje) neighbor
**buurjongen = boy (jongen) neighbor