Those Silly Americans

The authorHere’s a question I get asked a lot:

“What’s it like to be a Dutch voice-over, living and working in the United States?”

Who wants to know?

Mostly European colleagues, who either think I’m totally nuts, or who secretly want to do what I did and move to this land of milk, honey, and doughnuts. Some of them have strange ideas about what my life on this side of the pond is like.

I sometimes have to explain to them that “No, I don’t live in a McMansion; there’s no giant gas guzzler parked in my garage, and I can’t call a Hollywood studio and put in a good word for you.” In fact, this American life I am leading is pretty ordinary and rather unspectacular.

I don’t know what my existence would have been like had I stayed in Holland, but in my experience, setting up shop in the States has as many advantages as disadvantages. My colleague Jamie Muffet just wrote a great piece on that very topic for Backstage, and he had me thinking. 

In this day and age where all of us are part of a huge global network, does it really matter where we do our job? It’s just as easy for me to plug into a studio in Amsterdam, as it is to reach a recording facility in New York or Johannesburg. Even agents who used to insist I make a personal appearance, don’t mind if I send them an mp3 audition. Times have changed.

Although technology has made it easy to have an international presence, there’s something I must admit. It took me a good number of years to find my way here in Pennsylvania, and at times I still struggle to make sense of my surroundings and the culture I live in. Personally, and professionally. For instance, I had a hard time trying to figure out how to position myself as a voice for hire.

CONFUSION

From a marketing perspective, it is important that clients have a clear concept of who I am, and what I bring to the table as a talent. When I first came here, people were mainly confused, and I don’t blame them. I spoke with a distinct British accent (the one I was taught in school), and most Americans thought I was from the UK. It was both a good and a bad thing.

It was good because casting directors who didn’t know any better, often hired me to play the part of a stuffy English professor. I even did a voice-over promoting a Beatles jukebox musical on Broadway. I tell you: it was fun being a fake!

There was a downside to having this posh accent. I felt that people were judging me all the time. They either thought I was highly intelligent, or a pompous ass. Of course neither is true. I can’t say it helped me define my professional identity as a native Dutch speaker. Then there was something else I stumbled upon.

IGNORANCE

Even though the United States is supposed to be this big melting pot, I’ve learned that Americans struggle with languages and accents. Many of them have never left the country, and they are rarely exposed to different tongues and twangs, the way Europeans are. Thanks to a brilliant educational system, their sense of geography tends to be off too.

A few weeks ago an agent asked me to audition for a documentary, and she was convinced my accent would be perfect. “You’re Dutch. You should nail this one,” she said. The minute I got the script I saw it was about an old ship… from Denmark. “Well, Dutch and Danish are pretty much the same, aren’t they?” the agent stated.

Not really. And Copenhagen is not the capital of the Netherlands.

Another thing I’ve had to explain over and over again, is the difference between Dutch and Flemish. Flemish is a kind of Dutch, spoken in a specific part of Belgium. It’s as different from Dutch as British English is from American English. That means you shouldn’t hire a Dutchman to voice a commercial meant for viewers in Belgium. But most people in the States don’t know that.

I used to get very annoyed with these ignorant Americans, but having lived here for over ten years, I’ve come to realize that many of them don’t know what they don’t know. Instead of holding it against them, I do my best to educate casting directors and agents, without sounding like a European know-it-all. And quite often they are very grateful for my advice.

Here’s another thing I learned the hard way.

SELF-PROMOTION

Coming from a Calvinistic country where any form of self-aggrandizement is frowned upon, I found out that in America modesty isn’t always an asset. In fact, people like talking about themselves. A lot. If you don’t toot your own horn, who will?

I had to learn to be comfortable with my accomplishments, and speak and write about them openly. In Holland I would have been accused of bragging. Here people say: “Don’t be shy. It’s okay. You have every reason to be proud.”

When talking to a potential client or an interested agent in the U.S., I make sure to sell myself as best as I can. When I’m dealing with someone in Europe, I like to tone it down considerably.

Another thing I realized was that Americans tend to be quite informal. Before you know it, you’re on a first-name basis talking about your family with someone you barely know. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people who come across as friendly, want to be your friend. Give it a few weeks, and they might not even remember your name. Don’t take it personally. 

Things are gradually shifting in Europe, but unless a new client signs his or her emails with a first name, I err on the side of caution, and I’m much more formal.

FEELING LIKE A KING

So, what’s it like to be a Dutch voice-over in the United States? 

In the Netherlands we have a saying: “In the land of the blind, the guy with one eye is king.” As one of the very few native Dutch voice-overs in North-America, that’s often how I feel. I’m a small orange fish in a huge pond. In all the years I have lived here, my English accent has changed considerably. It’s no longer British, and it’s not entirely American either. As I explained to Jamie Muffet: 

“Demand for a Dutch narrator isn’t exactly overwhelming, and thanks to the Internet, my competition in Holland is only one click away. My real niche is in ‘neutral English’ voiceovers, meaning my accent is neither British nor American. It’s more of a European twang, and businesses wanting to increase their global appeal hire me because of my international sound.”

If that’s not shameless self-promotion, I don’t know what is…

On occasion I go back to the Netherlands to see friends and family. I walk around in this tiny country, and I comment on how everything is so close, and how small things are. It’s guaranteed to make my Dutch friends laugh out loud.

“Oh, Paul,” they say…

“stop being such a silly American!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet, Please retweet!

About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs." goo.gl/ihVpMc

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, International, Personal, Promotion

12 Responses to Those Silly Americans

  1. Joe B

    http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2016/session/plenary-david-crystal

    A fascinating and humorous lecture by a renowned expert in the field of language, accents, dialects. His command of accents is particularly amazing; likewise his description of how English accents are rapidly changing.

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  2. Paul Stefano

    Paul,

    What great insight. Your comments on American culture are spot on. It’s a comfort and a curse that we (speaking as a native) are so comfortable with people from the outset. It’s great for conversation, but can make things difficult when it comes time to do “real business”. This is the reason invoicing clients can easily spiral out of control. Who wants to keep asking for a past due payment from their “friend”.

    I will say, however, some of the ignorance you experience may be a product of your chosen neighborhood. Having spent a large portion of my life in the same borough, I can say it can be extremely cloistered. People live there, who have probably never left the zip code in their entire lives. I do think a large portion of American neighborhoods are similar in that regard, but in an attempt to defend My fellow Americans, I will say we are not all that sheltered!

    Anyway, thanks again for the great piece. Keep up the good work!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You know my neighborhood well, and my neighbor was born one street from where she currently lives. However, our borough is getting more diverse, and people are moving in from other states. We also have more people like me, who were born in another country. They come with a different perspective that colors how they see the world. The level of education or lack thereof, also plays a part in how open-minded and well informed people tend to be.

    Having been in the States since the end of 1999, I have met quite a few Americans who are different from the ones I describe in my blog post. A majority however, has managed to keep themselves isolated. Even if they would want to travel abroad, they don’t have the time for an extensive trip. Some fear that they might return home, and find that someone else has taken their job while they were on vacation.

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  3. Silvia McClure

    Too funny, you get the Dutch and Danish and I get the Swiss and Swedish… 😉
    The same thing happens to me when I visit Switzerland and realize how close things are and that I can’t buy groceries on Sundays.
    My English is “Americanized” and while my Swiss German (again, similarities having to explain to varying German languages) is second nature, an accent creep has appeared and I now speak French with an American accent.
    Thanks for another great article!

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Swiss and Swedish? I had no idea these two languages would be mixed up so easily. To me they don’t sound alike at all.

    I’m particularly annoyed when I hear people advertise themselves as a Dutch speaker, and they have a horrible foreign accent. Clients often don’t realize that even within the Netherlands there are huge regional differences in pronunciation.

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  4. Mike Cooper

    Nice post, Paul, and one that echoes a lot of my thoughts after a year or so of being a British voice over in America. There’s a fascination about Britain and British accents, but a misconception that we all talk like we’re in Downton Abbey. All that said, er, “I’m loving it”. Enough said…

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the line: “I love your accent!” Perhaps companies like Netflix can change the perception of British accents a bit. They don’t exactly speak the Queen’s English in “Peaky Blinders,” “Happy Valley,” or “Hinterland.”

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  5. Ted McAleer

    International business in a foreign country, that sounds familiar! I had to take the same route. Here, a familiar reference is critical. That’s the key that opens the door to getting your demo heard. And on that note, overproduction demos are bad too. Most times, producers want recent examples of dry recordings and a link to the final product.
    Great blog as always!

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks Ted. I agree with you on the demos. The new trend is to supply “unfooled around with audio.”

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  6. Mike Broderick

    While it’s not quite “swings and round-abouts” as people might say here in the UK, there are both challenges and opportunities to being an expatriate voice-over artist.

    Still, it’s all in a day’s work when you’re carving out your place in this interesting, demanding, and rewarding field.

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  7. Mike Broderick

    Good one Paul.

    As an American in the UK (12 years here; 3 in voice-over), I find that I face some similar challenges.

    On the one hand I get some national US audition opportunities through P2P’s that I might not otherwise get. On the other hand there doesn’t appear to be huge on-going demand for American voices in the media here. In addition, I don’t have daily access to American media, which makes understanding current Stateside VO trends more challenging too.

    Re: Americans not being well-traveled or globally aware, I think a lot of it comes down to not having time. With most Americans only getting two weeks worth of vacation every year, there simply isn’t time to see the world. (Which is why many of the Yanks you’ll see abroad are either students or retirees.)

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’re right, Mike. America is known as the “no vacation nation.” The United States is the only developed nation that treats paid time off as a perk rather than a right.

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