Backstage

Those Silly Americans

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, International, Personal, Promotion 12 Comments

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

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