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'Do what you want, but make sure you can pay for your own shopping.'

Japke-d. Bouma, journalist and columnist NRC
photo by Jeroen Jumelet
photo by Jeroen Jumelet

Text: Sara Plat, translation UVC

Journalist Japke-d. Bouma has written seven books - on surviving the office jungle, on work and careers, on jargon that is as baffling as it is hilarious, and on perceptions of women and men in the workplace.

In your work you regularly talk about the benefits and banalities of work. Do you have a particular mission?
‘I want to make work better, make it more bearable. In many cases, there is a huge gap between what the management wants and what is good for the employee. The dilemma facing working people in the Netherlands is that being in paid employment has many advantages, but you also have to do a lot of compulsory extras, for example mandatory teambuilding and tasks during meetings, especially if you’re younger. Self-employed people don’t have to deal with any of that, but then in other ways they don’t have a leg to stand on; they don’t have any rights or a security net. Nobody – and I’m including myself here – talks about the catch 22 that we’re all in, even if you’re in paid employment. Sure, I might play the role of court jester now, but when I was in the thick of it all, I didn’t do anything either. It wasn’t until I started writing about it and immersed myself in the subject that I became aware of it. This situation has us all firmly in its grasp; we’re like happy hostages. I call myself an Office Amazon, and I sometimes see myself as a Marianne-like figure storming the Bastille, on a mission to liberate the office tiger.’

Have you experienced that happy-hostage situation yourself during your career?
‘My first job was at a software company, which made CD-ROMs with maps and simulation games for pilots at the Port of Rotterdam. I worked there as a copywriter, I had to sell the products. Now I would probably cringe at the jargon that used to end up in my own copy. I didn’t stay there very long. I used to dread going in. By the end, I was throwing up every morning before I went to work. I thought I was pregnant, but afterwards I realized it was because I didn’t belong there. My heart wasn’t in it, no matter how much I liked my colleagues. So I quit. I was still young, it wasn’t a huge deal. Then I started working as a freelance copywriter, and that went quite well. I landed a big assignment for de Volkskrant, a commercial job at the NOB, and I eventually ended up at NRC thanks to my contacts. That was back in 1997, and I’m still here. Incredible, really.’

You’re very active on social media; people often send you tips, and you’re flooded with responses when you ask a question. So, in that respect you’re quite a public figure. Is that something you had to get used to?
‘Yes and no. Sometimes it can be really hard, when the criticism becomes personal and people start hurling abuse. But most of the time it’s fine. When I write my columns I assume a character, Japke-d. Bouma, the Office Amazon. She’s much better known than the Japke Bouma who studied in Groningen. As Japke-d., I can use the “you’ll never believe what just happened” tone. Although that’s not a million lightyears away from my own character, it’s also partly a role I play. That makes it easier. If people think the character is whiny or they start throwing insults around, it’s easier to accept. But I receive thousands of messages a year, and I want to be there for those people, too. Now I have to live up to that role.’

Your articles are often very funny. Would you say you used humour as a weapon?
‘There’s an old saying: “If you want to tell the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” And that’s certainly true! Even in secondary school, I used humour as a way of surviving. I noticed that it actually worked, you can really say a lot in a joke. My favourite comment from readers is when they say, “Finally had a good laugh again!” One of my role models is Jerry Seinfeld. He’s a master of observational comedy.’

Why did you decide to study economics?
‘My mother actually chose it, mainly because I didn’t have a clue what I wanted. She said, “Do economics, you can go in lots of directions with that”. I thought higher commercial education (HEAO) would also have been a good option, but my mother banned me from doing that. These days that’s tantamount to sacrilege; a child should make their own decisions. But my dad went to the lower agricultural school, and my mother did more advanced primary education. She never had the chance to continue studying. So I had to go to university. In my mother’s eyes, not studying just wasn’t an option.’

You grew up in Arnhem. Why did you choose Groningen?
‘Once I’d decided to study economics, I felt that my options were Rotterdam or Groningen. Rotterdam was so big and grey, and Groningen had me under its spell from the moment I arrived. An enclave in the heart of the surrounding countryside. I joined the Albertus Magnus student association and met a lot of like-minded people through my economics studies. I have very fond memories of my years in Groningen. I still see, talk to, and exchange messages with many of my friends from those days on a daily basis. You don’t realize it at the time, but that’s where you start building your life for the next thirty, forty, fifty years. Studying is a trial run for your life and your career. You make mistakes, you learn, and you find out what you want and don’t want. But, more than anything, it’s where you meet your friends. Your future network.’

Then you went on to study journalism, this time in Rotterdam.
‘I knew quite early on during my economics degree that I wasn’t going to go into business. That’s just not my thing. I found the more general economic course units and the ones that focused on international and regional topics really interesting; I didn’t really like accounting and business economics. Some of the other students wore suits and carried a briefcase around with them. Even back then I thought that was a bit over the top. But it was during my studies that I decided what I wanted to do later on. I wrote for the Economisch Magazine, the Faculty’s magazine. I even had the opportunity to interview Herman Brood for an article. That made me realize that I love writing; that was what I wanted to do. Then a friend of mine told me about the postgraduate programme in newspaper journalism in Rotterdam, so I applied and got accepted. In a way, the story of my career is also the story of my network, of who you encounter along the way and who you listen to. My friends, my mother. I never really knew what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I’d have been left to my own devices.’

You also often write about the differences between men and women in the workplace. What would you say is your main message to women in that regard?
‘Do what you want, but make sure you can pay for your own shopping. Too many women rely on their partner’s earnings. Not only is that risky, but it’s also rarely good for the men. Another important thing to remember is that having children is something that you do together. All that stuff that goes on behind the scenes – changing nappies, vacuuming, doing the laundry – somehow becomes less important, but someone’s still got to do it. If you gave parenthood a corporate title like “chief happiness officer for the family” and you were paid generously for it, men might then be interested in doing all that. Many women fall into the trap of taking a step back when they have children. But that leads to career stagnation, that’s just the way our society works. But if we’re being honest, really sharing the load fairly when it comes to childcare means that both men and women will have to make sacrifices in their career. I think that’s actually the only way.’

What’s next for you?
‘I have no idea at the moment. In my book Hoe vind je zélf dat het gaat, I talk about how I have come to realize that you don’t necessarily need to climb to the top of the mountain; you can often enjoy a good view halfway up. We have to stop thinking about reaching the top, it’s often not much fun there at all. At the top there’s not always a bar where you can enjoy a beer. It’s much busier down in the valley, where you’ll find many like-minded souls and meet people. Groningen was a valley for me. And at the same time, an absolute highlight.’

Japke-d. Bouma

Japke-d. Bouma (1970) is a journalist and columnist at the Dutch newspaper NRC. She also gives lectures. She has written seven books – on surviving the office jungle, on work and careers, on jargon that is as baffling as it is hilarious, and on perceptions of women and men in the workplace. She recently published Hoe vind je zélf dat het gaat [How do you think things are going] (2020) and De 19 dingen die je nooit met collega’s moet doen [19 things you should never do with colleagues] (2021). She also hosts the Goed Werk podcast produced by EO and NPO Radio 1. Bouma lives in Utrecht with her daughter.

Last modified:16 March 2022 10.25 a.m.
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