Dutch Etiquette

Understanding the Dutch mentality is very important when you intend living and working in the Netherlands.

In order to avoid faux pas, I always advise to observe the locals and ask as many question as you can. Being curious and genuinely interested in the habits and values of your host culture is the best way to avoid misunderstandings.

The Netherlands has one of the highest average population densities in the world: 496 inhabitants per km2. It’s expected to respect other people’s social space.

The Dutch have a code of etiquette which governs social behaviour and is considered important. Because of the international position of the Netherlands, many books have been written on the subject. Some customs may not be true in all regions and they are never absolute. In addition to those specific to the Dutch, many general points of European etiquette apply to the Dutch as well.

Here are some aspects about the Dutch etiquette I find quite useful to start with:

  • —Dutch manners are frank and can be described as a no-nonsense attitude, informality combined with adherence to basic etiquette. It‘s sometimes perceived as impersonal by some other cultures but is the norm of the Dutch culture. Manners differ between groups.– Asking about basic rules will not be considered impolite.
  • —Shake hands with everyone present, at business and social meetings. Also when leaving. Introduce yourself if no one is present to introduce you. The Dutch consider it rude when you do not identify yourself.
  • —The Dutch value privacy and seldom speak to strangers. It‘s more likely that they will wait for you to make the first move. Do not be afraid to do so.
  • —The Dutch expect eye contact while speaking with someone.—
  • —Food doesn‘t play a major role in hospitality. It is not considered essential for making someone feel welcome. Do not expect to be served a meal unless the invitation specifically mentions a meal.
  • —When invited to someone‘s home, bring a small gift for the hostess. A small gift for children or candy. Flowers only in uneven numbers (like in many other European countries!) and with the blooms still closed – they last longer and open flowers have an aura of cheapness about them).
  • Dutch are traders by nature (long tradition!) and tend to get right down to business.
  • The Dutch tend to be direct, giving straight yes and no answers.
  • If they can not commit to something you’re asking,  they’ll let you know very honestly. Please don’t take it like a personal rejection. It may be that the next time you ask they say “yes”. – The positive side of this is that if they say “yes” you can rely on it! They’ll truly be committed.
  • Commitments are taken seriously and are honored. Do not promise anything or make an offer you are not planning to deliver on. – This is also very important once you make an appointment and it’s in ones agenda: if you can’t make it to the appointment, it’s expected that you call to cancel and apologize.
  • Phrases like ‘I beg your pardon’, ‘I’m sorry’, ‘Excuse me’ or ‘Thank you so much’, are not so commonly used by Dutch people. Some cultures may consider this behaviour as rude, but it’s related to the no-nonsense attitude.
  • Do not invite Dutch accointances to “drop by anytime”: you need to set a specific time and date, and specify what you intend to serve. The Dutch don’t like people to stop by informally. If you know someone very well you can call in the morning to ask if you can come by that evening, but normally you should call further in advance. – The greater the social distance between you, the longer in advance you need to call.
  • To offer coffee (or tea) is the minimun expected when someone visits you. This applies also to workmen! Coffee and cookies or, in special occasions, pastries. – And wait to be served. It is considered impolite to help yourself. Also, offer your Dutch guests a second round of coffee, tea etc..
  • Fashionably late is: to wait for the bell on the tower clock to finish ringing before you ring the doorbell…
  • One of the arrival rituals for good friends and family members is the kissing. Three kisses on the cheek (right-left-right) with each person there. Men will shake hands and kiss only the ladies on the cheek. If you’re not used to this kind of greeting, you can overtly say that you need to get used to this habit (with a smile) and get by with shaking hands instead.

(Some data is taken from The indispensable guide to the Netherlands. Holland Handbook)

3 Comments

    • Sorry, Cat, I missed your reply…
      Well, the Dutch value family privacy, they will not mix work and family – at least not easily. Some who have lived in other places may be more prone to mix the two, or those who work in a more international environment, but in general: evenings and weekends are for family and this should be respected 😉 As for friendship it’s the same, yes. They love to spend time with friends, have a “gezellige” evening. Share time and talk. Food is not the main reason to get together, it’s more about connecting, so you won’t experience huge and long meals. – Thanks for asking!

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