Dutch customs and etiquette
|Life in the Netherlands|
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.
Dutch society is egalitarian, individualistic and modern. The people tend to view themselves as modest, independent and self-reliant. They value ability over dependency. The Dutch have an aversion to the non-essential. Ostentatious behaviour is to be avoided. Accumulating money is fine, but public spending of large amounts of money is considered something of a vice and associated with being a show-off. A high lifestyle is considered wasteful by most people and sometimes met with suspicion. The Dutch are proud of their cultural heritage, rich history in art and involvement in international affairs.
Dutch manners are blunt with a no-nonsense attitude; informality combined with adherence to basic behaviour. This might be perceived as impersonal and patronising by other cultures, but is the norm in Dutch culture. According to a source on Dutch culture,Their directness gives many the impression that they are rude and crude—attributes they prefer to call ‘openness’. Dutch egalitarianism is the idea that people are equal, especially from a moral point of view, and accordingly, causes the somewhat ambiguous stance the Dutch have towards hierarchy and status. As always, manners differ between groups. Asking about basic rules will not be considered impolite. What may strike you as being blatantly blunt topics and comments are no more embarrassing or unusual to the Dutch than discussing the weather.
The author Colleen Geske stated in her book Stuff Dutch people like that "Dutch people consider the English or American forms of politeness a sign of weakness, and reeking of insincerity and hypocrisy . These are two traits Dutch people despise".
Research for Dutch world service radio concluded that just over half of the Dutch people living abroad consider their compatriots at home less well-mannered than other nationalities. In particular, waiters, teenagers and shop staff score badly. Some 55% of Dutch expats think the Dutch have become ruder since they left the country.
Phrases saying hello or goodbye differ between regions, but are generally understood everywhere. However, the use of dialectal forms or language, for example the Brabantic "houdoe", Limburgish "haije", Gronings "moi", Hollandic "doeg'" and the Frisian "'goeie'" links the speaker to that region.
In the Netherlands, shaking hands is very important. The handshake is the common form of greeting. When someone is introduced, he/she will shake hands and state his/her name. When leaving people shake hands again and thank the person in question for the visit/meeting/etc. At the next meeting, shaking hands is not necessary, but in business situations it is common. Shake hands with everyone present—men, women, and children—at business and social meetings. Introduce yourself if no one is present to introduce you. The Dutch consider it rude not to identify yourself.
The Dutch do not have a special hand for personal hygiene, eating, or praying. This means that they do not realise this may be considered insulting to some cultures when they pass something on with either the left or right hand.
Very close friends may greet each other by kissing near the cheek three times, starting with the left cheek. In some circles and geographical areas the custom of social kissing is more common than in others. It is only done among people who know each other very well. People might kiss each other on the cheeks three times alternating right and left cheeks, every time they meet or leave. This is not compulsory. If someone does not want to be kissed, he or she extends the hand for a handshake. Men do not kiss other men on the cheeks. Men and women, and women among each other, will do it more often. Often there will not be an actual kiss, but rather the touching of the cheeks against each other.
Conversation and language
Addressing people: formal and informal
Dutch people quickly start calling people by their first name. In the Netherlands, a younger person, a child, a relative, a friend, or an acquaintance are addressed with an informal je/jij ("you"). The formal u is used to address people one does not know, or is only slightly acquainted with. "U" is also used to address a higher-ranking business person, although it can soon be replaced by the informal je.
When meeting someone in the Netherlands for the first time, they are generally called Sir or Madam, but one will soon be asked to refer to them by their first name. In other countries, it takes much longer for people to associate on a first name basis. There is no special rule that tells how to deal with this: it is safe to follow the lead of the other person. When someone introduces him/herself with just their first name, it is safe to assume that they prefer to be addressed with the informal jij/je.
The Dutch do not use titles when they speak to someone. In writing, one can state the title, but only in an official letter. The only exceptions are the Dutch King and Queen, who are referred to as His and Her Majesty. However, the current King, Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, has stated that people can address him in any way they feel comfortable with.
Making a phone call
When making a phone call, always state name (and, if appropriate, company name). Even when one calls a cab, orders a pizza, or asks for information, it is polite to mention one's name.
When receiving a call, one does the same: pick up the phone and say your name. When a Dutch person answers the phone, he/she will identify himself/herself by stating their first name and/or last name. The name is usually preceded by met" ("with", meaning "You are speaking with"). The caller is expected to identify himself or herself as well, before starting the conversation or asking to speak to another person.
When making a phone call, first ask if the call is convenient. If it is an unconvenient time, offer to call back later. It is best not to make personal calls before 09:00 or after 22:00. On Sundays, one is expected not to call before 10:00. It is also better to avoid dinner time (18:00–19:30).
The Dutch and foreign languages
Internationally, the Dutch are considered to be proficient at speaking foreign languages. This is because the Netherlands has a high standard of language education which focuses on the international position of the country. Teaching of English starts in the last 2 years of elementary (or primary) school, and is an obligatory part of the national exam in all high schools. German and French are commonly taught and are often chosen as an end subject in which a final exam is taken in high school. In addition, some schools offer Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Russian or Turkish, which may or may not be chosen as part of a pupil's final exams. At a gymnasium, a type of pre-university school, Latin and Ancient Greek are taught as an integral part of the curriculum.
- According to a self reporting census, 87% of Dutch people are able to speak reasonable English although the accent can be marked.
- German is the second most common foreign language, particularly in the East. In a self reporting census 71% of the population claimed conversational proficiency.
- French is the third foreign language, but it is considerably less common than English and German.
Addressing the Dutch in their native language may result in a reply in English. This phenomenon is humorously discussed in White and Boucke’s The UnDutchables: "If you take a course in the Dutch language and finally progress enough to dare to utter some sentences in public, the persons you speak to will inevitably answer you in what they detect to be your native tongue. They love to show off the fact that they have learned one or more languages." Another opinion is that the Dutch want to make it easier for you and want to get to the point quickly. This can be frustrating for those who wish to improve their Dutch, while those who are competent in Dutch may find replies in English patronizing. But Dutch people will perceive a foreigner trying to speak Dutch as someone who is having difficulty expressing himself, or may welcome the opportunity to try their English. They may also preemptively try to avoid miscommunication by speaking your native tongue, if they consider themselves fluent enough.
Dutch humor has changed over the centuries. In the 16th century, the Dutch were renowned for their humor throughout Europe, and many travel journals have notes on the happy and celebratory nature of the Dutch. Farces and joke books were in demand and many Dutch painters chose to paint humorous paintings, Jan Steen being a good example.
The main subjects of Dutch jokes at the time were deranged households, drunken clerics (mostly of the Roman Catholic Church) and people with mental and/or physical handicaps. A main theme was the reproof of immoral ethics: the 'Vicar's wagging finger'. However, at the end of the 17th century, the Dutch Republic was in decline, and the Dutch Reformed Church denounced laughter and advocated sober lifestyles. Etiquette manuals appeared which considered it impolite to laugh out loud. This continued into the 1960s: during World War II, American soldiers were instructed not to tell jokes to the Dutch as "they would not appreciate it".
Famous Dutch comedians include Hans Teeuwen, Herman Finkers, Wim Sonneveld, Toon Hermans, Bert Visscher, Youp van 't Hek, Najib Amhali, Theo Maassen, Kees van Kooten, Freek de Jonge, Sara Kroos, Brigitte Kaandorp, Karin Bloemen, Claudia de Breij, Tineke Schouten, Jochem Myjer and André van Duin.
The Netherlands has one of the lowest death rates caused by road traffic in the world. The Dutch driving test is one of the toughest in the world and there is a mandated minimum number of hours driving with a licensed instructor. However, this does not necessarily translate into a pleasant driving style. Note that not all points mentioned here are true for all Dutch drivers.
- Traffic rules state that vehicles have to drive in the right-most available lane. Staying in the left lane unnecessarily may lead to a fine. It may also result in tailgating and/or overtaking on the right-hand side.
- Cyclists and pedestrians are well protected. Cycling is extremely common, and cyclists tend to stay on the rightmost side of the road. In practice this means that a cyclist may be present or turn up on the right hand side of the car at all times. This needs to be monitored carefully. As a consequence, Dutch drivers tend to drive somewhat removed from the right hand side of the road in urban areas. Under Dutch law, cyclists and pedestrians are weaker traffic participants and strong evidence of collision inevitability by the stronger party is required to avoid high claims/fines. Dutch law guarantees a minimum of 50% compensation to cyclists/pedestrians above 14 years of age and 100% for children.
Eating and drinking
A waiter or waitress is beckoned by slightly raising a hand, making eye-contact or calling "Ober" ("Waiter"), "Mevrouw", (literally "Madam", meaning "Waitress") or "Meneer" (meaning "Sir"), but not too loudly. Snapping fingers is considered very rude.
Enjoying lunch or dinner with a (male or female) friend will very often end up in Going Dutch (splitting the bill). When invited to a lunch or dinner, the Dutch will make it clear that you are their guest and that they intend to pay the bill, otherwise expect to "Go Dutch" and pay your fair share. No one will be embarrassed at splitting the bill. In the Netherlands, men and women are equal, which means that women enjoy the same privileges as men. When one invites someone, or if one is invited, it is only in corporate situations that the one who gave the invitation is expected to pay for dinner. Otherwise bills will be split up, sometimes even when people are on a date. It is a way of showing that one is independent and self-reliant, which is highly valued in Dutch society and insisting to pay the bill for the other party might be considered slightly offensive by the other party. Friends or couples that eat out on a regular basis may take turns paying the bill.
The Dutch will invite only very close friends and relatives they feel close to for a home dinner. It might take a long period of friendship before this will happen, or it might never happen at all. If you are invited to have dinner at someone's home, it is polite to bring a bottle of wine along to thank them for the dinner and to show appreciation for the invitation. Similarly it is also usual to present flowers. When invited for a meal in someone's home, people are expected to eat all the food on their plate. It is better to take multiple portions of food than to take too much at once and not eat all of it (which is considered wasteful or a sign that the food did not taste good).
Table manners are important to the Dutch and if one breaks this etiquette, the Dutch might frown or make remarks about it.
- One should always wait before starting to eat until everyone has sat down and is able to eat, unless the food of some dinner guests takes longer to arrive and they say it is all right if you want to start.
- It is considered impolite to leave the table during dinner, even to go to the bathroom. During a long dinner, one may leave the table between courses to visit the bathroom. It is considered good manners to ask if one may be excused.
- During the entire meal, the fork is always held in the left hand when used. Knife and spoon are held in the right hand. The knife is not put down after the carving of the meat/fish. Both knife and fork are used together to eat. The spoon is only used for eating soup or dessert, and all other foods are eaten with fork and knife. Soup is eaten with the spoon and not drunk. Bread is allowed to be eaten by hand.
- Also during the entire meal, it is good manners to keep your hands above the table.
- The napkin is placed on the lap.
- Making noises while chewing on food like eating with one's mouth open (or to munch, burp, slurp, snarf, crunch or making other eating noises) can be a cause of annoyance to people in the surrounding area and is considered uncivilized, as is putting more food in the mouth, drinking or speaking while there is still food in the mouth.
- When one has finished eating, one places the fork and knife next to each other at the 3:15 position on the plate, with the sharp side of the knife towards oneself and the tips of the fork down.
- Getting tipsy or drunk is only acceptable when the dinner is with close friends.
- When one does not wish to eat certain foods, it is appreciated if the host is told in advance.
In the Netherlands, everyone receives a basic salary, tipping is entirely optional and for many Dutch completely unnecessary. For example:
- in a hotel, €1-2 to a porter, room service, or cleaning lady at the time of service.
- in restaurants and cafés, 5-10% of the total bill should be considered, however leaving simply some small change on a restaurant table is equally common. Most Dutch restaurants and cafés collect all the tips received during the evening and split the amount among everyone working that evening (also kitchen/cleaning staff). If one is not satisfied with services rendered, he/she does not have to tip.
- tips are generally not expected in bars, but are not uncommon.
- taxi drivers generally receive a 3-5% tip, however again not required.
- Many Dutch surnames start with a tussenvoegsel, i.e. a prefix such as 'de' (the) or 'van' (from or of). These are neglected in alphabetical order. So a Dutchman named 'de Vries' will say his last name starts with a 'V', and you'll find him in a telephone directory under that letter. In addition, if the first name or initial is mentioned, 'de' or 'van' starts with a lower case letter. If the first name or initial is absent, the prefixes start with capitals (Jan de Vries/J. de Vries versus meneer ('Mister') De Vries/De Vries).
- Weddings can range from small private affairs to elaborate parties, depending on the preferences of individuals. Dutch law only recognizes weddings as legally binding when performed by a government official, but a church ceremony may be included in the wedding festivities. Most people have a civil wedding, often conducted in the town hall. In the Netherlands there is a statutory requirement for couples intending to marry to formally register that intention with officials beforehand; allowing people who may object, time to learn of the intended marriage. This process is called "ondertrouw".
- The majority of the Dutch is irreligious and religion in the Netherlands is generally considered as a very personal matter which is not supposed to be propagated in public.
- A person who never offers criticism is seen as either being simple-minded or failing to tell the truth. A foreigner need not worry too much about saying something that will hurt feelings. The Dutch will argue, but seldom take offense.
- The Dutch speak directly and use a lot of eye contact. To a foreigner, this may appear abrupt, but it is just their manner of communicating. Wearing sunglasses or covering the face otherwise while speaking to someone might be seen as a sign of having something to hide.
- The Dutch avoid superlatives. Compliments are offered sparingly, and to say that something is "not bad" is to praise it.
- Do not discuss money or prices or ask personal questions.
- Dutch humor is either very subtle, or very dry and sarcastic, with little in between.
- Within Dutch society nudity is less sexualized as in for example the Anglosphere and resembles more the views of other Northern European cultures on nudity. Saunas, gyms and swimming pools are often visited by families and therefore always mixed. Some saunas do offer special children mornings or men-only or women-only evenings. At the beach and on the terraces along it, the Dutch are as sparsely clothed as possible. Do not get offended by this because to the Dutch this kind of beach dress is completely normal. Women, also older women, may also (sun) bathe topless on most beaches in the Netherlands. The Netherlands has nudist beaches.
- The Dutch are reserved and do not easily touch in public or display anger or extreme exuberance.
- Keep your hands out of your pockets while talking to someone or shaking hands.
- Spitting is considered very rude.
- Smoking is prohibited or even legally punishable by fines in many areas. Always ask before sparking up.
- Colin White & Laurie Boucke (1995). The UnDutchables: An observation of the Netherlands, its culture and its inhabitants (3rd Ed.). White-Boucke Publishing.
- J. Vossenstein, Dealing with the Dutch, 9789460220791
- Geske, Colleen. "Directness". Stuff Dutch People like. Retrieved 22 May 2014.
- "Dutch expats think the Dutch are ruder". Dutchnews.nl. Retrieved 22 May 2014.
- (Dutch) Willem-Alexander geen 'protocolfetisjist'
- Europeans and their languages, Eurobarometer, June 2012
- White, Colin & Boucke, Laurie (2010). The UnDutchables. White-Boucke Publishing. p. 204. ISBN 978-1-888580-44-0
- (Dutch) Anno - Veel poep en pies
- Mortality: Road traffic deaths data by country, World Health Organization
- Dutch cyclist/pedestrian protection
- (Dutch) Hoofdletters in namen, Genootschap Onze Taal
- Becker, Jos and Joep de Hart (2006). Godsdienstige veranderingen in Nederland (in Dutch). Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau. ISBN 90-377-0259-7. OCLC 84601762.
External links and sources
- Dutch Ditz - Manners in the Netherlands (2nd print 2011), by Reinildis van Ditzhuyzen ISBN 978-90-230-1259-7 Website Reinildis van Ditzhuyzen (English).
- Dealing with the Dutch: A Guide for Visitors, New Residents and Better Business Relationships, by Jacob Vossestein.
- Dutch culture website
- Dutch customs
- International site on etiquette
- The UnDutchables, by White & Boucke.
- The Xenophobe's Guide to the Dutch, by Rodney Bolt.
- UnDutchables website
- Dutch society and working culture on Expatica / the Netherlands