Most countries have a few things they're known for internationally: Ireland puts most people in mind of glorious green vistas, pubs, traditional music and rain; Italy is associated with great food (pasta and pizza), handsome people and an ancient culture. We could do this for dozens of countries, but let's get back to the lowlands! What did you think of our country before you found out more? Let's guess: windmills, tulips, dykes with a side order of legalised marihuana? No? The colour orange, football and canals? Heineken? Bicycles? Surely we must've hit the mark with some of these…
Now, all these stereotypes have some basis in truth, but they tell you very little about what life is like living among Dutch people. Every culture has hidden values that natives are probably not even completely aware of, as they're so used to them. Let us clue you in to some of them here. Obviously, we won't be able to simply summarise an entire culture, but these pointers might just prevent you from any serious breaches of etiquette!
Although we hope this is commonplace in most of the world, equality is an important value in the Netherlands, especially between men and women. The differences between the sexes may be embraced, but men and women should absolutely be on an equal footing and treated with the same level of respect. The same goes for people with different ethnicities, of course. If you feel differently, we suggest you leave those conceptions at the door; there are many different ideologies in the Netherlands, but that stuff just won't fly.
If you don't know someone yet or have a more formal relationship with them, you shake hands upon greeting and departing. If you have a close bond with them, kiss them on the cheek three times, starting with the left. Among themselves, men usually shake hands; not every man will be open to being kissed by a man, even if they do know you well. A simple 'Hallo' is a good greeting for most situations.
Scheduling and being on time
Don’t be surprised if dinner with a Dutch friend is scheduled six weeks in advance. Most Dutch people live by their schedules and adhere to them quite strictly. People usually don't just drop by at each other's houses without calling first.
Being on time is also very important. People are usually quite flexible when it comes to parties that will last all evening (you can come in up to an hour after the start of the party here), but coffee dates, lunch, dinner and more formal appointments don't allow for any leniency. If you're more than 5 minutes late, people will consider you very rude. You can be up to 5 minutes early, but not any more than that. It's all about not interfering with people's schedule. If people have known you for a while, they will probably forgive you, but when meeting with someone for the first time (especially in a business situation) being late could mean the end of your relationship with that person.
Dutch people are very direct and to the point. Honesty is appreciated, vague answers are not. If you're afraid to tell someone 'no', you're still better off telling them anyway, instead of prevaricating. Obviously, you shouldn't unnecessarily point out someone's shortcomings, but you can definitely comment on what passed between you and send out clear signals with regards to your own wishes and feelings. A bit of positive feedback is usually welcome.
Although the Dutch have nothing against success, they prefer it if people display it in an understated way. It is typically seen as a negative character trait if you publicly spend large amounts of money. That would be seen as showing off.
If you’re invited to a Dutch home, it is customary to bring a gift for the host or hostess. The most acceptable gifts include flowers (preferable an odd number and never thirteen), a book, quality chocolates, or a potted plant.
As it turns out, there are quite a few cultural idiosyncrasies in the Netherlands. The above is just a collection of some of the most common ones. Visit the websites below to get to know a few more:
Obviously, there's a lot to take in here. If you want to stay safe and make sure that you're not committing any real cultural transgressions, check out our list of cultural taboos.