Getting to know the Dutch People

Disclaimer: We were a bit hesitant to write this post about the Dutch people. We don't like to stereotype. The purpose of this post is to be both helpful and entertaining at the same time.

We understand that each person is unique, and many of the statements below do not apply (entirely) to all people. Stil having this information in the back of your mind can be helpful to avoid misunderstandings.

People celebrating Kingsday in Amsterdam on April 27th. The country turns orange this day, as it does with every National celebration.

People celebrating Kingsday in Amsterdam on April 27th. The country turns orange - Photo: Shoulderbeach CC BY-SA 4.0

Are the Dutch people direct, some might even say rude?

Dutch people tend to be direct. Yes. We wouldn't say they are rude, though. But we do understand why people might think they are.

In general, we are a friendly, helpful bunch. But you need to know how to tap into that. So let me explain a little bit more:

The Dutch apply no Filter

They will tell you as it is. When you ask the question, "Hi, How are you?" The Dutch will answer. They'll let you know precisely how they are. First thing crossing your mind: TMI. Or if they are not into a conversation and having a bad day, they might say: "Not good." Ok, awkward. The best you get with a question like this is, "Fine." Now that sounds uninterested.

And if you ask a total stranger for their opinion, they most often will give it to you. Filterless. Please don't ask a Dutch person if they like something you wear if you don't want to hear the real answer.

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This level of directness will take some time to get used to. If you have delicate feelings, a visit to our country can be a challenge or a quick learning course. Just giving you a fair warning. 

The good news is if a Dutch person says something, you don't have to guess what they mean. Likewise, you can be direct too. You don't offend someone quickly as long as you're honest and have the best at heart. However, by being honest, you're also walking a thin line between being mean and being honest. Of course, being mean is not the purpose of being direct.

Are the Dutch cold?

In stores, for example, greetings can come across as cold. Personally, we like American enthusiasm. When we enter a store or meet new people in the US, it feels pleasant to us. But for most Dutch people, that feels unauthentic. They are not used to that level of enthusiasm.

And this is often where little cultural differences lead to misunderstanding each other. For a Dutchman, something might be friendly, while the same thing can come across as cold for you.

The Dutch usually don't appreciate an enthusiastic "Hi, How are you today?" with a huge smile. It would scare them. If you want to hug too, they probably want to run. Starting with a little smile, a nod, and a hello or good morning, then full stop, is more than sufficient.

Are the Dutch arrogant?

Haha. We do have that reputation, especially in the Business world. To many foreigners, we are. The Dutch tend to be seen as pretty sure about themselves and to have strong opinions about everything.

Our accent doesn't always help us either. Because of the hard sounds, and the very typical Dutch pronunciation of English. All while most Dutchman seems to think their English is free of any accent at all.

The Dutch can be unaware of filters that exits outside our borders

The positive side is they're not afraid to try. The Dutch will quickly converse with you in English, which is very helpful. What isn't, is that the Dutch are not always aware of the filters that exist outside our borders. And thus do not apply them.

In reality, they need just as much affirmation as anyone else. The peculiar thing is, the Dutch feel that Americans are arrogant too. While both sides think the same thing about each other. In reality, often it's not the case with either.

How to make contact with the Dutch easier?

There are tips and tricks, however, to make contact with the Dutch both easier and more enjoyable.

Ask Dutch people if you need help

So against popular belief, the Dutch are very willing to help you. Just ask if you need assistance. Instantly their faces will defrost, and that person will happily help you on your way.

Especially when they notice you're a visitor. It also helps that most people speak English very well. The language might be a barrier on a cultural level, but for sure, it's not on a practical level.

Embrace being direct with the Dutch

Embrace the fact the Dutch are direct. When you expect it, it's much easier. Also, don't take a timid greeting as a negative. It's the default. Don't expect a Dutchman to share their life stories instantly. The Dutch are much more reserved.

On the other hand, they do like contact. We have the word "gezellig" for a reason. Once you've made contact with a Dutch person, they will often be very welcoming and inclusive. Even Obama learned the word 🙂

The Dutch won't mind you joining them and their friends for a drink in a cafe. Or to invite you to a party with them. And they love to show you Dutch food and introduce you to Dutch Music. Especially after a few beers.

Search for "Andre Hazes" on Spotify or any other music service, to get a taste of this before you leave home. You'll quickly understand why you need a few beers (or a few glasses of wine) to appreciate this music.

How to start a conversation with a Dutch person?

The question: "Where are you from?" is of no help to us. The place is too tiny for that. The best conversation starter is to talk about the weather. The weather is our favorite topic. Followed by complaining about the Dutch Railways (although we do have one of the best systems in the world). The third topic will be sports. So if you're a fan of soccer, you quickly have friends.

Don't worry, though, if you're not. We are one of the few that aren't either. And we don't drink beer (but don't tell anyone that or we might have to surrender our passports).

It helps to know the basics of any culture. Holland is no exception

Holland is a tiny country. Still, a few of the biggest brands in the world come from here. From Heineken to Unilever to Shell. However, the Dutch are very aware of the fact that most people don't know much about their country. And worse, confuse them with others.

Dutch, German, Danish?

The quickest way to distance yourself from a Dutch person is by saying to them: " Oh, you speak German, right?" or "I speak some German." Or to tell them that they are Danish. They speak German in Germany, and Danish people live in Denmark. The Dutch do and are neither.

The Dutch speak Dutch, and the country is called the Netherlands (you can use Holland too if you are a visitor). But the Netherlands is the official name.

Amsterdam is not a Country

Another fact often confused is that many people think Amsterdam is a country. It's not. It's a city inside a country. To be specific: Amsterdam is the capital city of the Netherlands (Holland).

The Dutch are pretty sensitive about this. Funny is if you ask them: "What is the capital of Wyoming? You'll get a blank face as well." It's interesting to see it's expected of you to know the details of every small country in Europe, while they don't know all the information about each state either.

Learning some Dutch

However, if you come to visit Holland, knowing this basic information does go a long way. And if you want some real bonus points: Learn a few Dutch words. Say "Hallo" instead of Hello. When you want to say thank you, say: "Dank u." The Dutch will love your accent. And good-bye is "Tot ziens."

Watch the reaction. It's like summer came early. If you want to see what winter looks like, try to speak German to a Dutch person and think you're making an effort. The war is still not forgotten. German is offensive to most Dutch people. Just stick to English instead if you're in doubt, and you're good.

The rules around body contact with the Dutch

The first rule of thumb: Do not hug. If you are from America, you properly hug somebody quickly, especially if you are a hugger. Here, not so much. You fit in the most if you don't do it unless you are close friends with someone.

And if you feel you have to, at least ask if it's ok. (And the Dutch are the Dutch so don't be surprised if their answer is just plainly no). Changes are they still like you.

Kissing as a greeting: Kisses have a protocol, so make sure you know it :-). First, it's three kisses on the cheek instead of one or two as in other countries. This can become awkward if you are stopping at the second one, and the Dutch person goes on for the 3rd. So keep that in mind. Learndutch has and excellent video on this:

Just as important is to know when it's appropriate. Usually, kisses are exchanged between women and between men and women after you see somebody for at least a second time (so you already know each other). Never at a first meeting. The exception might be a date. But tread carefully.

It's also common to exchange kisses at someone's birthday and for new year wishes. This applies to coworkers too. On a first meeting, always shake hands. And even if you think the kisses are appropriate, always follow the woman's lead. If the woman does not like kisses, she will reach out her hand. 

Saying good-bye goes the same way. By the way, men kiss each other too, also when they are just friends, but not as often. Usually, only if they are best friends or a couple. The most common is to shake hands. My advice is to stick to the handshake to be on the safe side.

A coffee shop is not for coffee in Holland, but what is it then?

Gulp what? It's in the name !? True, but no. A coffee shop is a place where they can legally sell soft drugs. They probably have to dust off their coffee machine if you order one.

Picture of Coffee shop in Amsterdam - This is a NOT a place to get coffee.

Coffee shop in Amsterdam - This is a NOT a place to get coffee - Photo: coffeeshoprelax

If you want coffee, what you're looking for is a coffee bar, a cafe, or a restaurant. One good thing is that you'll never make that mistake by accident very quickly. A coffee shop has a distinct smell of weed that you'll instantly recognize, even from outside. 

Another clue is that people smoke inside. You're not allowed to smoke in any other type of restaurant or public place.

Be afraid of the bikes in Amsterdam and elsewhere in Holland

We're not kidding. You should be frightened of bikes in this country. It's nothing like bikes in your own country. They are EVERYWHERE here. In the countryside, they will be on their own neatly laid and separate bike paths, so there you're pretty safe. But not in the cities.

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And worse, most cyclists in cities think that a red traffic light is just for cars. So no guarantee they'll stop for you when you try to cross, even if your light is green. On top of that, they are masters at carrying high loads of cargo on their bikes, and people, while they go at racing speeds. They aren't amateurs.

Ask any foreigner who has been here. They'll tell you it's true. Always look twice before you cross any street, and then look again. We're serious, We've heard visitors say they are more afraid of bikes then of cars in Amsterdam. We get that. 

Look Left, Right, Left again... and best to repeat once more..

We're programmed since we were a baby to look a trazillion times, it's natural to us. But if it isn't in your system, then your heart will skip a few beats from time to time. That is a guarantee ;-).

PS whatever you do, DO NOT EVER walk in a bike lane (when the pavement is pink/red). We don't say this to be overly cautious. If you do, you put yourself and the cyclist in danger of seriously hurting yourself or them.

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Fun fact: did you know in Amsterdam, just outside Central Station, are multiple, multi-level parking garages just for bikes. That's how many there are.

Not everything you hear about the Dutch is true

Sometimes our reputation does hold true, even if it's just a matter of misunderstanding each other. Still, there are a few things out there that are a complete myth. Let's debunk them.

Going Dutch (splitting the bill) is not Dutch.

Splitting the bill is not typical Dutch, we know, but it isn't. Often the host likes to pay for all. Let's say you go out with a Dutch friend. The custom is that if they pay this time, you pay next time and visa versa. Of course, this is different person to person. But in general, this holds true.

If you've traveled from far and made costs to see your Dutch friends, they most likely want to pay for your meal. If so, say thank you and let them. It's their way of showing appreciation for you being there and that you have made an effort to visit them.

Wooden Shoes are not used in daily life

The primary choice for footwear here in Holland are not wooden shoes. Except for farmers, maybe. But in general, it's sneakers just as it is in your home country. Wooden shoes are not readily available in shops. Pretty much in tourist places only, that says enough.

The Dutch: individual and independent or not?

The Dutch are not as individual and independent as they might appear at first sight. The Dutch care about the group a great deal.

"Gezelligheid" is an untranslatable word. The reason why it's not cozy is that "gezelligheid" is snug and cozy, but it includes other people. It's not "gezellig" alone, while it can be cozy alone. Wondering how to pronounce this word? Dutchified made an excellent video about this!

The polder model - Always find middle ground and blend in

Sticking out too much is also usually met with suspicion. You do not score high points with a big house or a big car. The Dutch invented the polder model (trying to find common ground and make concessions about everything).

They had to for a long, long time. It was a life necessity. When the water was still a treat, it was not helpful if you protected your property while your neighbor did or could not. The water would flood into your house as well. Cooperation was essential.

Separating yourself from the community by showing off your wealth was not very helpful. Now living with 17 million people on this small piece of land, it still isn't. By acting modestly, it's much easier to connect with strangers than by creating a divide between them and us.

Are the Dutch as liberal as they say?

The Dutch are liberal in many ways. But not as progressive as you might think. People barely raise an eyebrow if you tell them you're gay. But it doesn't mean you can do as you please. Calvinism is from this area too. And being modest is a virtue.

Often, especially younger visitors, tend to think, especially in Amsterdam, it's a free for all party town. It isn't. At all. Amsterdam has a very active policy to curb this type of tourism and enforces laws very strictly to those causing disturbance.

Not so liberal about Drugs and Prostitution

Public opinion about drugs is not as liberal or positive as you might expect. The reasoning behind legalizing soft drugs to some extent is that people will use it anyway. So better have it legal, and by doing that, you make it less attractive to people.

Don't we all remember how exciting the candy jar was when we were kids? Mostly because it was off-limits most of the time. Also, the thought is, this way, we can keep an eye on it, regulate it, provide assistance, and earn taxes on it. 

The same thinking applies to prostitution. Again that is not the same thing as embracing it as part of normal life.

Picture of the Red Light District in Amsterdam.

The Red Light District in Amsterdam - Photo: Not4rthur CC BY 2.0

Many locals hold a pretty cynical view of people using any drugs or towards those who have paid for private entertainment. People think these people don't have it completely together.

Be aware of this. Because this is one of the few instances, the Dutch are not as direct. If you proudly tell your new Dutch friend you smoked in Amsterdam, they will give you a small smile. Then they try to back away from you.

The conclusion is if you have to try it, do what you have to do. The police will not arrest you. But it's not something to brag about with your new Dutch friends unless you know they are into it as well. Just remember the majority won't be impressed.

Final thoughts

Our final words of advice. Enjoy this beautiful country and its people. Be respectful of local customs, and don't get discouraged if you meet people with different traditions than your own.

That is what travel is all about — learning about others. And to realize we have more in common, then we are different.

We all share the human experience. Just take the best from each place you visit. Connecting with local people can genuinely enrich your travel experience. And it's no different with the Dutch. Have fun or as we like to say: Veel Plezier!

PS: Did you come across a Dutch custom we haven't mentioned above? Do let us know! We might feature you here.

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