Netherlands: Public Behaviour – Part 1

2015-06-12

Acceptable public conduct

The Dutch are somewhat reserved, or rather, shy, in talking to strangers. Exceptions include when they are in bars and cafes or due to some unusual event [accidents, long delays, a parade etc.]

If you ask a question, most people will open up. Amsterdam has a reputation for being more relaxed right away.

Although it is polite to ask ‘Do you speak English?’, this is almost a certainty, and few people will mind if you just start out in that language, especially not if you first greet them in Dutch-with-an-accent and then continue in English. Further away from cities people may still be nervous about speaking English.

The Dutch get slightly confused when native speakers of English ask ‘How are you today?’, certainly if they have never met the person before. The word today either makes the saying feel like a reference to some previous conversation, or the Dutch may take it too literally and wonder if they should answer it in some detail. Just saying ‘How are you?’ is the safer option.

The Dutch tend to be low-key, so subdue yourself in both body language and tone or loudness of voice if you are animated by nature. [Americans are often felt to speak too loudly]. Some quite extravagant behaviour and loudness can be seen in the cities and more artistic circles, certainly in the evening. Engaging in this behaviour, however, would be unwise for people higher up the social ladder.

Summon waiters by making eye contact and nodding invitingly, and only if this doesn’t work by raising your hand in a non-commanding manner. You can also use your voice in a friendly way.

The Dutch are a serious lot, and smiling is not required in business or customer service. People usually smile only in a slightly more personal contact or when they have genuine pleasure about something. Smiling all the time, certainly to strangers, is often felt to be insincere.

The usual first-encounter greeting is a handshake, firm for both sexes but not overdone by the men. Simultaneously, people look each other in the eye and say their family name [with or without the given name], which may have the effect of both people saying theirs at the same time. This is confusing of course if names are not previously known, but it’s no shame to ask once more, right away or later.

Men and women shake hands just as easily as men or women among each other. In greeting a lady, it is good manners to wait for her to extend her hand first. Handkisses or such are considered over the top. Dutch women don’t expect men to keep doors open for them etc., but usually appreciate it when it occurs.

When ascending a flight of stairs, men precede women. When descending, women precede men.

In a longer relationship, women may like to also pay for drinks etc. sometimes.

In a somewhat larger office environment, you can politely nod to any people you are not introduced to.

In introducing oneself, always make sure not to remain seated.

Physical distance in the Netherlands is smaller than in the USA but wider than in Asia. About one arm’s length is considered comfortable for good contact.

In passing people in a small space, e.g. in theatre rows or an elevator, it is considered rude to press past them with your backside facing them and not apologize. Preferably turn around.

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