Little bit of trivia for you all, I’m Kiwi-Dutch. My grandparents emigrated to New Zealand in the 50’s after the war when my grandfather was given the opportunity to work for Air New Zealand as an engineer. My grandparents held onto their Dutch customs and heritage stubbornly throughout their lives, but much to the delight as a child to experience their rich culture and cuisine – which I’ll always cherish.
Recently my grandfather (grootvader) past away after living a very full and happy life into his 90’s. So after nearly 50 years, my grandmother (or as I call her bonnema, and strangely no its not Dutch!) decided this would be the perfect opportunity to move back her home town in Holland (never too old to global trot, right?!). Earlier last month, I began pondering about my own globe trotting and decided – why not Holland?
So a few frantic nights booking flights, accommodation, transport, hmm maybe a bit of bike touring?, tick – we were set for our trip. Time its time for a quick 101 on Dutch traditions and customs….
The Dutch culture is unique. This can, of course, be said of each culture. However, the Dutch culture is one of the few cultures with many contradictions. The Dutch want to be modern and progressive, but also wish to preserve their standards and values. The following are a number of pointers to help you understand the complex way of life of the Dutch.
The Dutch are known for their professionalism; they like to get down to business straight away and have a no-nonsense culture. At the first meeting hands are shaken. When introducing someone, his/her function is explained briefly and any applicable titles are mentioned. After this, people are called by their surnames only or even by their first names. Titles are not used after the introduction. Many foreigners who come to Holland to work find it surprising that even the managing director of the company is called by his/her first name! It is not done for the managing director of a Dutch company to drive too large a car.
It is a custom in Holland that presents are unwrapped straight away. People in the group are often curious as to what is in the parcel. The person receiving the present is supposed to show it or even hand it around. The person giving the present is thanked on the spot. It is not the custom in Holland, as it is in many other cultures, to give someone a gift in return straight away. A Dutch person who is invited for dinner at someone’s house, will usually bring some flowers or chocolates. The Dutch like to receive items which they cannot buy in their own country.
The Dutch make a clear distinction between their private lives and their business lives. When negotiating they use a straightforward business strategy. They do not spend days getting to know their business partners, in contrast to Asian cultures. The Dutch are used to getting to the point straightaway. It is not done to start negotiations all over again after a contract has been signed. To the Dutch a contract means the end of the negotiations: agreed is agreed. Words, invitations and promises are often taken literally.
Food is, no two ways about it, the motor for everyone’s daily activities, is essential. To the Dutch the social aspect, the being together, is more important than the food itself. Many Dutch skip breakfast on workdays. Lunch, in contrast, is an important meal. To the non-Dutch this is a somewhat simple meal, including bread and coffee, tea, dairy products (very popular) and some fruit. Many people, mainly women, are on a never-ending diet. Most Dutch people like meat dishes, especially beef and pork.
Informal is not the same in Holland as emotional or very personal. At informal gatherings people do talk about more personal topics. However, the Dutch are reserved about their private lives. Some Dutch people consider certain topics too personal, however, there are no specific topics that you cannot discuss. It is not done to ask a Dutch acquaintance how much he or she earns, something which is quite acceptable in some other cultures.
Compared to many cultures, the Dutch are reserved in public and refrain from extreme displays of physical affection, anger or exuberance (except at/after certain sports events). The Dutch don’t tend to strike up casual conversation with strangers, but will respond readily when addressed and always try to be helpful when asked a question. In conversation, the Dutch are very direct, use a lot of eye contact and don’t consider it impolite to express criticism or speak on their own behalf. They allow – and even expect – the same behaviour from the person they’re talking to. This shouldn’t be interpreted as rudeness. Most people in the Netherlands speak English because it is taught from primary school on, but fluency differs depending on age and background. German is also widely spoken.
Stating your name – both first and last or your last name only – when you introduce yourself or are introduced by someone else is considered basic protocol. When introducing themselves the Dutch also shake hands with every person in the room.
As a rule, the Dutch do not like visitors to stop by unannounced. If you know someone well you can call in the morning to ask if you can come by later that day or evening, but normally you should call further in advance. The greater the social distance between you, the longer in advance you need to call. Grown children even call their parents – and vice versa – to see if it is all right to come by. It is considered impolite to enter a house without being invited to. Once inside, people tend to stand around and chat for awhile until the host or hostess suggests that everyone sits down. If you want to sit down right away, ask where first.
Conversely, do not invite Dutch acquaintances to ‘drop by any time’. Set a specific time and date and mention what kind of refreshments or food you intend to serve. ‘Come by next Tuesday at two for coffee’ and they will be there at the stroke of two. ‘Fashionably late’ in Dutch culture is waiting for the bell on the clock tower to stop chiming before you ring the doorbell.
Since the Dutch do not like ‘surprise’ visits, the coffee will be ready to pour when you arrive. Yours should be too. An offer of coffee (or tea) is the absolute minimum expected when someone visits your home. Even the workmen who come to fix a leaky tap will be offered a cup of coffee. Suffice it to say that there will also be biscuits or, if this is a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary, cake or pastries. Always wait to be served. It’s considered very impolite to help yourself. And don’t forget to offer your Dutch guests a second round of coffee, tea or biscuits; they will not help themselves.
Gifts when visiting
A visit to someone’s home invariably calls for a gift. Flowers, biscuits, or sweets are almost always appropriate. If you think that your host or hostess might be dieting or diabetic, take flowers. Flowers are quite inexpensive in the world’s largest flower exporter and are a welcome present.
The arrival ritual for good friends and family members at a Dutch home catches many foreigners by surprise. Ladies begin first, kissing each person there three times – the number is significant – on the cheek (right-left-right). The men follow, shaking hands with the other men and kissing all the ladies lightly on the cheek three times (right-left-right). Foreigners can get by with shaking hands instead of kissing.
On the phone
Unlike many countries where some form of ‘hello’ is sufficient, the Dutch always identify themselves immediately when they answer the phone. They either use their first name (Jan), or last name (Jansen) or both (Jan Jansen). The caller is also expected to identify him or herself before stating the aim of the call. If you’re using English or some other commonly shared language to communicate on the phone in the Netherlands, you should adopt this custom. It is considered rude to answer or initiate a phone call saying only ‘hello’.