Dutch culture

19 things Americans can learn from the Dutch

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Everyone could learn a thing or two from the unpretentious, tolerant Dutch culture and lifestyle.

More than ocean separates Amsterdam, my adopted city, from Newport Beach, the upscale Southern California beach town where I spent most of my life. Beyond being nearly 4,000 miles across the Atlantic, the Netherlands is worlds from my former home — a city portrayed in reality shows like The OC and Desperate Housewives of Orange County — when it comes to culture. Here are some of the lessons I learned as an American expat in the Netherlands.

1. Not everyone speaks your language.

Since few people outside their tiny country speak Dutch, people from Holland must learn other languages to communicate globally.

2. TV programs with subtitles are learning tools.

Through American exports like Sesame Street, Star Trek, Baywatch, Magnum P.I., Married with Children, and Dr. Phil, 90 percent of Dutch people speak English by their teens. Most add a few other languages (excluding German) in high school and beyond.

3. A trusty two-wheeler is de rigueur for daily transport.

No fancy clothes, helmet, or expensive fuel needed. Snap on a chain guard, hop on in business attire, stiletto heels, or that sexy salsa outfit, and ride off with pride, briefcase, lunchbox, kids (also helmet-less), and that all-important cell phone in tow.

4. Public transportation is not a sign of 'lower class'.

Use the train for inter-city travel, leaving the driving to others while you sleep, read the newspaper, catch up on work, or just think while the countryside rolls by.

5. Only one or two weeks of vacation a year is insane.

In the Netherlands, four weeks a year is normal.

6. It doesn't pay to work your ass off.

While Americans slave away at their jobs 40+ hours a week, many Dutch professionals enjoy a 36-hour workweek. And they’re doing just fine.

7. It's not the end of the world when temperatures dip below 15˚C/60˚F.

There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.

8. American sports are kind of lame.

The Dutch know a little something about real sports. You think American baseball is exciting? Try speed skating.

9. There is only one football.

Sorry, the American game with that cumbersome gear, bosomy cheerleaders, and commercial interruptions doesn’t count.

10. Fast food chains don't serve real food.

Neither do Amsterdam’s ubiquitous FEBO outlets, but you might find something that staves off a hangover in those little windows.

11. Herring isn't something only Jewish people eat.

In the Netherlands, it’s a street delicacy, served lightly brined, ready for spearing with a little Dutch flag, and with pickles and onions on the side.

Dutch herring

12. Marriages are about relationships, not weddings.

In the Netherlands, few relationships are marked by ritzy celebrations. The Dutch typically live together and raise families under legal contracts, minus the costly party.

13. Same-sex marriage is so old news.

They’ve been legal in the Netherlands since 2001.

14. Good medical care is a right, not a privilege.

Even illegal immigrants deserve basic healthcare.

15. When a politician cheats on a spouse, it's bad form but no reason to resign.

Unless that politician is from some wacky conservative party.

16. Journalists should generally avoid the private life of public people.

Unless those people choose to make their private life public.

17. Everyone is responsible for their personal lifestyle and has freedom of choice, so long as that freedom harms no one.

The Dutch call this samenleving, or the art of sharing space harmoniously and fostering a culture based on equality, mutual respect, and civil rights.

18. Marijuana is not the gateway to hard drugs and addiction.

Incidence of drug abuse and addiction is lower in the Netherlands than in countries with a strict prohibition policy. Still, cocaine, heroine, ecstasy, and other hard drugs are as illegal in Amsterdam as they are in the US.

19. People who show off, act pretentiously, discuss personal finances, or do anything perceived as weird or foreign, are jerks.

The goal is to be normal or, as the Dutch say, Doe normaal dan doe je al gek genoeg (just be normal, that’s crazy enough).


Melissa Adams / Reprinted with permission of Matador Network.

Melissa Adams Melissa Adams is a freelance writer and photographer who traded sunny Southern California for a soggy patch on the European continent. She now explores Amsterdam's hidden gems, sexy secrets and colourful culture at UnClogged Blog: An American Expat Plumbs Holland, as well as on AFAR, where you can find both her Guide to Amsterdam and Wanderlists covering highlights in Holland and beyond.

Thumbnail credit: Todd Fahrner

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3 Comments To This Article

  • Casper posted:

    on 17th June 2015, 14:31:34 - Reply

    A comment or two:

    6. - actually the legal number of hours are 40, some unions have been able to get employees to agree to less hours.

    14. - you have not been in this country for a while, this have been changing to be where insurance companies dictate which hospitals they will let people goto, even if they have to travel 50km.

    17. - not exactly that way; you can do what you want, and if someone complain you'll ignore them....
  • notreally posted:

    on 17th June 2015, 16:57:34 - Reply

    Yep. And Americans can also learn to do things like chant Jew-hating slogans at sports events, burn down mosques, and refuse to hire people because they have a name like Mohammed. There's Dutch tolerance for ya. And yes, everyone should have the right to good health care. There also should actually BE good health care. Or we could take the Dutch model, in which some procedures and medicines are unavailable because the government deems them too expensive.

    And no one I have ever met in any country discusses personal finances more than the Dutch. 

  • Ennia posted:

    on 18th June 2015, 09:04:38 - Reply

    #12. While American weddings are known for their extravagance, I still feel that the Dutch could learn a thing or two from them. I have been to a few here (my husband's niece's wedding was really well done) but the few others sorely lack any formality about them. Guests came dressed like they were going to a BBQ - jeans would be fine but they should top it off with a jacket. Sandals and cut-off pants of any kind should be a big no-no. I was invited to a wedding where it was on a Monday and I couldn't go on account of my school going daughter. Plus, the others who came would probably have to take time off work which I felt was totally unnecessary since that is what a weekend is for. And yes, while the wedding should be all about the bride and groom, if they want people to attend their wedding, they should spare a thought about them too.