Getting along with the Dutch

30th October 2006, Comments 0 comments

Decoding Dutch behaviour and appreciating the underlying values can be a fun and revealing experience - you might even find the notoriously bad service is not so shocking after all.

Home to old windmills, traditional merchants’ houses, an open, tolerant and informal but also efficient society where most people speak English — why should you experience culture shock in the Netherlands?


Culture is a set of shared values and beliefs which encourage certain behaviours and make them socially accepted.

All cultures, countries and organisations welcome, tolerate or sanction different behaviour according to their underlying values and beliefs.

Strangers may sooner or later — and often quite unexpectedly — discover that behaviour which works fine in their home country may not be appreciated in the Netherlands.

The term 'culture shock' is used to describe the reaction to such an experience. For some people this is a shock, others become confused, irritated or suffer from daily stress or anxiety.

Charms beneath the challenges

Culture shock is not a mental health problem. Living in a foreign country is a challenge which can, however, become a positive experience of learning and personal development.

It can be an opportunity to increase your social and intercultural skills as well as your competence in responding to new challenges.

However, it may require some effort to discover the charms hiding behind the challenge. Books, literature and intercultural training can help you find your way around Dutch culture. 

Another effective way to experience positive learning and to start appreciating Dutch values and behaviour is going out and meeting Dutch people, staying curious and asking questions.

When you feel surprised, disappointed or confused by Dutch behaviour or a certain situation, try the following three questions to explore the situation.

Question 1:  Could this have happened in my home country as well? 

This is a question for yourself: are you experiencing a cultural difference or just a cultural bias?

If I am, for example, complaining about traffic jams and the incompetence of Dutch drivers, I must remember that as soon as I cross the border into Germany, I will also find slow and fast drivers or aggressive and over-cautious drivers and sooner or later I will end up in a traffic jam.

But expats tend to attribute everything that they find disturbing or not working well to the nature of the Dutch. Dutch traffic jams are bad whereas the German traffic jams are normal. This is a cultural bias.

However, if you answer this first question with 'no', it is time for the second question. 

Question 2:  Could there be a reason for the Dutch behaviour? Did I do anything to provoke it? 

This is a question you can easily address to your Dutch counterpart, because you can discuss almost everything with the Dutch.

For example, if you just drop into your new Dutch friend’s house because you happen to be in the neighbourhood, you may be surprised not to feel welcome.

Your Dutch friend may be surprised at your 'disrespect' of his privacy and family life. You have not been invited and have no appointment. You are disturbing the order. Respect for privacy and being in control of one’s life are core Dutch values.

Intercultural encounters are bi-directional, which means that both parties can experience culture shock.

If you still feel you are right in what you did, dig a little deeper and ask the third question before you come to the conclusion that the Dutch have absolutely no manners.

Question 3:  What were my feelings? Did I show them? 

Imagine you go into a shop and are not served. Maybe you are used to a service focused environment and become annoyed.

If you start asking for service while showing your irritation by unconsciously raising your voice (for example), don’t expect the shop assistant to rush and help you with pleasure.

From the shop assistant’s perspective, she did everything right. She respected your privacy and independence. She performed that role the way she had learned it: not being obtrusive, waiting for you to come and ask for help if you needed it.

But instead of asking her, you are showing your indignation. It is okay to be direct and discuss almost everything with the Dutch, as long as you don’t show emotions and you don’t get personal about it.

Showing anger is interpreted as a lack of interest in a common solution.

And it is certainly regarded as bad manners to treat service personnel or subordinates as 'staff' instead of meeting them as 'equals', paying them the same respect that you would pay to your boss.

Your behaviour may have been based on the assumption that this is just another example of a lack of service orientation in the Netherlands.

The assistant’s reaction comes like a self-fulfilling prophecy: She is irritated at your irritation and you feel confirmed in your assumption. What seems to be bad manners is an intercultural misunderstanding.

Dutch values

Being conscious about these questions can help you become more aware that strange behaviour which looks like poor service or a lack of hospitality could actually be subject to some underlying Dutch values that may differ significantly from yours:

Dutch respect personal freedom and autonomy. Dutch people are very direct, but in a non-emotional and non-personal way. The tone of voice makes the difference.

The egalitarian perspective requires that everyone be treated with equal respect and have equal opportunities.

Which after all, are not bad values, are they?

Staying curious about underlying Dutch values instead of jumping to assumptions does not take away the challenge, but it can open doors to a more pleasant and fulfilling communication and allow you to discover some hidden charms of Dutch culture.

October 2006

Tatjana van de Kamp, an expatriate herself, is a freelance trainer specialising in career coaching and intercultural communication, and has developed a number of courses for ACCESS. Contact: ACCESS:

[Copyright Expatica 2006]

Subject: culture shock, Dutch culture, intercultural skills

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