Dutch customs and etiquette  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Dutch have a code of etiquette which governs social behaviour and is considered important. Because of the international position of the Netherlands many books have been written on the subject. Some customs may not be true in all regions and they are never absolute. In addition to those specific to the Dutch, many general points of European etiquette apply to the Dutch as well.


The people

Dutch society is egalitarian, individualistic and modern. The people tend to view themselves as modest, tolerant, independent and self-reliant. They value education, tolerance, hard work, ambition and ability. The Dutch have an aversion to the non-essential. Ostentatious behaviour is to be avoided. Accumulating money is fine, but the gratuitous spending of money is considered something of a vice and associated by some people with being a show-off. A high style is considered wasteful and suspect with most people. The Dutch are proud of their cultural heritage, rich history in art and music and involvement in international affairs. Dutch manners are frank with a no-nonsense attitude; informality combined with adherence to basic etiquette. This might be perceived as impersonal by some other cultures but is the norm in Dutch culture. As always, manners differ between groups. Asking about basic rules will not be considered impolite.


  • When entering a room it is customary to shake hands with everyone present, then to shake hands again on leaving. If there are too many people to shake hands with and the setting is informal, publicly identifying yourself will suffice. Usually an acquaintance will introduce a visitor to others; otherwise the guest introduces himself. The Dutch consider it impolite not to identify oneself.
    • When entering a doctor's office, a pharmacy or any waiting room where other people are present, the Dutch "greet the room" as they enter with a general "good day/morning/evening". The Dutch are very conscientious of who arrived in what order and will wait patiently to be served in that same order. Jumping line will lead to frowning and, most likely, a verbal reprimand on the spot.
    • When stopping in the street to chat with an acquaintance, a younger Dutch person especially will not take the trouble to introduce an accompanying friend, but the friend will usually do so him/herself.
  • Phrases saying hello or goodbye differ between regions, but are generally understood everywhere. However, the use of dialectal forms, for example the Brabantic "houdoe" and Gronings "moi", links the speaker to that region.
  • When introducing themselves, the Dutch shake hands and say their name (first and/or surname).
    • If seated, it is polite to stand up before shaking hands.
  • When answering the phone, the receiving party identifies him-/herself first either using their first (Jan), or last name (Jansen) or both (Jan Jansen). The name is usually preceded by "met", which means "(you're speaking) with". The caller is expected to identify themselves before asking to speak to another person or talking about something else.
    • Children tend to answer the phone with their full name (first + surname) to avoid being mistaken for their parents.
    • The identification of the receiving party is nowadays commonly skipped on cellphones which identify the caller. A friend may instead be greeted with a simple "Met mij" ("with me"). Among youths, a witty phrase may be used instead, such as "this is the police", which lets the caller know (s)he's been identified already, and need not introduce him-/herself.
  • Yelling to an acquaintance from a distance is considered impolite.
  • It is considered impolite (not to mention illegal) to enter a home without being invited. The Dutch consider it a gross invasion of privacy. This even applies to close friends and neighbours. Similarly, it is considered inappropriate to enter someone's garden except for the purpose of walking up to the front door.
    • This is slightly different in rural Twente, owing to the historical importance of noaberskop. A close friend and/or neighbour may enter the (farm)house through the back door and "greet the room". A similar practice exists in North Brabant.
  • It is polite to ask where to sit.
  • When meeting friends and relatives, the Dutch often kiss cheeks three times. Normally, the first kiss is on the right-hand cheek, the second on the left and the third again on the right (from the perspective of the person being kissed). This ritual is also often used when saying goodbye. Women will kiss women and men, whereas men kiss women but shake hands with other men, unless they are closely related, in which case kissing sometimes occurs.
    • Although some sorts of kissing in public (as a form of greeting), e.g. the aforementioned three kisses on the cheeks or a short kiss on the mouth, are seen as appropriate, french kissing in public is considered inappropriate, if not slightly vulgar.
  • It is polite for strangers to greet each other if they meet in a quiet location, especially in the countryside. This greeting is usually limited to a gesture or a simple phrase and rarely involves conversation. Likewise, on a country road, it is considered polite for drivers and pedestrians to make a greeting gesture when there is eye contact between them.
  • The Dutch use one hand to shake hands and typically let go after a very short time. Continuing to hold on to someone's hand is mostly considered inappropriate.

Body language

  • The Dutch are reserved in public and do not often touch each other or display anger or extreme exuberance.
  • The Dutch expect eye contact while speaking with someone. Looking away or staring at the ground is considered impolite and may be perceived as disinterest or lying.
  • The Dutch tend to be reserved in using hand gestures. However, having your hands in pockets or arms crossed might be interpreted as a sign of disinterest.
  • The crazy sign is made by tapping the centre of your forehead with your index finger. This gesture is considered rude.
    • NB the sign indicating someone is smart or intelligent is made by tapping the area around temporal bone (just above the ear) with the index finger.
    • NB the crazy sign can also be made by twisting your index finger around the temporal bone. However, there is a slight distinction: This particular gesture indicates insanity, whereas tapping the forehead usually indicates stupidity.
  • Winking at strangers will generally be perceived as a sexual advance and is unlikely to be appreciated.
  • Using the middle finger for pointing something out (like on a map) is not considered rude, but it does draw attention.
  • When yawning, coughing or sneezing, the mouth should be covered with a flat hand or fist.

Dining and entertainment

  • Food does not play a major role in hospitality, and sharing a meal is not necessarily considered a social occasion. Offering food is not considered imperative for making someone feel welcome, although coffee, tea, fruit juice or a carbonated drink are usually offered to guests.
  • A waiter or waitress is beckoned by making eye contact and raising a hand, perhaps adding "ober" (waiter) or "mevrouw" (which normally means "madam", but for a waitress it is correct) or "meneer" (sir). Fingersnapping is considered extremely rude.
    • Tipping is a sign of appreciation of service; some people do, some do not. It also depends on the type of establishment one is in: in a bar it is rare, in a restaurant more common. The tip is usually between 5% and 10% rounded towards a full figure. Like in many other countries in Europe, the bill (legally) includes service fees that guarantee a decent basic income for the serving staff regardless of tips.
  • In many restaurants, one can simply sit down at a table, without waiting to be seated. A waiter will (usually) come over once you are seated to bring the menu and/or take the order. After that, if you want or need something, it may be necessary to call a waiter. This depends on the restaurant. Usually, the bill will not be provided until requested.
  • In most cases the Dutch will make it clear beforehand who intends to pay the bill. If not, the arrangement is assumed to be "go Dutch". No one will be embarrassed at splitting the bill, which is the norm. Often no time is taken to find out how much each person should pay. Simply dividing the bill by the number of people present is more common.
    • On a romantic date, the man is expected to pay for the woman (although she may offer to pay her share out of politeness or to show her independence). She may leave a tip for the waiter.
    • When in a bar with friends, especially among young people, it is usually understood to buy each other rounds of drinks. Not returning a round is considered impolite. If you intend to leave before everybody has had the chance to buy a round, it is polite to announce this and to buy your own drinks.
  • Guests should not expect a meal unless the invitation mentions it. It is impolite to stay until dinnertime. Dinner is often considered a family or private moment. Usually only family or the closest of friends may join without asking.
    • When inviting a Dutch person for dinner it is not automatic that the invitation will be reciprocated. A far more common invitation is to come over and drink coffee.
    • Guests invited for home dinner by a student or a younger person may be asked to share the costs of the ingredients.
  • It is polite to keep hands above the table during a meal but elbows should be kept off the table.
    • The Dutch dine early: often around 6 pm, unusually after 7pm. But (dinner) parties may continue until very late in the evening, even into the early morning.
    • It is polite to offer to help with the dishes or cleaning of the table. Out of the same politeness, the host will usually decline the offer.
    • It is permissible to politely refuse a second helping at the table.
  • When invited to someone's home, it is polite (but certainly not required) to bring a small gift for the hostess. Sending flowers before or after the party is considered inappropriate, but bringing them on the day is acceptable. A bottle of alcoholic beverage (usually wine) can also be brought as a gift, but implies either a closer relationship or a more momentous occasion.
    • Spending money on sending flowers is seen as wasteful. Mailing gifts is done rarely, mostly in cases when the giver is not present at the festive occasion, or unable to transport the gift to the party. In the second case there will be some symbolic representation of the gift, often meant humorously. Groups pitching in together for a gift are common, especially for adults.
  • It is considered impolite to ask for a tour of the host's home. If offered, however, accepting is considered polite.
  • When invited to a birthday party or wedding, guests are expected to bring a present. Depending on the occasion, common gifts include flowers, chocolates, alcohol, perfumes, books, CDs, DVDs, gift certificates or "an envelope" (undisclosed amount of cash in a sealed envelope). Often, wedding invitations have symbols on them indicating what kind(s) of gifts the couple would like to receive.
    • Children may be given toys or books. Pets are never given unannounced. A gift certificate (usable to buy books, CDs, DVDs or computer games) or an envelope is a good choice to give to an adolescent. When a gift is intended for a young child (below the age of 12 or so), it is often considered good manners to consult with the parents beforehand in order to find out if they consider a certain gift acceptable.
    • Gifts are unwrapped and admired immediately after receiving. However, 'envelopes' should be opened after everyone has left.
    • At birthday parties, one does not only congratulate the one having his or her birthday, but often the new guest shakes hands with all other guests already present and congratulates each and everyone of them, saying something like "Congratulations on John('s birthday)", or, when the relationship is known, "Congratulations on your brother's/neighbour's/son-in-law('s birthday)". A similar practice is observed at wedding parties.

Conversation and language

  • The Dutch avoid superlatives. Compliments are offered sparingly. When something is "not bad", "okay" or "nice", it should be perceived as praise for the recipient.
  • The Dutch speak directly and use a lot of eye contact. To a foreigner this may seem intimidating, especially in cultures where matters are discussed with extreme care and politeness, but it is the way the Dutch prefer to communicate. This is even more so in Dutch corporate society.
  • Discussing expensive items purchased recently (or anything similar) will be seen as boasting. Asking personal questions is equally dangerous, as the Dutch are private and feel uncomfortable answering questions they deem too personal. These problems can be avoided at least partially by acknowledging in advance that a question is rude or intrusive. One can ask permission to ask the question anyway if there is real need. This leaves the other person the opportunity to refuse to answer. In that case, it is considered extremely rude to ask the question anyway.
    • This especially includes asking about income or other personal finances; asking how much someone earns will be seen as rude, and volunteering your own income as pretentious.
  • The Dutch don't have a problem with saying No directly to someone's face. This is not considered impolite, but simply honest.
  • This honesty also translates into the willingness to answer questions: it is often better to keep asking questions about the subject in hand than to keep quiet and potentially misinterpret the situation.
  • Almost no subject is taboo in conversation, as long as it is discussed in general. Someone's personal affairs are usually off-limits, unless the person concerned brings up the matter him-/herself.
  • As a reserved people, the Dutch (especially the older generation) consider it rude to interfere with someone's personal business, though it is considered proper to interfere in a physical fight, or an exchange of words, should it seem likely physical violence is about to occur.
  • Whispering in the presence of other people is considered impolite. A whispered conversation in the company of unacquainted people in a relatively confined public place may also be considered impolite.
  • Relatively loud conversations in public are not uncommon. However, they may be frowned upon.

The Dutch and foreign languages

  • Internationally, the Dutch are considered to be proficient at speaking foreign languages. This is because the Netherlands has a high standard of education which focuses on the international position of the country: teaching of English starts in the last 2 years of elementary (or primary) school, and is an obligatory part of the national exam in all high schools. German and/or French are also taught and are often chosen as an end subject in which a final exam is taken in high school. Spanish or Chinese are also chosen, by some students, as end subjects, in addition to other languages. In higher forms of high school education, Latin and Ancient Greek are also taught.
    • According to a census, about 85% of Dutch people are able to speak reasonable English although the accent can be marked. The fluency differs from individual to individual.
    • German and French are the second and third foreign languages, but they are considerably less common than English.
  • Addressing the Dutch in their native language may result in a reply in English. This phenomenon is humorously discussed in White and Boucke’s The UnDutchables: "If you take a course in the Dutch language and finally progress enough to dare to utter some sentences in public, the persons you speak to will inevitably answer you in what they detect to be your native tongue. They love to show off the fact that they have learned one or more languages." An other opinion is that the Dutch want to make it more easy for you and want to get to the point quickly. This can be frustrating for those who wish to improve their Dutch, while those who are competent in Dutch may find replies in English patronizing. But Dutch people will perceive a foreigner trying to speak Dutch as someone who is having difficulty expressing himself, or may welcome the opportunity to try their English. They may also preemptively try to avoid miscommunication by speaking your native tongue, if they consider themselves fluent enough.
    • The Dutch will often correct or help with the pronunciation of words. Most Dutch find it charming that someone is trying to speak Dutch although some may be surprised that a foreigner is attempting to learn the language.
    • The Dutch tendency to be direct in conversation can help here. One can simply ask a Dutchman to speak Dutch rather than English in order to practice the Dutch language and increase one's fluency. They will usually humor a foreigner in this respect as long as the conversation does not become too awkward, though their attitude may be somewhat patronizing.
    • In Dutch, one can politely ask for something (using modal verbs or particles) without saying the equivalent of "please", so Dutch people speaking English often will not say "please" when asking for something. This may be misinterpreted by native speakers of English as rudeness, but is rarely intended that way.
  • In most languages, including English, the term "Holland" is used as a synonym for the Netherlands. Calling the Netherlands "Holland" when speaking to Dutch people may cause a discussion about what Holland actually is, but in the west will rarely cause them to be offended. Remember that Holland is a region in the Netherlands, consisting of 2 (out of 12) provinces (North Holland and South Holland). Bear in mind that people living in the other parts of the country may take offense if they are referred to as "Hollanders". On the other hand, the Dutch tourist office promotes the country abroad as "Holland".
    • An exception may be the national sport teams; sometimes referred to as "Holland". In most team sports, like football (soccer), the team is referred to as Dutch or Oranje (orange, this being the national colour because Van Oranje-Nassau is the surname of the Dutch royal family).


Dutch humor has changed over the centuries. In the 16th century, the Dutch were renowned for their humor throughout Europe, and many travel journals have notes on the happy and celebratory nature of the Dutch. Farces and joke books were in demand and many Dutch painters chose to paint humorous paintings, Jan Steen being a good example.

The main subjects of Dutch jokes at the time were deranged households, drunken clerics (mostly of the Roman Catholic Church) and people with mental and/or physical handicaps. A main theme was the reproof of immoral ethics: the 'Vicar's wagging finger'. However, at the end of the 17th century the Dutch lost their sense of humor. The Dutch Republic was in decline, the Dutch Reformed Church denounced laughter and advocated sober lifestyles, and etiquette manuals appeared which considered it impolite to laugh out loud. This continued into the 1960s: during World War II, American soldiers were instructed not to tell jokes to the Dutch as "they wouldn't appreciate it". Today there are many comedians in the Netherlands. Currently the Dutch have their own sense of humor: with the specific cabaret (a typically Dutch form of stand-up comedian), dark ironic, and sarcastic humor, which is often quite bold (or even rude, due to the heavy use of swear words) and occasionally addresses controversial or tense subjects. Like most people, the Dutch most frequently target their neighbors when making fun of other nations.

Famous Dutch comedians include Hans Teeuwen, Herman Finkers, Wim Sonneveld, Toon Hermans, Bert Visscher, Youp van 't Hek, Najib Amhali, Theo Maassen, Kees van Kooten, Freek de Jonge, Sara Kroos, Brigitte Kaandorp, Karin Bloemen, Claudia de Breij, Tineke Schouten, and André van Duin.

Business etiquette

  • Business can be discussed during lunch. Business breakfasts are not common. Spouses or partners are often included in a business dinner.
    • It is normal to ask if the host expects a spouse to be present at a business function.
  • Business matters are usually not discussed when partners are present or following the conversation.
  • Gifts are generally not given or expected at business meetings as they are only exchanged in business once a close, personal relationship has developed.
  • The Dutch find any form of ostentation embarrassing. A grand gesture of generosity will make them uncomfortable. Displays of wealth which are too obvious are considered bad taste and will most likely get a negative response.
  • The Dutch take punctuality for business meetings seriously and expect others will do likewise; it is wise to call with an explanation if you are delayed for more than five minutes. Lateness, missed appointments, postponements, changing the time of an appointment or a late delivery lessens trust and can ruin relationships.
    • Calling half an hour or less before the start of a meeting to change the time is considered bad manners. The main reason behind this is probably the scheduled nature of Dutch business. Punctuality increases efficiency.
  • An individual's cooperation and trust are valued over performance; one-upmanship is frowned upon.
  • The Dutch tend to be direct, giving straight "yes and no" answers. They are conservative and forceful and can be stubborn and tough negotiators. They are willing to innovate or experiment, but with minimal risk.
  • Companies are frugal. Business is profit-oriented. However, though the strategy is cautious and pragmatic, usually involving step-by-step plans, the Dutch are not obsessed with numbers. Strategy is clear and communicated to all levels. In many companies the decision-making is slow and ponderous, involving wide consultation and boardroom meetings (poldermodel). The Dutch do not appreciate the "I call the shots" mentality, instead they keep talking until all parties agree. Once decisions are made, implementation is fast and efficient.
  • In the Netherlands, commitments are taken seriously. Do not promise anything that cannot be delivered. A spoken agreement with others present has the same worth as a signed contract even from a legal viewpoint.
    • This also applies in reverse. If the Dutch express uncertainty about their ability to deliver something, this is usually not a negotiation trick or a polite attempt at refusal, but an honest warning. In fact, it may be a good indication that the other party will try to deliver, but may face some problems or delays. The Dutch usually "err on the side of caution" in such matters to avoid making promises they cannot keep.


The Netherlands has one of the lowest death rates due to road traffic in the world. The Dutch driving test is one of the toughest in the world and there is a mandated minimum number of hours driving with a licensed instructor. However, this does not necessarily translate into a pleasant driving style. Many Dutch drivers tend to be impatient or even aggressive, making Dutch traffic a somewhat daunting experience for many foreigners. Note that not all points mentioned here are true for all Dutch drivers.

  • Use of a car horn is common whenever someone impedes the flow of traffic. A delay in driving off when a traffic light turns green may prompt the use of horns by other drivers after a short time.
  • Somewhat rude gestures to point out perceived flaws in driving style are quite common in some parts of the Netherlands.
  • Traffic on motorways is dense and moderately fast,Template:Clarify often above the speed limit.
  • Overtaking manoeuvres can take a long time due to the fear of spot checks by unmarked police cars in slower lanes. Similarly, lorries will attempt to overtake another lorry even if the difference in speed is minimal, often resulting in a long line of suddenly braking traffic behind the overtaking lorry if the road has two lanes.
  • Dutch drivers change lanes often and will overtake and/or swap lanes often, even if mildly endangering or hindering other drivers.
  • Lane change indicators are used rather randomly. Sometimes they're not used at all, at other times they're only switched on for a very short time and/or when already halfway through changing lanes.
  • Traffic rules state that vehicles have to drive in the right-most available lane. Unnecessarily staying in the left lane for too long may lead to a fine. It may also result in tailgating and/or overtaking on the right-hand side, both of which are forbidden and therefore finable as well.
  • Most Dutch drivers are careful with their own vehicles (even cosmetic damage is avoided and repaired as soon as possible), but can be somewhat inattentive to the property of others.
  • Dutch drivers are very alert of trajectory speed controls (permanently installed on over-head beams) as well as other speed traps, and will, if necessary, rapidly slow down to the speed limit in all lanes when approaching one. Most radio stations will announce spot speed checks, but do not generally announce trajectory speed controls.
  • Cyclists and pedestrians are well protected, and tend to treat traffic rules as guidelines. For example, red traffic lights are frequently ignored by pedestrians and cyclists. Cycling is extremely common, and cyclists will overtake cars on the right hand side if they can (especially when cars are waiting for a traffic light, in which case it is legal to do so). In practice this means that at all times, a cyclist may be present or turn up on the right hand side of the car. This needs to be monitored carefully. As a consequence, Dutch drivers tend to drive somewhat removed from the right hand side of the road in urban areas. Under Dutch law, cyclists and pedestrians are weaker traffic participants and strong evidence of accident inevitability by the stronger party is required to avoid high claims/fines. Dutch law guarantees a minimum of 50% compensation to cyclists/pedestrians above 14 years of age and 100% for children.

Public transportation

  • Loud mobile phone conversations in public are common, even in public transport, but considered rude by many. Quiet carriages have been introduced by the railways (marked by "stilte" written on a horizontal sticker on the window and/or by the pictograms depicting no mobile phones or talking) but these are generally ignored, especially by adolescents.
    • It is socially acceptable to politely ask someone making noise (in the form of speech or music) in a quiet carriage to move elsewhere. After such a request is made it is considered extremely rude for the offending person to continue his or her behaviour.
    • During the rush hours, passengers on trains at capacity (especially in the Randstad) will generally ignore the quiet zones completely due to the crowding on the trains.
  • Passengers (especially of the younger generations) will often not offer their seat to elderly or otherwise disabled passengers unless directly asked.
  • It is customary to ask someone if one may sit next to them if the seat is occupied by their personal belongings. This request is rarely denied.
  • The Dutch generally do not make light conversation with their fellow passengers if they are not acquainted, and may find an attempt to do so intrusive and unwanted. However, fellow passengers will generally answer simple questions relating to one's trip (e.g. what the next stop is, or the platform of the departing train).
  • It is considered impolite not to greet the conductor when tickets are inspected. The conductor is also generally thanked when finished.
  • The Dutch are generally well acquainted with the public transportation system, and a simple request for directions is generally answered in a fair amount of detail. With the rise of smartphone technology and mobile Internet access, it is not uncommon for a conductor to have less information than a passenger regarding delays or other problems.


  • The Dutch value personal space and tend to avoid physical contact even among friends. When standing in a group, or when talking to one another, they tend to keep a rather large distance.
  • Many Dutch surnames start with a tussenvoegsel, i.e. a prefix such as 'de' (the) or 'van' (from). These are neglected in alphabetical order. So a Dutchman named 'de Vries' will say his last name starts with a 'V', and you'll find him in a telephone directory under that letter. In addition, if the first name or initial is mentioned, 'de' or 'van' starts with a lower case letter. If the first name or initial is absent, the prefixes start with capitals (Jan de Vries/J. de Vries versus meneer ('Mister') De Vries/De Vries).
    • In Belgium the prefixes are considered an integral part of the name and as such are written with a capital even when the first name is present (Jan De Vries), and names are sorted accordingly (under 'D'). Also, many names are written without spaces (Vanderberg versus Van der Berg).
  • Funerals are attended by invitation only (though a general invitation may be placed in the form of a newspaper ad if the deceased was well known, or if family members and friends can not be traced) and an invitation may be for a specific part of the funeral only. It may or may not include a church service. A funeral is often spread over several locations: gathering at a funeral home or a family residence for a wake or viewing, where farewells may be said to the deceased in the open casket, followed by a church service or a non-religious service at a funeral home or cremation center. A burial may follow the service. The funeral is concluded at the funeral parlor or a reserved room in a restaurant where food and drinks are offered; traditionally coffee and sponge cake.
    • Transport between the different locations is usually by car, with all cars having their lights on or marked with a small flag to indicate a procession. They tend to drive slowly on the way to the funeral, but usually maintain normal speed on the way back.
    • Generally people dress formally in black, dark blues or grays. White is not commonly worn.
    • Funerals tend to be muted affairs. People keep their voices down but avoid more overt displays of grief. The mood usually lightens after the funeral itself and can become quite lighthearted at the reception afterward.
    • Sending flowers to a funeral is common practice, but the displays are usually small. This is one of the few occasions that the Dutch usually send flowers rather than bring them, even when attending the funeral in person.
  • Weddings can range from small private affairs to elaborate parties, depending on the preferences of individuals. Dutch law only recognizes weddings as legally binding when performed by a government official, but a church ceremony may be included in the wedding festivities. Most people have a civil wedding, often conducted in the town hall. In the Netherlands there is a statutory requirement for couples intending to marry to formally register that intention with officials beforehand; allowing people who may object, time to learn of the intended marriage. This process is called "ondertrouw".

See also


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