The Dutch have a reputation for being blunt and direct to the point of rudeness. But there is such a thing as Dutch etiquette. Here are the main things to look out for.
1. Shaking hands
Shaking hands is a Dutch obsession and one of those norms and values all foreigners have to adopt in order to be truly integrated. The Dutch shake hands all the time. You walk into a party full of strangers and you are expected to introduce yourself and shake hands with everyone there. When you come back from holiday, you shake hands with your office colleagues.
You will shake hands with your doctor, germs and all, with your children’s teachers, with the man who sells you a second-hand car and, well, with just about anyone. If you don’t automatically shake hands with all and sundry you will be marked as a foreigner, and probably a fundamentalist Muslim.
If you come from a country which does not have a polite form of the you word, you will never get this right. To keep it simple, everyone apart from children and your friends should be addressed as U. If they don’t like it, they will say zeg maar “jij”, hoor! Over-emphasis of the word U plus lots of mijnheer or mevrouw is particularly useful if you want to flatter someone into doing you a favour (like a grumpy council official).
Of course, if you are female, expect to do a lot of kissing (three times). If you don’t like kissing your male colleagues, avoid the workplace in the days after New Year and on your birthday. According to Dutch etiquette expert Beatrijs Ritsema, cheek to cheek contact is perfectly adequate.
Dutch men don’t hug – unless they’ve got that old university frat house thing going – and if they do there is usually enough space between the hugger and the huggee to drive a coach through. These semi-hugs are usually accompanied by embarrassed pats on the back. Dutch women hug but not at the drop of a hat. Don’t attempt a hug if you’re not sure.
5. Tea and coffee
Always offer no matter what time of day or night it is. You must have several varieties of herbal tea on offer, including Moroccan Mint.
Extra points if you’ve got your own mint plantation and can shove a few sprigs in a glass of hot water. A good plumber will refuse a coffee break with you because it will add at least €50 to the bill.
6. Offer lots of biscuits
There is a myth out there about the Dutch only offering one biscuit. This is not true. You may not get a biscuit at all. We like to think the one biscuit story comes from the way most cafes give you a little cookie along with your coffee. Which you didn’t order.
Dutch people are often considered rude because they don’t say please or alsjeblieft all the time. They don’t, but that’s just the way the language works. Beatrijs Ritsema once answered a problem on her etiquette page from a man whose girlfriend wanted him to say alsjeblieft all the time as this: if you are begging, as in ‘pleeeeeeese stop being unfaithful’, then it is okay. But asking for the salt is simply mag ik het zout?.
However, if you want to impress your Dutch friends with how polite you are, liberally sprinkling your conversation with ‘please’ can work wonders.
Don’t turn up unannounced at a friend’s and expect to be welcomed in with open arms. The Dutch like to make appointments at least three weeks in advance. And if you are invited to a friend’s home, and they start washing up and making tomorrow’s lunch sandwiches, you should realise it is time to go home yourself. If invited for dinner, check what time you are expected. The Dutch joke about eating promptly at 18.00 hours but lots of them do. We have got it wrong several times.
9. Shall I bring something?
If you do get an invite to a meal or picnic, you can be polite and offer to bring something. Do not be surprised if this generous offer is accepted. We have heard of people being asked to bring the meat. It is also customary in the Netherlands to take flowers or chocolates for your hostess, rather two bottles of prosecco to cover up the fact you are a bit of an alcoholic. And you won’t get to drink it anyway.
10. Special occasions
Birthdays are so complicated they have their own rules. Here are five of them.