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Common cultural misconceptions about the Netherlands

Our breakdown of cultural misconceptions about the Netherlands, its culture and people

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Known for its sunny sidewalks, bicycle-toting populace and maze of canals, the unique culture and way of life in the Netherlands can be difficult for foreigners to discern. Whilst the nation consistently boasts excellent grades in international happiness and quality of life surveys, the Netherlands are unfortunately subject to a number of cultural stereotypes. Whether you’re planning on studying abroad in the Netherlands or are simply misinformed, let our breakdown of common cultural misconceptions about the Netherlands, its culture and people help clear things up.

 

“Going Dutch”

Most famously, Dutch people are known for being ‘cheap’ or ‘stingy.’ The saying ‘going Dutch’ refers to splitting the bill right down the middle; or, according to what was consumed individually by each party.  Whilst it’s true that this is not uncommon practice, in the Netherlands it is taken in the spirit of egalitarianism, rather than an inherent selfishness or aversion to generosity.

It’s easy to see how this would seem abrasive to other cultures. Money is considered by many a delicate, even taboo subject to broach socially, depending on different politeness markers within a particular culture. Dutch culture strongly favours social equality and directness, and so it would be considered disrespectful to avoid ‘being fair’ for the sake of saving social face, even when it comes to money. Being up front with what you owe is simply being fair, and reflects consideration of the other person’s part in the event.

In fact, the Netherlands is actually a very generous country: the percentage of their GDP going towards development aid is 0.82% above the UN target, and is lower than only Luxembourg, Sweden and Norway.

 

Direct

Similarly, many will call the Dutch rude. Like most character stereotypes, this idea comes from a misunderstanding of Dutch politeness markers. Believe it or not, the Dutch are no more or less polite than anyone else: they just express it differently.

In the Netherlands, honesty is valued above all else, and is expressed as directness. What may seem abrupt, rude or tactless to others then for a Dutch person is simply means of expressing regard for others by respecting them enough to be honest, despite the threat to social face.

Cultures that emphasise positive politeness may particularly find Dutch manners a hard pill to swallow. Instead of valorising overt friendliness as means of consideration for others, the Dutch always feel it’s better to be honest and sincere, and express this by saying it like it is.

Part of this misconception also emanates from the structure of Dutch language itself. Using short sentences that cut straight to the chase, Dutch language often leaves out modal markers common in English such as ‘it would be great, if you could...’.Use of the word ‘please’ is also much less frequent than in English: for example, it’s uncommon to add a ‘please’ to a cashier when buying something across the counter. Dutch language also makes a point of avoiding superlatives, so don’t feel discouraged if you’re met language that may otherwise be considered lukewarm.   

 

Doe normaal

Directly translated into English, ‘doe normaal’ (‘act normal’) may seem somewhat conservative or restrictive. However, ‘normal’ in this sense does not mean you should renounce your individuality and mindlessly conform: it means you should acknowledge and respect social convention and order.

The expression seeks to rebuke someone acting in a way somehow asocial, out of line, or outside accepted behavioural bounds of the status quo. This ‘normal’ is not meant to be repressive: its bounds are not fixed, and is simply meant as a way of policing modes of social behaviour considered unacceptable. For example, a student bragging about high grades would be met with cries of ‘doe normaal!’ from his disgruntled classmates.

Every nation has a social order in which things are considered ‘okay’ or ‘not okay.’ Each culture reacts differently to these transgressions, whether as a cold look on the metro or a polite-yet-terse word on a street corner. Ever heard of tall poppy syndrome? Doe normaal runs within the same vein. Unsurprisingly, the Dutch are simply more up front about it.

 

Now that you are informed about “going Dutch”, start browsing courses in the Netherlands.

 

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About Author

Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.