Netherlands cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
A good discussion topic would be where you are from. Talking about local Dutch issues and displaying some basic knowledge of the country would make a favourable impression; however, stereotypical symbols, such as, windmills should be avoided.
There are not many subjects that would offend Dutch people. One of the things the Dutch feel uncomfortable to talk about is their salary. This attitude probably derives from a sense that one's personal financial situation is a private matter. Generally speaking, nearly anything would be open to discussion.
Although humour is important in a social context, it generally is not considered appropriate to joke around a lot when you meet someone for the first time. Light-hearted friendliness within the context of formality is expected.
Family, personal history and interests, work, and Dutch culture are all acceptable topics with which to broach a first conversation with someone from the Netherlands. Questions relating to local foods, music, events, and history that show a knowledge or interest of the area of the Netherlands you are visiting are appreciated and make for interesting and informative discussions.
As a general rule, it is best to avoid the topics of politics and controversial current affairs within the Netherlands and the European Union until you have a level of comfort with the person. Issues such as immigration and multiculturalism, while perhaps relevant to your own situation may offend as tensions over these issues have increased over the past four years. Having said this, the Dutch are generally very interested in politics and the affairs of the Netherlands in Europe and in the world. It is likely that people you befriend or know well will have enlightening opinions of these issues which can help understand complex political and cultural situations.
When you meet someone for the first time in the Netherlands, you would start off by shaking hands. Generally you would remain at about the same distance as while still shaking hands. You would not otherwise touch each other while speaking. People tend to make eye contact, but while talking, one can look away occasionally in order to create a comfortable situation.
The Dutch do use a few hand gestures to underline the importance of what they are saying, but these are of no importance and could be dispensed with at first. Gestures are generally very similar to those used in Canada. Facial expressions should be fairly neutral but friendly during the first contact, and the tone of voice should generally not be too loud.
The Dutch are considered to be very direct in conversation. Foreigners often tend to interpret this Dutch directness as rudeness, yet the Dutch never realise that others might feel offended. This directness is generally as a well-appreciated form of openness in the Netherlands. At a first meeting, however, such directness would not extend to purely personal issues such as their religion or problems in the home.
Generally, communication issues are not that different in the Netherlands than in Canada. In some cases, the Dutch are much less sensitive about personal space than Canadians, but this depends on the level of comfort they have with you and the situation and environment. Eye contact is encouraged for communication, regardless of gender or social status. When greeting someone of the opposite sex, it is customary to give three alternating pecks on each other’s cheeks, similar to greetings in Quebec.The Dutch can be very direct, and their candour may shock or offend Canadians, whose diplomacy in conversation similarly frustrates the Dutch who generally want a straight answer. It can take some getting used to, but don’t let this aloofness bother you; in some situations, a direct and honest answer to a question is the most appropriate way to respond.
Display of emotion
In public, it is acceptable to display affection as well as many other emotions. The main difference between greetings in the Netherlands versus North America is the custom of giving three kisses on the cheek. This occurs between women and between women and men; however, men always shake hands with each other.
Public hugging, as a form of greeting, is not a habit. On the first contact, it is acceptable to display emotions, although this generally does not happen until a deeper contact between individuals is established. Displaying anger is less acceptable in the Netherlands, although Dutch directness and firmness in speaking might be misinterpreted by a foreigner as anger.
Public displays of affection are acceptable; in fact many Dutch are far more comfortable with this than Canadians may be. Holding hands, kissing and similar respectful affectionate gestures are as common in public in the Netherlands as in Canada. People in same-sex relationships can feel similarly comfortable with affectionate displays in public.
In the same way as in Canada, displays of anger or frustration in the Netherlands should be guarded, as they can offend or provoke a reaction from others. People generally appreciate calmness and patience in tense situations, and will not respond well to anger.
Displays of other emotions: happiness, sadness, excitedness, etc. are acceptable. However, the Dutch typically guard their displays of emotion, and may be unaccustomed to emotional displays from others.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Expectations vary between workplaces and professions in the Netherlands. However, overall, there is an expectation to dress in a conventional and, often in a conservative way, either in winter or summer.
In the Netherlands, colleagues address one another by their first names. One would only use formal titles followed by surname when addressing someone much higher in the organization in which one is working. Otherwise, one would address a supervisor by his or hers first name. In Dutch Mevrouw (pronounced mefrow) is for women and Mijnheer or Meneer (pronounced menere) for men. Since so many people in the Netherlands speak English, one can use the English titles Ms., Mrs., or Mr. when a title is required.
If one is attempting to speak Dutch, even the smallest effort is much appreciated; however, one should be aware of the distinction between the formal and informal form of the second person pronoun. Similar to French, a formal pronoun U should be used when addressing someone you do not know, someone older than you, or someone in a higher formal position at work. The familiar pronouns jij (rhymes with I, but begins with a y sound) and je (rhymes with the but begins with a y sound) are reserved for people one knows well.
At work, the Dutch are possibly a bit stricter than in Canada. Punctuality is absolutely essential, with latitude granted only for obviously humane reasons, such as a car breakdown. Generally, employers keep track of time rather tightly. Absenteeism is tolerated but only for illness (with a doctor's note) or a death in the family. Similarly, deadlines must be adhered to, but unavoidable problems, such as, the company computer system being down, are valid ways to get an extension. Productivity expectations are reasonable: one is expected to do the job one was hired for, no more, no less. This means that working overtime is not the norm, and only occurs when one is faced with an urgent project or tight deadline. Also compensation in payment or time in lieu for doing overtime is quite standard.
In larger city centres business casual attire is encouraged. It's not uncommon for men to wear suits to work. Clothing is colourful, inventive and people are creative with their fashions in the Netherlands. Relations and interactions with colleagues are friendly and casual. Workplaces are usually structured in a hierarchy with supervisors and directors, which is carefully constructed and observed by all staff.
The approach to time is relaxed, with many Dutch electing to work part time or at reduced hours from the standard 36 hour work week. Expectations around punctuality are lax and flexible. Absenteeism is discouraged, but generous amounts of time off are typically allowed for sickness, personal time, and vacation if notice is given. This results in a slower, laid back and comfortable schedule, but it is not to say that productivity and deadlines are disregarded. Employees in the Netherlands still must meet the expectations of their workplace, which can be very demanding and require a high-quality output.
Preferred managerial qualities
Experience, personability, leadership, hard work, openness to new ideas are all valued qualities in a manager in the Netherlands. It will not make a difference that the manager is an expatriate. Although the Dutch speak their minds and are direct, they would usually use formal means of evaluation rather than personal communication in order to express their views about a manager's performance.
Good managers in Canada will likely be good managers in the Netherlands. Competency and qualification are key requirements, as Dutch employees become frustrated by unqualified management. Other than this, firm leadership with open, honesty communication and a willingness to listen to new ideas will stand managers in good stead.
Expatriate managers are regarded differently by their staff than native Dutch managers. Culturally, it is very important to learn the Dutch language as quickly as possible. While nearly all Dutch speak English fluently and international work environments are conducted in English, staff will not appreciate an expatriate manager who does not speak Dutch and assimilate into the Dutch lifestyle. Any attempt to learn more about Dutch history and culture will be very much appreciated and actively encouraged by employees, who are generally eager to share knowledge of their country with others.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decisions are taken by management but consent of the staff is strived for. Staff meetings stimulate dialogue between management and staff, and everyone's input is appreciated. Ideas are also generated through one-on-one meetings between staff and supervisors. It is entirely acceptable to meet with one's immediate supervisor in order to gain feedback on one's performance. Annual performance appraisals are common.
As mentioned above, workplaces are typically hierarchical. Decisions are taken by upper management, but are likely to be consensus-based with consultation invited from other levels of staff. Mechanisms for the inclusion of other thoughts and opinions are frequently used which allow for idea generation and input from different levels of the organisation.
The management style of individual supervisors differs from person to person, however employees should feel free to go to their supervisors for answers or feedback. While hierarchy and standing are observed, they are not rigidly implemented to the extent that people are not encouraged to communicate or suggest ideas to upper management.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Complete gender equality is demanded in the workplace in the Netherlands; however, a pay gap exists between men and women.
Religion is generally not discussed at work; however, tolerance for religious differences is demanded, including visible symbols of religiosity, such as the Sikh turban. There is a bit of a controversy on this issue at the moment, but no measures, such as those recently enacted in France, have been contemplated in the Netherlands. Also, atheism is completely accepted and respected.
Similar to Canada, the Dutch believe that because it is possible to move from one class to another, such class divisions do not exist. However, there are class distinctions, as in Canada, but there are no taboos against intermingling.
There is a lot of ethnic diversity in the Netherlands, although not quite as much as in Canada. A recent influx of immigrants from countries such as Morocco, Turkey, Surinam, the Antilles and Indonesia in the last few decades has sparked an increase in racism, although generally, the Dutch view themselves as very tolerant. Lately, however, the Dutch government and Dutch employers have come to expect more from immigrants, e.g. learning Dutch and accepting local customs.
Gender, religious and racial discrimination are illegal, so if and when any of these takes place, there are legal channels that can be followed to fight them. Similar to Canada, the Dutch civil service, universities, and many large companies follow affirmative action hiring policies to achieve greater gender, ethnic and religious balance in the workplace. However, the reality is that people from a non-western background might find it hard to get a job.
Officially, gender is not a factor in influencing people's attitudes. Equity is encouraged between genders, with women having the same opportunities as men and similar interactions with co-workers. Having said this, inherent negative or limiting biases may still persist towards women in the workplace, even if these biases are not outwardly apparent in the policies, culture, or behaviour of coworkers.
Historically, the Dutch are known for their tolerance, or verdraagzaamheid, which is understood as "...the willingness to respect the complete freedom of any conviction and of the attitude to life that originates from it and is connected to it". As a result, religion is typically not a factor in the attitudes of workplace colleagues.
Class is generally not an important factor in the workplace. Similar to Canada though, education and resources are less accessible to those of lower classes, resulting in an implicit discrimination against their advancement in the workplace.
As with religion, ethnicity is becoming a great factor affecting attitudes within the workplace. While these views are certainly not shared universally by people of the Netherlands, there is a social stigma developing toward immigrants and Dutch nationals from immigrant families.
It is generally appreciated to establish a friendly relationship with colleagues or clients before getting down to business, but not essential. People want to be professional in their work, but friendly with colleagues at the same time. Work is more enjoyable and proceeds more efficiently if there is a cordial atmosphere. This personal dimension can be achieved simply by talking a bit about one's personal life or experiences, in whatever way one feels comfortable with.
While not necessary, establishing a personal relationship with a Dutch colleague can improve professional exchanges. However, the Dutch tend to maintain a clear separation between their personal and business lives, preferring instead to socialise intimately with friends rather than business acquaintances. Building a personal relationship can take some time, and will likely never be as strong as a family contact or childhood friend.
Regardless, a warm, friendly and open approach to professional exchanges is important and appreciated.
Privileges and favouritism
Similar to Canada, it is unacceptable to grant special privileges or considerations to colleagues based on friendship or family connections rather than merit.
Bribery in the Netherlands is not allowed, and the practice of extending special privileges or preferred treatment is not outwardly encouraged, nor expected. Having said this, business and professional relations are not a great deal different than in Canada, and it is very likely that professional associates will choose to work with those they know and trust, or who have extended them similar favours in the past.
Conflicts in the workplace
If work-related problems do arise between colleagues, it is appreciated if they are discussed and resolved privately, directly between the concerned parties. However, it is also common to go directly to a supervisor to discuss certain problems. Generally, given the directness of the Dutch, if someone is offended by something you have done, they will either mention it to you directly or go to the manager, who will then bring up the issue with you. There are always exceptions. Sometimes, an offended party may simply alter their body language or become less friendly in order to indicate their displeasure at something you have done. It is also possible, although less common than in Canada, that an offended party may discuss the problem with other colleagues, and news may reach you by word of mouth.
An approach to dealing with conflict depends a great deal on the conflict, the situation, and the persons involved. Canadians who are having an issue with a colleague should carefully consider their approach and its ramifications. A colleague should be approached privately and addressed in an open, honest, and up-front manner. If the situation cannot be resolved, other avenues should be considered and discretely pursued.
Dutch colleagues will likely be up front if they have an issue. The frankness and candour of people in the Netherlands may be surprising, but should not be taken personally or as a sign of conflict.
Motivating local colleagues
The primary motivations behind people's work ethic are job satisfaction, commitment and good working conditions. Money is an important motivator, although usually less than in Canada.
Job satisfaction, remuneration, benefits, flexibility and quality of the work / life balance are some of the top job factors in the Netherlands. Employees and colleagues are generally motivated when they feel comfortable and supported in their work, and take pride in producing a high-quality product.
Recommended books, films & foods
- The Undutchables - White & Boucke
- The Xenophobe's Guide to the Dutch - Rodney Bolt
- Girl With A Pearl Earring - Tracy Chavelier
Places to visit
Many cities and regions would be worth visiting in the Netherlands. A few highlights are listed below but look at www.holland.com for more details.
- Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum
- Anne Frank House
Other beautiful cities
- The Hague
Food to eat
- Poffertjes (very small pancakes served with sugar and butter)
- Pannenkoeken (large pancakes comparable with crepes)
- Broodje haring (haring in a bun)
- Kaas (Dutch cheese: gouda, edam etc.)
Websites to visit
- Dutch Government Website: www.overheid.nl/guest/site
- Tourist Information Website: www.holland.com/ca
- Introduction into Dutch culture; learn more about typically Dutch Holidays and events such as Konninginnedag (Queensday), Sinterklaas (Santa celebration in early December) and Elf Steden Tocht (Eleven cities skating event) and the importance of Birthdays in the Netherlands: www.thehollandring.com
Sadly, Dutch literature is not widely translated, which can make it difficult to locate Dutch writers and books if one is not familiar with the language. The Girl With the Pearl Earring, a book by American writer Tracy Chevalier based on Johannes Vermeer's famous painting, is widely available in libraries and bookstores. A movie by the same name was also made starring Scarlett Johansson.
Historically, the Netherlands has produced many famous writers. Desiderius Erasmus - In Praise of Folly (De Lof der Zotheid) - is perhaps the most well-known. Other famous authors to search for include Vondel, P.C. Hooft, Bredero (playwrights), Betje Wolff, Aagje Deken, De Schoolmesiter, Klikspaan, and Piet Paaltjens, although translations of their works may not be available. Multatuli's Max Havelaar is a classic book on Dutch colonialism, and is available online (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/11024). Harry Mulisch's The Assault (De Aanslag) and W. F. Hermans' The Dark Room of Damocles (De Donkere Kamer van Damokles) cover the Dutch resistance during the Second World War. More recent Dutch writers include Mulisch (The Discovery of Heaven), Hella Haase, Hermans, and Gerard Reve.
Finally, Hafid Bouazza and Abdelkader Benali are from immigrant families, but have been raised since childhood in the Netherlands. They write on the juxtaposition and challenges of dealing with two different cultures. See http://www.nlpvf.nl/DIV/NLPVF_Abtxt.html for more information on Dutch literature.
Still on the topic of Dutch literature, several expatriate novels exist that capture the Dutch experience from the eyes of western foreigners. Of these, The Undutchables by Colin White and Laurie Boucke (http://www.undutchables.com/) and My Dam Life by Sean Condon are the most widely recommended.
Perhaps the most famous contemporary Dutch filmmaker is Paul Verhoeven of Robocop and Basic Instinct fame. Verhoeven made Turkish Delight (or Turks Fruit), which was nominated for an Academy Award and voted the best Dutch film of the century by the Dutch Film Festival. Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now was similarly nominated for a 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Several contemporary films, such as Ocean's Twelve and Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo feature some of the more stereotypical offerings of Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands.
Common activities that would teach one about Dutch culture include attending concerts and festivals (such as the Oerol annual theatre festival on Terschelling Island), newspapers, and radio. For listings of events see www.holland.nl .
However, it must be borne in mind that, although most Dutch people speak at least functional English, almost all major media are in Dutch language only. So, if one wishes to experience Dutch culture more deeply, it is recommended to learn as much Dutch language as possible. There are three public television channels in the Netherlands, which are served by a dozen public broadcasters that generally try to broadcast quality television programs. There are also several Dutch commercial channels that have become very popular in the past decade, but generally present very basic entertainment. Although the language used on radio and television is Dutch, many films and TV series broadcast on television are from English speaking countries and will always be subtitled in Dutch and not dubbed.
All national newspapers are only in Dutch. Some of the largest newspapers are de Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad (comparable with quality papers, such as the Globe and Mail) and Algemeen Dagblad and de Telegraaf (comparable with tabloids, such as The Sun). Nevertheless, in many stores English language papers, such as The Herald Tribune and The Financial Times, are sold.
The café culture is just as strong in the Netherlands as in France. However, do not be surprised when your beer arrives in a small glass! Striking up a conversation with someone at a café, for instance, is a good way to get to know the culture. However, a more formal route can be taken, for example, by contacting a tour operator and seeing the major cultural attractions. Every city has a tourism bureau that can help.
If staying in the Netherlands for a length of time, it is highly recommended to learn the Dutch language. This will make discovering more about the culture much easier, and will allow local people, friends and neighbours to open up more when speaking with you.
In Amsterdam, the best places for music and concerts are the Concertgebouw (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concertgebouw), Paradsio (http://www.paradiso.nl/) and Melkweg (http://www.melkweg.nl/). English newspapers are difficult to locate, but for an expatriate perspective, Expatica (http://www.expatica.com/) is recommended. An English language weekly, Amsterdam Weekly (http://www.amsterdamweekly.nl/) is the best source for upcoming events.
As most of the major city centres of the Netherlands are cosmopolitan and international, there are many local Netherlanders or expatriate visitors who will be happy to act as cultural informants. There are also a number of expatriate groups from different countries who offer support and a cultural context to life in the Netherlands.
The Dutch do have their celebrities and internationally renowned artists and historical figures, but generally don't worship national heroes as people do in many other cultures. The term "national heroes" is not really used in Dutch; they tend rather to use the terms "well-known Dutch people" (Bekende Nederlanders) or "celebrities".
The type of celebrity that comes closest to the title "national hero" would be sports personalities. Soccer (referred to as football) is by far the most popular sport in the Netherlands, but speed skating is a close second, and cycling should also be mentioned as a favourite national sport. The most famous soccer player ever is Johan Cruijff. In skating, Ard Schenk and Kees Verkerk are the heroes of the past, while in cycling the Tour de France winner Joop Zoetenmelk is a true legend.
Outside sports, not many people would qualify as "national heroes". Several Dutch painters, such as Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Vermeer are internationally well known and are widely cherished in the Netherlands. The young Jewish girl Anne Frank, who wrote her diary while in hiding in Amsterdam, has become an international symbol for the persecution of the Jewish people in the Second World War.
The most heroic of the Netherlands' national heroes is Prince William I of Orange. Banished from what was then the Republic of the Seven United Provinces by the French, Prince William returned and was named King of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. He is seen as the father of the Netherlands, and the cherished views of tolerance and acceptance which have been integrated into Dutch culture.
Other important historic figures of note are Michiel De Ruyter, Dutch naval admiral; Christiaan Huygens, scientist and inventor; and Queen Beatrix, the current Queen of the Netherlands since 1980. The majority of the Dutch people regard the Queen favourably, perhaps because she is the central figure for the Queen's Day celebrations in which the entire country erupts in orange clothing for one day of revelry and garage sales on April 30th.
Shared historical events with Canada
The major connection between the Netherlands and Canada revolves around the fact that during World War II, it was primarily Canadian troops who liberated the Netherlands from the Nazis and Canada gave refuge to the Dutch Royal family. Consequently, there is great admiration for Canada among the Dutch, and every year, the Dutch government sends 40,000 tulip bulbs to Canada, which are then planted in Ottawa for the May Tulip Festival. Also, thousands of Dutch people -especially farmers- immigrated to Canada during the 1950s and 1960s. Many Dutch people have relatives in Canada.
The main historical event associated with Canada is that of the World War II liberation in 1945. As the occupation of the Netherlands by Nazi forces was marked by intense hunger, suffering and oppression, the liberation is still held very highly in the cultural memory of the Netherlands. Many people can remember growing up under Nazi occupation, and have fond memories of the liberation celebrations. As a result, Canadians are typically held in high regard by the Dutch because of this event.
Although Dutch generally have a very favourable, even affectionate, attitude toward Canadians, the Dutch may tend to identify Canadians with typical North American mass culture and all the superficiality that it entails. Therefore, it wouldn't go amiss to establish one's knowledge of the arts and literature among friends and colleagues in the Netherlands, without sounding pretentious or contrived.
Harmful (and frequently incorrect) stereotypes that may effect relations are primarily the view that Dutch are reserved and stingy with money, that they are grumpy, stern and critical. These stereotypes have been popularised by many English expressions which are still common in contemporary vernacular. Of course, these expressions should be avoided when conversing with the Dutch, but even more importantly, so too should the opinions and preconceived biases that these expressions internally evoke.
Many of the expatriate sources mentioned (notably Expatica and The UnDutchables book) poke fun at some of the stereotypical quirks frequently applied to the Dutch. While this is a common way of letting off steam in a different - and occasionally frustrating new culture, indulging in expat critiques too often can hinder exposure to the culture, and perpetuate small annoyances.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born the elder of two children in the historic, fortified city of Naarden, in the central area of the Netherlands. She was raised there until the age of eight, and lived in the nearby town of Huizen until the age of 20. She moved to the northern city Groningen to pursue university studies. She graduated with a MA degree in Archaeology and Prehistory from the University of Groningen. During her studies, she spent considerable time abroad, working on archaeological excavation projects in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. After finishing her degree, your cultural interpreter lived and worked in Oxford, England for one year before she immigrated to Canada in 2005.
Your cultural interpreter was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of Manitoba. His work sent him abroad to Amsterdam for the first time, where he worked as a Guest Researcher at the Institute for Environmental Studies at the Vrije University. For the last 8 months, he has lived in Calgary, Canada, working on sustainable energy consulting projects.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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