Dutch Language and Culture
Most people in the country speak or understand English. However, when you’re looking for a job, understanding Dutch will help. Also, some of the public and governmental information is still published in Dutch only, which makes it a good idea to invest some time learning the local language. Besides, what better way to integrate than by speaking the language a little?
If you are gathering information online or you receive letters in Dutch and you need help translating, feel free to contact the team of Expat Center East Netherlands.
Many regions in the Netherlands have their own dialects and accents. In the South, the sounds are more soft and the growling g is more like a whisper. In Overijssel, there are many different dialects that belong to the West Low German (‘Nedersaksisch’) dialects, of which Twents is the most frequently used. In Twente, this dialect is actively used by about half of the inhabitants. In the North, there even exists an individual language. This is Frisian, which is spoken in most parts of the province of Friesland.
Fun Fact: The Dutch language is also spoken in the overseas parts of the kingdom of the Netherlands: on the Caribbean islands of Saba, Sint Eustatius, Bonaire, Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten. In South Africa you’ll hear an old version of Dutch and in the former colony of Suriname you will find Dutch-speaking communities.
Even though nearly all Dutch speak or understand English, learning some Dutch yourself is recommended if you want to find your way in everyday life. It will help you find a job and Dutch people will highly appreciate that you have made the effort. Learning a language on your own can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are many options that will help you.
Expat Center East Netherlands offers such a Dutch language course. In a small group you will get personal attention and coaching while learning Dutch. A digital Dutch language method is used as an effective guide to learn a variety of practical language skills. The course book also provides insights in the Dutch culture. In addition to the book you will get extra information and exercises tailor-made for your own language level and background. Check out the website of Expat Center East Netherlands to find out more about the course.
For other options for Dutch language training we recommend you contact the Expat Centre (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The following ‘taalcafés’ are also often held in public places like libraries and neighbourhood centres and you can join these gatherings for free:
-Taalcafé Hengelo: every Friday from 14.00–16.00 in the library (bibliotheek) at Beursstraat 34 in Hengelo.
– Praathuis Enschede: every Monday and Thursday morning from 09.45-12.00 at the library (Centrale Bibliotheek) at Pijpenstraat 15 in Enschede.
– Taalcafé Zwolle: every Thursday from 09.30-11.30 at the Stadkamer (library) Stadshagen at Werkerlaan 1b in Zwolle and every Friday from 09.30-11.30 at the Stadkamer (library) Centrum at Zeven Alleetjes 1a in Zwolle.
– Taafcafé Deventer: Once every two weeks on Friday from 09.00-11.00 at the library (bibliotheek) at Brink 70 in Deventer
Virtually everyone shakes hands in the Netherlands, both upon greeting and upon departure. In informal situations (with friends or relatives) women and men may also exchange three kisses, on alternating cheeks. Men usually only exchange three kisses with women, not with men.
The Dutch find it very important to be punctual, both in professional and private situations. Call if you are delayed, and avoid cancelling meetings at the last minute. Don’t forget that work meetings usually adhere to a strict agenda, finishing at an appointed time.
Many foreigners find the Dutch direct and abrupt at first. However, there is no intention to be rude. The Dutch say what they mean and speak their minds! Also in work situations feedback and criticism can be very direct between the different layers in the hierarchy. But it’s encouraged and appreciated as long as it’s done in a respectful way.
Dutch people value their personal time. Therefore, not many people will work late or over the weekend. In valuing their personal time, Dutch also tend to keep work and private life separate. They will not easily ask you over to their house or invite you to hang out after work. Exception is the typical ‘borrel’: a drink and a small snack after work with a group of colleagues. Like in any professional situation, it is not appreciated to get wasted.
If you come from a country where decisions are made by bosses and meetings are short, you could be in for a shock. Dutch society puts great emphasis on the need for people at all levels to have their say in the decision making processes, and on finding consensus. This can slow the process, but it ensures that everyone’s view is heard.
Many international managers find that the Dutch dress very casually in the work place. In sectors such as banking and law, the dress code is formal and traditional, but in many other industries it is casual. It is useful to realize that even if outer appearance differs greatly, the focus in the Netherlands is on content rather than form.
Dutch people value their personal lives very much. From a historical point of view shaping your own life and making your own decisions for example about religion, education and free time is deeply rooted in the Dutch culture. The home is a central symbol of this freedom.
Although people are open and welcoming to foreigners, it is not usually appreciated if you stop by someone’s house unannounced. The Dutch prefer to schedule a visit or night out in their agenda’s. It’s not uncommon for close friends to plan a visit two weeks in advance. But don’t get stuck with this oddity and see how it goes with the people in your social circle.
Invited for a dinner at someone’s home? It is common to bring a bottle of wine or flowers. However, do not expect the host to open the wine for the meal, as they might do in some cultures. The bottle is very often put aside and will be enjoyed on another occasion.
For big events like weddings and funerals, Dutch people tend to invite only their close friends and family. In both cases, the real service or ceremony can even be privately held with only people that are specifically invited. Not invited? Funerals do have a moment (mostly the evening before the service) for everyone to pay their respects to the family. It’s appreciated to just shake hands and keep it short. You don’t have to bring any gifts.
When invited to a wedding, your card will specifically say when you are expected. If you are a colleague, neighbour or not a very close friend of the couple, you are mostly invited to the party after the wedding. Do keep in mind that there will not be any dinner or meals served, unless this is mentioned in the card.
The official holidays in the Netherlands mostly follow the Christian calendar. National days off are 1st of January, the Monday after Easter, Ascension Day, the Monday after Pentecost and Christmas (25 and 26 December).
The biggest and most colourful national holiday is King’s Day, which is celebrated on the 27th of April. On this day, the birthday of the King is celebrated throughout the country. The night before you will find many parties and concerts in the cities. On the day itself the whole country turns into one big market place. Everyone can freely sell second hand toys, clothes and books on the streets, although some cities do appoint a restricted area like a park, and some areas are only for children. You can stroll through the markets all day whilst enjoying music, old fashioned games and homemade sweets. In the afternoon, there are also big open air concerts and festivals in most cities.
Fun Fact: On King’s Day, and when the Dutch national soccer team is playing, the whole country turns orange. Weird, since this colour is not in the national flag. This is due to ‘the father of the Dutch nation’ – Willem van Oranje (William of Orange, 1533 – 1584). He was also prince of the city of Orange, in France and the first of our royal family.
Another holiday in spring is on the 4th and 5th of May. On the 4th of May the Dutch commemorate Dutch war victims since the Second World War. At 8 PM the country holds two minutes of silence (even some trains will stop). You can join public memorials at monuments and graveyards to show your respect. On the 5th of May, the atmosphere totally changes, when the Dutch celebrate the liberation after the Second World War and freedom in general. There are parties all over the country. The biggest series of events is called ‘bevrijdingsfestival’ (liberation festival). National artists go from city to city on this day to give free concerts in the open air. One of these cities is Zwolle, where each year over 120.000 visitors come to celebrate liberation day. Also in other cities you will find many other festivals, for example in Enschede on the terrain of the University of Twente.
Note: Freedom day (5th of May) is only a national holiday once every 5 years. You want to join one of the open air concerts? Do ask your employer for a day off since this is not standardly given
A holiday that’s unique in the Netherlands is Sinterklaas or Sint Nicolaas. On the 5th of December, all Dutch children that behaved well, receive presents from this Saint who (according to the legend) lives in Spain and arrives by steam boat every year with his helpers called Piet. Also adults tend to celebrate it playing “Secret Santa”. On this night, and the weeks before, you’ll find special cookies, chocolates and treats in store, specific for this time of the year like ‘speculaas’, ‘pepernoten’ and chocolate letters.
Another day when kids get all the sweets they want is Sint Maarten (11th of November). Similar to Halloween, children go door to door to receive candies. They carry lampions and have to sing a song to receive the goodies. This holiday is not celebrated everywhere, but depends on the community.
Food and Restaurants
Dutch food is rather similar to German and Nordic cuisine. Traditionally, it consists of potatoes, cabbages, tubers, beans and other vegetables that naturally grow in this climate, fish and seafood. National dishes for example are ‘snert’ (pea soup) ‘haring’ (herring that is pickled in salt) and ‘stamppot’ (potato mash with vegetables, for example kale, endive, carrots and onions, and sauerkraut).
The history of the country can be reflected in Dutch dishes. Trading herbs and spices, first used during the colonial period and the 17th century, are still used (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, cardamom and laurel) nowadays. Also, the Dutch food culture is strongly influenced by dishes that foreigners brought to the country. You can find excellent Indonesian restaurants, Surinamese take-out meals like roti, and after drinking some beers Dutchies love a big döner kebab.
Going out for a meal? Do notice restaurants might be open, but their kitchen is not always available for service. For lunch and dinner there are different dishes on the menu that are served at specific times (mostly from 11:00 – 15:00 and 17:00 – 22:00). Breakfast in a restaurant is not very common (except in bakeries and lunchrooms), although brunch in the weekend is becoming more and more popular.
When you go out for drinks or a meal with a Dutch person, the expression ‘going Dutch’ does apply. It’s common to split bills or even pay exactly for what you ordered. Tipping is not necessary. This is only common when you are extremely pleased with the service or food.
Tip Just like at work, the Dutch don’t like hierarchy and people are seen as equals. Because of that your waiter might be more informal than you would expect. Calling out for them with a loud voice is considered rude. Try to wave or wink discretely to catch their attention.
Almost half of the people in the Netherlands say they are not religious. Half of the religious people are reported catholic, which is most actively practised in the south of the country. 16 percent of the population says they are protestant, divided in several communities of which the Reformed, Evangelic and Lutheran are the largest. Minorities are Islamic (5 percent), Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist.
Although not many people practice religion anymore in the Netherlands, Christianity does still play a role in public life. Most holidays revolve around it and Sunday is still a day of rest, with most shops closed. The shops in the city centres are open on ‘koopzondag’ (shopping Sunday) on fixed dates; check www.koopzondagen.net to see which dates exactly.
If your local supermarket is open on Sunday, this depends on the rules of the municipality. Some cities have more restrictions than others because of Christian communities or political parties.