What Dutch Customs Might Seem Strange for Americans

22 May 2014

dutch customs Inspired by the Slate article “What French Customs Might Seem Strange for Americans” and my official anniversary of becoming an expat, I thought I would impart a few Dutch customs that I found initially strange but found to be endearingly wonderful:

Three kisses.
Contrary to their other European counterparts like the French, Italians, Portuguese, Spanish and Greeks, the Dutch customarily like to give three kisses. At first awkward,  the extra kiss feels like an extra reassurance that you’re loved or at least liked enough. The current trend involves three kisses for everyone that’s more than an acquaintance and is done regardless of genders – woman-to-woman, woman-to-man and man-to-man without absolutely any sexual connotations.

Biking everywhere.
A bike is simply considered an extension of one’s body and the most convenient way to travel in the Low Countries. Regardless of weather, the Dutch can be seen biking gracefully around the cities, in the suburbs and between the countrysides.

Having chocolate for breakfasts and pancakes for dinner.
The chocolate is disguised in the form of hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles) placed on bread with butter. And pancakes are the size of dinner plates. It’s not that the Dutch have chocolate for breakfast and pancakes every single day (though many might actually do). It’s simply that the Dutch CAN do this without as much as raising eyebrows or eliciting consternation that is so liberating.

Not working when the sun is out.
Due to living in a country that is historically often grey and somber, the Dutch take every opportunity they get to enjoy being out in the sun. If there is beautiful weather on a weekday, some call-in sick for a “mental health break”, or the majority of sun aficionados leave work early. Anyone who has ever been in the center of a city like Utrecht or Amsterdam will know that every Dutch person will be outside sunworshipping on the terraces, or out at the beautiful Dutch beaches.

Most stores closed on Sundays or have much later opening times. This also applies to Mondays too.
When I first arrived here (seven years ago), everything being closed on a Sunday was one of my major aggravations. Coming from a consumer-driven society, I couldn’t understand why a lot of stores weren’t open on a Sunday and how most stores, even major chains, were slow to open their doors on a Monday morning. While more and more stores are becoming open on Sunday (though opening times are usually around 12pm), I appreciate the more relaxed way of living of taking it nice and easy.

Being frugal
There is something quite refreshing about living within your own means and not having unreasonable (or non-existent) credit card debt. The Dutch, on average, may significantly have a lot less spending power than their American counterparts. But overall, they enjoy a higher standard of living for most of their citizens. Every single expense is meticulously calculated from the amount of grams of meat per person to inventing a bottle-scraper (flessenlikker) to get that last ounce out of a jar.

Congratulating someone on his/her birthday party
I still don’t really understand this custom, but if you ever attend a Dutch person’s birthday party, chances are that you will hear the birthday person being “congratulated” as well as the family members and significant others. Literally. I think it’s their way of acknowledging just how fleeting life can be and that each year a person makes it should really be something to be proud of. It’s an awesome reminder of our mortality and a sincere celebration of life.

Not Being an Armed Society
I’ve been tiptoeing around this subject for a while, but I have to finally come out and be honest. I love living in a country without having to worry about being a victim of gun violence. I’ll always be an American (God Bless ‘Merica!), but as a mom to a two year old boy, I take comfort in not having to worry about him losing his life to stray bullets, tragic accidents at a friend’s home, random acts of violence on the streets or school shootings. And somehow, living in a world without everyone and their grandmother being armed, leads to a much more peaceful and happier society.

Of course there are other Dutch customs that I may never get accustomed to – such as having to become a second-hand smoker – but that’s for another article.  Here’s to Finding Dutchland, where ever you may be.

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  • Mijke Wegkamp

    Love reading your blog! Especially since I do not live in the Netherlands anymore and now start to love my country more and more. One thing I do have to say which is that I do not believe that men give each other three kisses. Women to women and women to men; Yes, but man to man; No. May I ask you where you have seen this?

    • Thanks for the compliment @mijkewegkamp:disqus! I’ve seen my Dutch husband’s relatives and friends kiss each other cheek-to-cheek and back when greeting each other and saying goodbye. Maybe it’s the latest trend? Or perhaps they just like to confuse me. 😉

      • Mijke Wegkamp

        That is funny! I think that you husband and his relatives and friends are the few men in the country that do this. 😉

        • Lyda Meyer

          the reason Dutch are so happy, we don,t let little things bother us we don,t fret about things that can or cannot be changed.And greeting one another by a kiss on either cheek,so what, if you outsiders don,t care for it so be it,,but let them do what they have been doing for years.Don,t forget you are in another country then your own.Birthdays are great in my country.My experience here was totally devastating,nobody cares if it is your birthday,except for close friends,but in Holland you are made special and usually lots of people come to the house with bougets of flowers throughout the day,and served these luscious variety of tarts and coffee.What makes it so unique is that every country has their way of doing things and as I get older I wish Holland was just in driving distance and I could visit more often.American living can be so cold where it seems everyone is just to busy to love and live life abundantly within the means your Heavenly father has given you.

      • Maaike

        I have to agree with Mijke. Being a true Dutch girl, it also seems akward to me to see man-to-man kisses. At least my husband is shaking hands with his friends when they meet, somethimes accompanied with a friendly but harsh smack on the shoulders… 😉

      • Astrid Mulder

        In my opinion it’s more common for men to kiss each other nowadays than it was 20 years ago, but still by far isn’t as common as for women. Men who do kiss only seem to kiss their very closest of friends and relatives, and I think it mainly goes for men under 45. My father’s generation (in his 70s) would never ever kiss a man.

    • Ankie

      Mijke, in my experience, if men “driekus” is dependant on which social circle you are in. In circles that are more liberal you may see it happen on a regular basis, in more conservative circles you may never see it. Also it is not likely to see people over 50 do this. E.g. I never see it in my family (uncles and friends of my parents) but very often among my own friends (well-educated, liberal, open attitude).

  • Sigrid66

    I really enjoy reading your blogs. Especially because my husband is British and i recognise so many things you write about as topics that he noticed as well. Especially this blog is very much like he sees ‘the dutch’. Every year he dreads the moment his mother in law comes in and kisses him on the cheek 3 times to congratulate him with MY birthday hahahahaha

  • Shobha George

    I have to agree on the armed society thing. when i see people in london fly into road rage (all the time it seems), at least I don’t have to worry about stray bullets.

  • Nelleke Looijen

    Thank you for this very insightful blog, like all of your blogs. I really enjoy it 🙂 Funny you mentioned the bottle-scraper. A few months ago an American (regular) costumer was in the store I work and she bought all the botlle-scrapers available at that moment because, as she told me, she was going to the U.S. for a few weeks to visit family and bottle-scrapers can’t be found in the states, she said. So she wanted to supply the whole family with bottle-scrapers, haha 😀

    • o.O You can totally find fleslikkers in the states. I used them for years before coming here.

  • derbyden

    On birthdays, it doesn’t seem so strange to me to congratulate someone on their own birthday. But it does seem strange to be ‘congratulated’ on the birthday of family members, which happens frequently!

  • Stella Heijnens

    Why would you have to become a second hand smoker in the Netherlands? Smoking is banned in public places indoors and restricted to special areas or outside?

  • Christopher Schouten

    There is gun violence in Holland. It’s just EIGHTEEN times less per capita than in the US! So heck yeah, the Dutch policy (and culture) around guns seems to work.

  • William Gibson

    When I was an expat in The Netherlands (admittedly, a few years ago), I was without my family for the first few months. Therefore, while working M – F long hours (I was with Dutch firm with sizable presence in the U.S., for which I was responsible), I found that the Dutch shop hours were a major pain. I had to accomplish all of my shopping on Saturday morning, as shops in Wassenaar liked to close early on Saturday, and, as you mention, were not open on Sunday.

    The lack of customer-convenience made logistics somewhat difficult. But, overall, it was a great experience.

  • I think on a birthday we congratulate the birthday boy/girl and everybody else because we feel lucky to know this person who is still alive, we celebrate his or her life altogether. I don’t understand why people in other countries find this odd. I find it odd, not to do this.

  • Ronald Eveleens

    No, in my country Holland, men don’t kiss each other when they meet or greet, father and sons maybe but others no, unless your roots are in the middle east. New is that younger men, give a friendship hug but that is also uncommon especially under the elder. When you enter a room or house(for the first time that event) you should be polite and greet everyone personally. So if it is someones birthday what good greeting it is to shake everyone’s hand or give a kiss/hug (for family members, certainly). If it is an other occasion like a party you do the same but than just stick with ‘nice to see/meet you. X-mas time you wish everyone in the room a personally a merry x-mas. People who are unknown to each other introduce themselves that way or are introduced by the host. You just do not walk in a room or party without being introduced or just stand in the doorway and say ‘Hi’ and leave it at that, that is considered very rude. No we do not eat pancakes for dinner, sometimes for luch or a birthday party or a special occasion for children. Don’t see adults going out together and goibg to a pancake restaurant for dinner.
    Sore closing times, the store owners deserve a rest also and deserve their peace to go to church if they want(not me). Store hour are long enough, way past normal working hours and there are evening hours also a few times a week. Just because you don’t want to manage your time and plan a trip to the store or make a shopping list to get al at once, why should store hours be completely adjusted to your wishes, cost for the store owner goes up, prices has to go up, usual stores are small, and the owners is there all the opened hours, can’t afford the extra personnel. Or the following American way should happen, local small stores closing, shopping streets with many empty abandoned stores that no one wants to rent. Big, I mean big mega department stores that sell anything from (packaged and processed) foods, to guns and bicycles and clothes. It is a matter of choice. Not working when the sun is out? Every one works, only on their free days they will sit in the sun(instead of going shopping and shopping and shopping on credit cards). But yes a Dutch person his 3 weeks paid vacation in a year(he/she can take at once) all together there are about 28 working days paid free time. All the other days are working time. No we are not obsessed by guns, we do not vote for politicians just because they are pro or against weapons. Second hand smoker? Don’t forget, the majority of tobacco still comes/imported from the U.S.

    • Rowena Ellenor

      Yes we do eat pancakes for dinner, I don’t know where you are from, but in Limburg people regularly eat pancakes with stroop or spek for dinner, usually accompanied by pea soup with a rookworst from the HEMA. We have many pancake houses that serve plenty of adults at dinner time. It’s a treat, especially for families, but it’s not considered strange at all.
      If you live in a village with not many amenities, it can be very annoying to have to go get an ingredient on a Sunday (even us Dutch can’t always be prepared for everything!) and have to drive 30 minutes to your nearest bigger city.The stores are there for the customer, in my opinion, so yes, the store hours should reflect what customers want. A lot of stores are happy to open beyond what was previously allowed, let them.
      I wouldn’t call local small stores closing ‘The American Way’, this happens everywhere and it is a myth to believe this is in any way something exclusively American. As a Dutchie in Providence, RI, for 6 years, we have many more small independent stores than, in let’s say, Maastricht. Its is very hard to open and run a business in NL, the US is way more business friendly and has tons of small stores with young owners. Dutch people tend to be judgmental about America, calling many things ‘Amerikaanse toestanden’, because they don’t consider that the US has a different history and geology. In most states, you cannot buy guns in department stores either! Maybe a rifle, but you’ll have to go to a gun store. There’s gun violence in The Netherlands too and I have often felt unsafe leaving a train station in a big city, being harassed by groups of youngsters when no Dutch person would speak up or help out. I don’t feel any less safe here than I did in The Netherlands.

  • Ute (expatsincebirth)

    I like this post, Rina. Thanks for listing the things that seem strange from an American perspective. I may add that there are other countries in Europe where people great eachother with three kisses. In Switzerland we use to give three kisses and many of my Italian and French friends do too. As for the opening hours it’s a matter of getting used to it. It really varies from country to country here in Europe and you just need to learn how to deal with it. When I lived in Switzerland where the shops would all close at 18hrs, I did my shopping during lunchtime or in the weekends. It actually can be liberating to tell your kids: no we’re not going to the shops today, they’re closed 😉 – But there are always the big(ger) cities: you’ll find that the shops are open also on Sundays and later in the evening.
    Like someone else pointed out earlier: I don’t get the second-hand smoker thing. What do you mean with that?
    I’m lookin

  • mcv

    I don’t quite understand what’s unusual about congratulating someone on their birthday. Do Americans really not do that?

    Men kissing men is actually rare. Some very progressive men do it, because it makes no sense that men kiss women, and women kiss women, but men don’t kiss men, but this is still a very small minority. If this is common near you, then you’re very fortunate to live in such an egalitarian environment. Netherland is extremely egalitarian, but we’re not quite there yet in all aspects.

    Gun ownership is extremely low not just in comparison with the US, but even in comparison with our surrounding countries. Germany, Belgium, France and the UK have gun ownership several times higher than we do. It is totally possible to get a gun permit here, but most people simply aren’t interested. And we don’t really trust people who are eager to own deadly weaponry.

    The shop opening times can be frustrating; they often open just after I leave for work, and close just before I get back. I understand people in retail also want to be home in time for dinner, but it does make me wonder who their customers are all day. Fortunately, my wife and I work 4 days each, leaving us two work days (as well as the Saturday and, since we’re in Amsterdam, the Sunday) to do our shopping. And we actually get most of our groceries delivered.

    • LaNev

      In America we say “Happy Birthday!” (Not congratulations–congratulations on what? Not dying?) and we only say happy birthday to the person whose birthday it is–not their friends and family! The congratulating everyone on one person’s birth is still so weird to me that I don’t do it anymore. And I feel so awkward when my in-laws congratulate me on my husband’s birthday–so odd. I think the only person who should actually be congratulated is the person’s mother, because she’s the reason they exist! 😛