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Guide to Cultural Traits for Expats in The Netherlands

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: June 2016

The Netherlands is practically a byword for religious, ethnic and cultural tolerance, and has welcomed the war-torn and dispossessed for centuries. As a result, there is quite an ethnic mixture in the country. This is a source of pride for the Dutch, who generally eschew nationalistic fervour. The largest ethnic minorities are Turks, Indonesians, Surinamese, Moroccans and Germans.

Holland’s four largest cities, Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, are so close together that they are often grouped together as a continuous urban area known as Randstad (‘ring city’). The Randstad area is more urbanised, more densely populated and more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country, and its culture tends to predominate. Other parts of the country have a stronger Dutch flavour to their culture.

Additionally, there is a religious divide, between the southern provinces of North Brabant and Limburg, which are traditionally Catholic, and the rest of the country, which is nominally Protestant. However, most people are irreligious and institutions are overwhelmingly secular. Complete freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed.

One source of unity is the slight gap between rich and poor. Holland has little abject poverty, and Dutch inner cities are not neglected slums in which people have to grind out a living. This does lead to higher taxation levels than in other countries, but the people are generally happy, in their quiet Dutch way. The Dutch Royal Family is another important unifying factor, and the monarch’s birthday is marked with national celebrations.

Reflecting the country’s Calvinist heritage, the Dutch are modest and quite reserved. They are sober in their clothing, eating habits and manners. They avoid overt displays of emotion and do not wear their hearts on their sleeves, preferring more subtle forms of communication. Neither are they keen on the ostentatious display of wealth, seeing it as ugly.

Gezelligheid, roughly translated as ‘cosiness’, is essential to the Dutch. Being at home with family and close friends, or in any other comfortable situation, is always seen as time well spent. The Dutch also like a sense of ordered time; this is reflected in the morning coffee ritual.

It takes a long time to get to know the Dutch well. They may be cordial to you when in the workplace but may not be friends outside it. Generally it is more difficult to make friends with the Dutch other than superficially.

The national sport is football. The Dutch are unfortunately famous for being the best team in the world never to have won the World Cup. Speed skating is also important. On rare winters when it is cold enough for canals to freeze over, a special speed skating competition called the Elfstedetocht is held in the major towns of the northern province of Friesland. The Frisians have their own language and their own cultural characteristics too, such as a preference for wooden shoes.

Despite the strong tradition of tolerance, women are less represented in the workplace and politics than in other Western European countries. The Dutch view motherhood as important and are not convinced of the benefits of leaving your children with a carer long-term. As with most of Western Europe, families tend to be small at one or two children.

Though the Dutch reputation for tolerance is well-deserved, it does have its limits. For example, although drug use is tolerated by the police, it is not actually decriminalised. The overt use of drugs by non-locals may actually lead to arrest.




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