Cutural overview

A bit of History

The Netherlands has a fascinating history and was once a dominant economic power in Europe. This tiny flat country has produced great thinkers (such as Hugo de Groot,  William of Nassau -Prince of Orange), explorers (i.e. Jan Pieterszoon Coen, John Maurice of Nassau), artists (Vincent Van Gogh, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer),  and scientists (Jacobus Kapteyn, Heike Kammerlingh Onnes, Christiaan Huygens).

Origins of the Nation

In the Middle Ages, there were many countships and the occasional duchies on the territory of the Netherlands, which for the larger part coincide with the current provinces. By way of a long historic process, from Phillip II of Spain to William of Orange, the Dutch Republic was born, a nation with mainly Protestants, but also Catholics and Jews.

The Netherlands is no longer a union of states, but rather a democratic state of which the unity is symbolized by the King, descendant of  the first King of the Netherlands, William I of the Netherlands.

Holland or the Netherlands?

The official name of the country is the Netherlands – ‘Low Lands’, a country where more than half of the population live below sea level.

A few centuries ago, the province of Holland (now the North and South provinces) was econamically the strongest of all the other Dutch provinces, and the one from which virtually all foreigh trade originated. Most of the Dutchmen that foreign traders dealt with were Hollanders, so from Holland.

Therefore and because of its history, when talking about the Netherlands, Holland became the accepted way of referring to the country and its people. However, the Dutch people who are not originated from or living in the North or South provinces may not like to be referred as Hollanders.

Customs and Habits

The Dutch have their own customs and characteristics. It might be useful to get familiar with them to avoid misunderstandings and feel more at home in the Netherlands.

Personal social space

Theorically the Dutch compensate for their lack of physical space available in the country by making their personal social space wider. Therefore they can manage living problems in such a crowded society.

The Dutch may stand closer together than Americans for instance. However, Dutch interaction is generally formal. You are not supposed to call someone by a first name, as it is quite common in the US.

As long as you are polite enough to respect other people’s social space, they will politely respect yours and tolerate almost anything you would like to do, and of course as long as you keep it inside your personal social space and out of theirs.


It is up to you, as a new arrival, to introduce yourself to your neighbours. If you do not, they will probably think that you do not wish to be bothered and will leave you alone for the rest of your stay. In addition, during your stay in the Netherlands, you could also invite them for coffee or drinks. Make sure to agree a date and time in advance, as genarally the Dutch do not like to stop by informally.


When invited to someone’s home bring a little gift such as flowers, a bottle of wine, cookies, candy or something from your home country.


As Netherlands is the world’s largest flower exporter, flowers are quite inexpensive.

Flowers are used for all occasions, i.e. saying hello, goodbye, thank you, for the mother of a new born, birthdays…Red roses stand for love, so be careful whom you give them to.

Greetings and kissing

Unless you are very familiar with each other and on first name terms you might shake hands when you meet. This includes children as well, so do not just say ‘hello’.

At a party it is customary to shake hands with everybody. Stating your name as you greet someone is considered basic protocol. Understanding the name that they’ve just told you is another matter.

People kiss each other three times on the cheek when they are quite familiar and know each other well. This is the case for men to women, women to women, but not men to men.

Some more do’s and don’ts

Do be punctual. Wether it is a doctor appointment or an invitation to friend’s house, it is regarded as courteaous to be on time.

Do not drop in unanounced to visit Dutch friends. Give a call, arrange an appointment first.

Do not be offended if a Dutch friend arranges a lunch with you in a three weeks time. It is quite common that Dutch people schedule and plan well ahead.

Do shake hands when meeting someone new, or a dentist or doctor. It is quite usual to shake hands again when you leave.

Do offer coffee! Anytime is coffee time in the Netherlands. Have plenty of milk (or koffiemilk) and sugar on hand too.