You don't know what you don't know February 2016

2 Feb 2016 | Mandie Rose van der Meer

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By Mandie Rose van der Meer
February 2016


You don’t know what you don’t know (#YDKWYDK)

An ACCESS column for expats in the early stages of their Dutch journey


As with most life-changing events, especially when moving to a new country, even simple, everyday tasks can become a big question mark. Luckily, here are six out of 12 tips for what you don’t know what you don’t know about daily life in the Netherlands. This month’s focus: the protocol of greeting the Dutch.


Now you can become an expert on how to say hello and goodbye when meeting with various types of Dutch people.




 1. Dutch people you’re meeting for the first time, even if they are your in-laws: Make eye contact. Smile. Take a deep breath to prepare yourself for the handshake you’re about to receive. While shaking (right) hands, say your name while he or she says their name so that neither of you actually learns the other person’s name. Shake hands for several seconds while clenching your teeth into a fake smile so as to handle the pain of the superhuman-strength handshake they’re delivering. Release your hand. And breathe. Well done!


2. Dutch children you’re meeting for the first time, even if they are your in-laws: Eye contact with a firm handshake. Firm, I said! A smile is always nice.


3. Dutch people you’re meeting for a second time, or more: If you are not colleagues, AND you have met at a previous social engagement AND you plan to see them at numerous other social engagements in future, AND one or both of you is a woman, then you may kiss – three times! – on the cheeks. You may forego the handshake.

If you are unsure about whether the kisses are really appropriate, then take the cue from the other person by his or her lean-in or lack thereof. Brace your lean by gently holding on to the other person’s shoulder, elbow or hip.

(By the by, I recommend not trying to talk while kissing, because then it goes like this: “How” – kiss – “are” – kiss – “you” – kiss – “?” I’ve lived here almost five years and I still make this mistake. It’s awkward every single time with my father-in-law. Remember: kiss, then talk.)


4. Dutch people you know professionally: They already know who you are so not much is required here. Say good morning. Comment on the weather or the traffic or the NS train delays. Ask about any recent holidays. Do NOT comment on their choice of cheese sandwich for lunch. Offer to get a cup of coffee for him or her when you are going to the kantine to get yourself one.  Say good evening. Annnnnndddd, we’re done!


5. Saying goodbye: Want to follow the preferred goodbye greeting in your town?  Just observe the customs at your local brown pub/café. For example, you may say “Doei!” if you’re in Holland, or “Dag!” if you’re in Limburg. If you’re in Friesland, good luck, my friend. They speak a language even the Dutch can’t comprehend.

“Tot ziens” translates to “See you next time,” and is generally acceptable wherever you are.

Be warned that saying “farewell” will be met with a frown and a furrowed brow. This is because the Dutch equivalent “vaarwel” is usually reserved for saying last goodbyes to the dying or the dead. Just stick to saying “dag” if you’re trying to be formal.


6. On the phone: The Dutch answer phone calls by stating their full name. This way the caller knows with whom he or she is speaking. Then the caller responds in turn with his or her full name. Now that we all know with whom we are speaking, we may begin the purpose of the call. This custom continues to amuse my American family who can’t imagine who else would be answering my phone but me. It may take some getting used to, but answering your phone with “hello” will really confuse a Dutch caller.


Naturally your friends at ACCESS don’t want you to feel alone in your encounters with the Dutch; at the same time I encourage you to embrace your unique, individual experiences in the Netherlands. You don’t have to be prepared for every new greeting, but even a small idea of what’s expected of you can make for a nice first impression. Moving to a new country costs lots of energy, so anything that takes the thinking out of the task can simplify your integration process.


We’ll see you next month for the next six tips on typical social greetings in the Netherlands.


 Check out the handy book “Ready, Steady, Go Dutch” for more stories of expats’ personal experiences in the Netherlands with everyday living (chapter 4) and learning the language (chapter 9). The book is available for purchase at English bookshops in Holland, or via the Ready, Steady, Go Dutch website.


If you find that you could benefit from more in-depth, professional guidance for your integration process, contact one of the counsellors from the ACCESS Counselling Services Network. They provide individual and group sessions in English.


Mandie Rose van der Meer is an American writer, editor, instructor and ACCESS volunteer. She lives in Noordwijk with her Dutch husband. She did not answer the phone for the first three months of living in the Netherlands for fear of saying the wrong thing. Reactions welcome at



Note: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of ACCESS.

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