Steve Edwards' website

On talking with strangers in the Netherlands

It's not customary to talk with strangers in Holland.

A Dutch guy I met in Amsterdam gave a description, second-hand, of an American scene that he found strange.

His sister had visited New York City. She'd seen two women involved in conversation while standing on queue. Then, they just said goodbye — clearly, they had not been acquaintances.

The Dutch observer found this odd enough that she told her brother about it — and he found it remarkable enough that he repeated it to me.

In America, it is customary to speak with strangers. You don't have to talk to everybody. But it's normal; and it's normal to offer some response.

And in Ireland — for another example — talking is what makes people comfortable with a stranger.

But in Holland, small-talk often makes people uncomfortable. It's not customary, and it's not necessary. You simply don't have to engage in conversation with people you don't know.

Sometimes the Dutch — and especially Amsterdammers — will casually ignore casual interaction. It's the kind of thing that can make you slink away, kind of hurt but not knowing how to feel.

This is not to suggest that the Dutch people are unfriendly — nor to say that if you needed information, they would be less likely to give it to you. A question is not the same as an attempt at familiarity, and the Dutch will generally answer any direct request in a friendly manner.

Of course, it's a natural fact that in casual interactions with unacquainted people in the Netherlands the negative experience is more likely in certain conditions — such as if you are speaking English,* or in Amsterdam, or both.

But it's not just you; and it's not just because you speak English. And it's not only true in Amsterdam. (That's just where people are the most jaded.)

The tendency of the Dutch to not engage easily in small-talk is a generality, based more upon a deeper expression of Dutch culture than upon "rudeness" or lack of sociability.

It's just not customary, speaking with strangers in Holland. It doesn't mean that you can't — after all, I had never met the fellow who told me that story. Conversation is normal and human; but for the Dutch, it's not required in every social context.


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*English-language speech will identify one as a non-native — but this is not to say that there is a significant language barrier. Indeed, and especially in Amsterdam, it is entirely unnecessary to preface a conversation with any question about "do you speak English." In most cases, it's insulting to ask. A polite response might be "yes, a little;" but the average Dutch person speaks well more than a little English, and understands it in spoken form.

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