Holland

"Alstublieft"



On obligatory conversation in the Netherlands


It's not customary to talk with strangers in the Netherlands.

A Dutch guy in Amsterdam described an American scene that he'd found strange: two women in conversation while standing on queue — then just saying goodbye; clearly not acquaintances.

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. If you need information, they would be likely to politely tell you what they know. A question is not the same as an attempt at familiarity.

Of course, it's a natural fact that in the negative experiences in casual interactions with unacquainted people in the Netherlands is more likely in certain conditions — such as if you are speaking English,* or being loud, or in Amsterdam. But it's not just you; and it's not just because you speak English; and it's not only true in Amsterdam.

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 to speak with strangers in the Netherlands. 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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