Expat issues - On breaking laws & knowing norms

Charlie and I had been invited out by Dutch friends to enjoy some wine and sunshine. It was a Sunday and I had a head that definitely felt like the morning after the night before.

An unfortunate social faux pas

Choosing to "man up" (Charlie’s phrase) rather than hibernate under the duvet, we headed out. A few hours later, after some good wine and a good time, our friends proposed we make reservations for dinner later. Without thinking, I made some polite noises of agreement.

Shortly after I realised I was not up for an extended evening and quietly collared Charlie to let him know. As he knew them better, he went and had a quick word.

In England, this may have been fine. I had forgotten, however, that the Dutch like to do things in the most direct way possible. I was immediately accosted by our friends and told that if I did not feel like going I should have just said so in the first place.

My attempts to be polite about the offer had managed to cause more offence than if I had rejected them instantly to their face. Following this there seems to have been a long frosty pause between invites...

The Dubai incident

By way of contrast (and bear with me here) compare my story to the sorry tale of the British couple arrested in Dubai in 2008. The police had caught the couple in a very intimate drink - fuelled clinch on a beach.

Putting aside your personal views on the law, extra-marital sex remains illegal in Dubai. Given this, it is hard to feel too sorry for the couple in question - unless (in a conservative, Muslim country) they genuinely thought their behaviour would be accepted. Ignorance of the law has never provided a great defence anyway.

You are best off - be you holidayer or expat - acquainting yourself with unusual laws of your destination that may land you in the slammer. The FCO website, which lists local laws and customs, is not a bad start.

Note that it is in no way exhaustive. It may also shy away from laws it does not want to mention; e.g. any discussion of Dutch prostitution laws are notable by their absence.

About social norms

Coming back to my problem, though, this site is essentially useless. What I needed was a better understanding of those murkier, less distinguishable creatures - social norms.

Social norms are those informalised rules and habits that guide a group. Although you are unlikely to be officially sanctioned for breaking them, there can certainly be social repercussions - feeling guilty, embarrassed, ostracised etc.

Expats & Social norms

What happens then - as I have found - when as an expat you leave behind a group with one set of social norms for a group with different ones? Should you abandon a lifetime of habit building in order to fit in?

The first step is to work out what the norms of your new nation are. Next, determine whose approach you prefer and whether you are ready to face the consequences of refusing to mould. There are usually reams of literature about each culture available to digest - this is certainly true of the Netherlands.

A personal favourite is the cult comedic English language book, The Undutchables. It includes the minutae of Dutch behaviour and is alternatively seen as an uncomfortable truth or an exaggerated stereotype.

Dutch culture & Expats

As I like to also get a fresh take on my issues, I asked a new "research panel" (Charlie’s Dutch colleagues) to answer the following question: What important parts of Dutch culture (e.g. being direct in conversation) do you suggest expats try and adopt?

Firstly a little note on the directness. I feel happy to try and adjust my ways to avoid offence. I am not yet ready to lose the "please" and "thank you" I liberally sprinkle into restaurant conversation, even though they only cause confusion.

And now to the survey results (verbatim).
 "We always do three kisses when we meet someone… except guys don’t unless they are really close friends."
 "Be open for everything that is gay."
 "All the women in Amsterdam do threesomes with their boyfriends"

So. That is one overwhelming thanks for your help chaps!

In conclusion

 Some Dutch men (as appears to be the norm of all men everywhere) have a dirty sense of humour.
 If you want a serious answer, read a book such as "Manners in the Netherlands" by Reinildis Van Ditzhuyzen.
 Never be afraid to maintain a sense of yourself, but make sure you are aware of culture differences.

Thank you for taking the time to read and please do feel welcome to comment!

Milly Newman


Milly Newman

Ex Londoner, Ex media person, Expat

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