Friendship or networks in the Netherlands - Part 2

Friendship or networks in the Netherlands - Part 2

This article follows "Friendship or networks in the Netherlands - Part 1", which explores the difference between friendships and social networks on a personal level in the Netherlands.

In Part 1 we discussed the case of two Southern European expats who tried to initiate friendships with Dutch colleagues, but ended up rejected, astonished and distressed.

That’s the consequence of not knowing the kind of relationships valued in the Netherlands. Once you are aware of this, you can decide how you, as an expat, can behave to benefit from the Dutch reality.

The Dutch way

Dutch people grow up in a typical WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) society. Cross-cultural psychology also uses the term individualistic, or an "I"-focused, society.

Newcomers from less-WEIRD societies, such as South-Eastern Europeans, Chinese and Japanese, experience more difficulties than those coming from other WEIRD societies like the UK, USA and Australia.

New, loose and free of obligations

The Dutch are open to everything new, including relationships. New contacts offer chances for personal development. Ideas of stable, trusted and mutually-obliged feelings are alien: personal freedom is the key value.

No obligations to one’s family, for example, should constrain children’s choices. Words like "must" and "should" are unpopular. Niets moet, alles mag is a favourite saying which translates to something like: "Nothing is a must, everything is allowed!"

Personal development is important

While showing me something she made in her pottery class, Jose once proudly said: "I would rather devote my time to learn something than to social contacts".

Until then, I had failed to think of this as a dilemma. The Netherlands lacks tradition in gathering and eating together, while in other cultures it is an essential way of life and a manner of maintaining friendships.

Here, when someone invites you for dinner, this can be because he himself enjoys cooking. Not just South-Eastern Europeans, but also French and Americans also complain that Dutch colleagues do not invite them.

Short-term and flexible connections

Many connections are made in the context of specific interests such as sport and hobbies. Connections change periodically and last as long as one’s membership is active.

According to a social networks study by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NOW), the Dutch replace almost half of their personal connections (48 per cent) every seven years.

Here, "personal" means people you talk to about important personal issues, who help with DIY tasks around the house, or who pop by for a visit.

One-to-one individual connections

When we asked Dutch adults and children to describe what "we" means for them personally, they often mentioned a single friend like: "Paul, my best friend".

Dutch respondents described family members like: "me and my mother" or "me and my brother Olivier".

Instead, South-Eastern European or Asian persons would answer: "my friends" or "my family". The difference is subtle, but essential: "me in a one-to-one separate relationship" versus "me as part of the group I belong to" (friends). The individual itself is THE value.

In the Netherlands, for example, it is usual to selectively invite individuals to a child’s birthday, rather than the whole class. In less individualistic cultures, people invite all friends and it is neither easy nor acceptable to exclude some of them.

Less frequent, structured and goal-specific contact

Telephone calls with family and friends are much less frequent compared to South-Eastern Europeans or Asians.

According to Statistics Netherlands, over the last 35 years, the Dutch devote less and less time to friends, especially visiting each other.

Calls just to ask "How are you?" are not usual either. Instead, you do something specific together such as going out for a drink or to a cultural event.

Anne goes out once a month with a fixed group of friends from her studies. Each one in turn, will find out what is worth seeing and make all the necessary arrangements. Hanging around is for teenagers, and often threatening for locals.

Volunteer work

On the other hand, an amazing percentage of Dutch people older than 15 years (45 per cent according to Statistic Nertherlands) devotes time to voluntary work.

This may sound paradoxical, but it’s not. Dutch feel useful, efficient and social. They participate in their society. They do not help just their friends. However, you should do it professionally, not emotionally: Maya, who does volunteer work in a retirement home is strictly advised to avoid any personal conversations.

Rational versus emotional

Relationships of love and support may be risky and damaging. They make individuals vulnerable and do not help them in taking risks. Not the same in all WEIRD cultures. For example, emotional support within the American family is appreciated.

Such ideas are conflicting with what non-individualists believe: friends without support are not friends. They contribute to positive feelings such as well-being and self-confidence. Obviously, such contrasting differences have major implications for psychological counselling.

What should expats do?

Here's my advice, in no particular order:

› Separate personal from professional life

Follow the Dutch

Notice how they behave with others. Do not expect from them what they do not do with each other. Go through this article's sub-titles once again.

› Be flexible and stay cool

Get the messages from the Dutch reality. Yes you can. The less WEIRD the society you come from, the more encoded you are for dealing effectively with unpredictable situations. Life has taught you and you are strongly situation-sensitive. Keep in mind that behavioral adaptability is emotional adaptability.

› Be selective

You don’t have to adopt everything. Negotiations within yourself are the most difficult, and it's your choice to take it or leave it.

› Value your own culture

Keep whatever is important for you. Expect emotional support from those with whom you share ideas about friendships.

By moving to another country, you are starting a long journey where, as HÄ“rákleitos said 2.500 years ago, "change is your only constant". He also said "from the conflict between the opposites comes out the most beautiful harmony".

I would also add: your mind and your heart are more flexible than you think.

If you're curious to read a further discussion on this issue, check out: "Friendship or networks in the Netherlands - Part 1".

Katerina Pouliasi


Katerina Pouliasi

My first "collisions' with Dutch culture, transformed into a strong curiosity about the nature of cultural differences, have led me to in depth research on "Culture, Self-understanding and the Bicultural...

Read more



Leave a comment