Cultural Tips for Doing Business in the Netherlands

Top cultural tips for a business trip to the Netherlands

business tips for the netherlands
••• The Netherlands. Copyright: David Evers, Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

When I was younger, one of the first types of traveling I did on my own was a backpacking trip through Europe. One of the highlights of that trip was a stop in the Netherlands. I found the country delightful and efficient. The cities were beautiful and the people friendly. It's still the same today, but it's important to know if you head to the Netherlands on business, it's good to understand the business culture.

For business travelers heading to the Netherlands (map of the Netherlands), I've taken the time to talk with Gayle Cotton, a cultural communication expert. Ms. Cotton has been featured on many television programs, including: NBC News, PBS, Good Morning America, PM Magazine, and Pacific Report. Ms. Cotton is the author of the book Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication. She is also a distinguished speaker and an international authority on cross-cultural communication, and is president of Circles Of Excellence Inc.

Ms. Cotton was happy to share tips with About.com readers to help business travelers avoid potential cultural problems when traveling. For additional information on Ms. Cotton, please visit www.GayleCotton.com.

What tips do you have for business travelers heading to the Netherlands?

  • In the Dutch business culture, keep in mind that they don’t spend a lot of time socializing before a meeting or other business discussion. As soon as the necessary introductions are made, they will likely proceed with the business at hand.
  • Don't call the Netherlands "Holland" since that term specifically refers to only two of the 12 provinces that make up the country.
  • Whether for business or social engagements punctuality is essential and expected in the Dutch business culture. If you know that you will be late, make sure to call in advance and excuse yourself with a valid reason.
  • Planning, regulating, and organizing are strong values in this culture so plan accordingly. The Dutch stress the importance of the efficient use of time so reliability is something that is highly valued. Any company that cannot quickly and promptly deliver a service upon request will have a difficult time succeeding with Dutch customers.
  • Upon introduction, repeat your last name while you are shaking hands. It's not really part of the Dutch business culture to ask, "How are you?" Dutch businesspeople only ask this type of question to help visitors feel at ease.
  • When you have not been formally introduced to everyone at a business or social gathering, you should take the initiative to introduce yourself. Go around the room and shake hands with everyone while repeating your last name. Not doing this may leave a bad impression.
  • Very close friends sometimes lightly kiss each other on the cheeks when greeting. This is appropriate only when men kiss women or women kiss each other.
  • When talking, the Dutch usually stand further apart than North Americans, so stand about an arm’s length apart. Furniture arrangements reflect this so you may find yourself seated in a chair that seems unusually far away. Don’t move your chair closer, however, if this occurs.
  • Avoid standing with your hands in your pockets, or leaving your left hand in your pocket while shaking hands with your right as this is considered impolite.
  • The Dutch dislike ostentatious displays of wealth. Bragging about your income, lifestyle, or possessions will not impress the Dutch. They are wary of inflated claims, so use plenty of evidence and other data to persuade them of the merit of your products or ideas. A simple and direct presentation is appreciated.
  • In the Netherlands, most everyone you encounter will speak English. Don't feel compelled to ask if someone speaks English because it is assumed and the Dutch dislike being questioned about it.
  • The Dutch customarily answer their phones simply by stating their last names. Don't be offended by this directness in the Dutch telephone manner.
  • The Dutch respect qualities such as straightforwardness and honesty. In this culture, bluntness is preferred to deceptiveness or evasiveness. Consequently, when you really want to say "no", tentative answers such as "I'll consider it", "We'll see", or "perhaps" are not acceptable.
  • Tolerating individual differences and diversity is an important part of the Dutch character. There is a prevailing belief that people should be free to live as they please as long as others remain unharmed.
  • Be polite to all service personnel because the Dutch culture emphasizes that everyone is equal, and no citizen is obliged to be another person's servant. Never treat anyone Dutch in a patronizing way.
  • Be informed on recent political events, both in your own country and in the Netherlands, since the Dutch like discussing politics. However, avoid getting involved in a political discussion if you aren’t well informed.
  • Privacy is of key importance in the Netherlands, and whether at home or in the workplace doors are often kept closed. Always knock on a closed door and wait to be told to enter.
  • It's easy to misinterpret certain gestures used by the Dutch, especially if you're North American. This is because many gestures commonly used in North America have a very different meaning in the Netherlands. Research the variety of gesture differences beforehand.
  • Giving compliments is not a part of Dutch business culture. Since most work is done in groups, there is not as much emphasis on recognizing individual effort. When it's necessary for someone to be praised or criticized, the Dutch usually do this in private.

    5 Key Topics to Use in Conversation

    • Your home country or city and points of interest related to them
    • Travel experiences and what you enjoy about traveling
    • The Dutch culture, art, history, architecture, and nature
    • Sports of all kinds - keeping in mind that American soccer is referred to as football
    • Politics - if you know what you're talking about

    5 Key Topics or Gestures to Avoid in Conversation

    • Boasting of any kind about your income and possessions
    • Asking personal questions, family and business are usually kept separate
    • Any criticism of the Dutch Royal Family
    • Legalized prostitution and marijuana in the Netherlands
    • Don't talk to someone while chewing gum as this is considered rude

    What is important to know about the decision making process?

    Consensus guides the decision-making process in most Dutch organizations. Every employee who may be affected will be informed and consulted which creates a more time-consuming process.

    Any tips for women?

    Women should have no specific problems doing business in the Netherlands.

    Any tips on gestures?

    Generally, the Dutch are rather reserved and will avoid expansive gestures such as hugging and backslapping. Try to avoid touching others in public.