LivingTravelCultural tips for doing business in the Netherlands

Cultural tips for doing business in the Netherlands

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

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

Ms. Cotton was happy to share tips with readers to help business travelers avoid potential cultural issues when traveling. For additional information on Ms. Cotton, visit

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

  • In 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 are likely to get on with the business in question.
  • Do not call the Netherlands “Holland” as 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 Dutch business culture. If you know you will be late, be sure to call ahead and apologize with a valid reason.
  • Planning, regulating, and organizing are strong values in this culture, so plan accordingly. The Dutch emphasize the importance of efficient use of time, which is why reliability is highly valued. Any company that cannot offer a fast and fast service on request will have a difficult time succeeding with Dutch customers.
  • After the introduction, repeat your last name while shaking hands. It’s not really part of Dutch business culture to ask, “How are you?” Dutch businessmen only ask these kinds of questions to help visitors feel comfortable.
  • When you haven’t 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 everyone’s hand while repeating their last name. Not doing this can 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 speaking, the Dutch are usually farther apart than the Americans, so they keep an arm’s length apart. Furniture arrangements reflect this, so you may find yourself sitting in a chair that seems unusually far away. However, do not move your chair closer 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 do not like ostentatious displays of wealth. Bragging about your income, lifestyle or possessions will not impress the Dutch. They are wary of inflated claims, so use lots of evidence and other data to convince them of the merit of your products or ideas. A simple and straightforward presentation is appreciated.
  • In the Netherlands, most of the people you meet will speak English. Don’t feel obliged to ask if someone speaks English because the Dutch are supposed to not like being asked about it.
  • The Dutch usually answer their phones simply by indicating their last names. Don’t be offended by this bluntness in the Dutch telephone manner.
  • The Dutch respect qualities such as openness and honesty. In this culture, frankness is preferred to deception or evasion. Consequently, when you really mean “no,” tentative responses like “I’ll consider it,” “We’ll see,” or “maybe” 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 courteous to all service personnel because Dutch culture emphasizes that everyone is equal and that no citizen is obligated to be someone else’s servant. Never treat a Dutch person in a condescending way.
  • Find out about recent political events, both in your own country and in the Netherlands, as the Dutch like to talk about politics. However, avoid getting involved in a political discussion if you are not 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 is easy to misinterpret certain gestures used by the Dutch, especially if you are an American. This is because many gestures commonly used in North America have a very different meaning in the Netherlands. Research the variety of gestural differences beforehand.
  • Complimenting is not part of Dutch business culture. Since most work is done in groups, there is less emphasis on recognizing individual effort. When it is necessary for someone to be praised or criticized, the Dutch often do so in private.

5 key topics to use in conversation

  • Your country of origin or city and points of interest related to them.
  • Travel experiences and what you enjoy about traveling
  • Dutch culture, art, history, architecture and nature.
  • Sports of all kinds: considering that American football is known as soccer
  • Politics: if you know what you are talking about

5 key topics or gestures to avoid in conversation

  • He brags of any kind about his income and possessions.
  • By asking personal questions, family and business are generally kept separate
  • Any criticism of the Dutch royal family
  • Legalized prostitution and marijuana in the Netherlands
  • Do not 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. Each employee who may be affected will be informed and consulted, creating a more time-consuming process.

Any advice for women?

Women should not have specific problems doing business in the Netherlands.

Any advice on gestures?

In general, the Dutch are quite reserved and will avoid expansive gestures such as hugging and slapping. Try to avoid touching others in public.

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