From Kissing to Birthdays: 5 Things I’ve Had to Relearn Being Dutch in the UK

cultural differences between Netherlands and Britain

It’s already over 7 years ago I dragged three suitcases full of my belongings on a plane from Amsterdam to London. Although I still feel very Dutch and am often baffled by certain British habits, by now I might be more integrated than I realise. I noticed the first clear sign of my integration in British society a few years ago when I referred to the artist ’50p’ instead of 50 Cent. But it’s especially in interaction with other Dutchies that I recognise I’ve adopted quite some typical British manners. From the way I answer the phone to greeting friends, here are 5 things I’ve had to relearn being Dutch in the UK.

There’s a sea of differences on the other side of The Channel

It’s funny how I initially thought that there wouldn’t be too many differences between Dutch and British culture.

I mean, they’re all western European countries with a similar climate, both weather-wise as in politics and society. (Brexit has taught me this isn’t entirely true of course.)

I also anticipated to speak like a native in no time.

But that wasn’t that straightforward because I discovered that in real life, people don’t really use the phrases you learn from schoolbooks. I wrote about my struggles with the ‘real’ English language and observations on British habits in my blog post Being Dutch in London. The article is almost 5 years old now, but I just re-read it and I have to say I still relate to these examples and find them hilarious. But those examples and anecdotes on this topic were just the tip of the iceberg, hence today’s new blog post about:

> 5 striking cultural differences between the Dutch and Brits in everyday life

1. When answering the phone …

… in the Netherlands, I would say: “met Zarina”, literally meaning “with Zarina”, confirming my identity with the caller. Phone answering convention in England is significantly different though. Here we answer the phone with… wait for it… a mind-blowing:


Not a super friendly greeting I must say, but I’ve grown used to it now. Although I think my family still finds it odd and slightly impersonal,

cultural differences between the Dutch and British

2. Who do you wish a happy birthday at a party?

In the Netherlands this would be EVERYBODY. When you arrive at, let’s say Kees’ birthday party, you not only wish Kees a happy birthday but shake hands with each and every guest, greet them and wish them a happy birthday with Kees too.

You might prefer to arrive fashionably late at parties, but when it comes to Dutch birthday parties, you’d rather arrive as early as possible. This way, you won’t have to spend the first 15 minutes shaking hands and congratulating Kees’ entire family and other friends.

birthday etiquette Netherlands
At Kees’ birthday party, you also congratulate his aunties with Kees’ birthday

Congratulating someone with someone else’s birthday doesn’t limit itself to birthday parties though. It’s also normal practice to send someone a message to wish them a happy birthday with their partner or a family member. Hubby still finds this extremely odd. I find it quite considerate and very social.

3. Hug or shake hands with your friends?

When it comes to greeting people, even close friends, Dutchies are very formal. The first thing you would do, is hold out your right hand to shake hands. If you’re greeting someone you know, you’d make things a bit more personal by giving three pecks on the cheeks, still holding hands in the meantime of course.

greeting friends in the Netherlands is very formal

Having lived in the UK for some years now, my brains get very confused when I want to greet someone. Because I’ve found that here a big hug is the most common way to greet friends. Sometimes with one kiss on the cheek, or two as a maximum. This sometimes leads to awkward moments after I’ve just returned from the Netherlands where three kisses are the norm. Although I prefer the more affectionate way of greeting people here in the UK, I recognise my inner formal Dutch character and sometimes can’t work out what to do.

But hugs aren’t even limited to friends only. I wouldn’t advice hugging your bank manager, but it’s perfectly accepted if you do it whilst saying hello or goodbye to work friends or colleagues – all depending on the context and office etiquette of course. When I recently had to attend a work meeting in the Netherlands I really had to refrain myself from hugging some people I had never met before but had exchanged amiable emails with. Had we been in the UK, hugs would have been totally appropriate, even though it was the first time we met. However, being in the Netherlands and following more formal etiquette, we only shook hands instead.

4. Where the shopkeeper calls you ‘love’

One of the things I enjoy about visiting local businesses, supermarkers or corner shops in the UK is that the people working there often address you with ‘love’. How could you not enjoy shopping at such friendly places?

Also among friends we use ‘dear’, ‘lovely’ or ‘hun’ as a greeting on a text message or email. Not something I’d consider to use with my Dutch friends.

shopkeepers in the UK call you love

5. Endless ‘Thank yous’

I already wrote about how the British constantly apologise to each other in my previous blog post Being Dutch in London. In the UK you would even say ‘sorry’ to someone after they’d would walk into you and they are at fault.

But besides endless ‘Sorry’s’, ‘Thank you’ must be the most used expression you’d hear in the street. When someone holds open the door for you for example or lets you board a train first.

I enjoy these little social and polite interactions as it shows you acknowledge the other person. I’ve found in recent years, that people in the Netherlands either blank you, pretend you’re not there or just push you over in an attempt to get on the train before you. While it’s not world-changing, I do think that being a bit friendlier and considerate to each other makes a big difference. I’ve therefore happily adopted the habit of saying ‘Thank you’.

Do you recognise any of these typical Dutch or British customs and habits? Or do you do things differently significantly different in your country? Share your thoughts and experiences in a comment below! 
Thanks, Zarina xx

12 thoughts on “From Kissing to Birthdays: 5 Things I’ve Had to Relearn Being Dutch in the UK

  1. Interesting post about congratulating everybody! I do not regognize this at all. I have never even heard about this and most certainly never experienced anything like it, although I am dutch and lived in The Netherlands until I was 55 years old (I moved to London in 2008). I definitely never congratulated anybody but the lucky one with someone’s birthday ever, but I did get congratulated a couple of times with, say, my moms birthday, which I found totally bizarre. It must be a recent development, or a regional habit maybe? I lived in Wageningen and Amsterdam. But certainly not “typically dutch” I would say.

  2. Thanks for highlighting all the great points between the English and Dutch cultures.
    I’m fairly new to Dutch style of living and mannerisms by reading your blog I became more educated and hopefully will erase all of my awkwardness when encountering Dutch people. Truly appreciate that you share all the great insights.

    1. Hi George, many thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment 🙂 I’m glad that you found this post helpful! Good luck with adapting to living in the Netherlands. If there are other related topics you’d like me to discuss on the blog, please let me know!

  3. I always answer my phone with “Hallo, met Esther”. Just “Hallo” I find sort of crude but I don’t find it necessary to say my family name as well, except when calling someone myself on official business. In American movies it always amazes me that people just stop talking to each other and hang up without saying goodbye or something like that.
    The “Happy Birthday” wishing on parties is a lot of work, you’re so right. I can always fall back on my condition, it is not very sensible for me to walk around the room and shake all those hands and get out of breath while doing this. I made it a habit to just congratulate everybody in one time, telling them I am sorry but I am not capable of standing around too long (let alone shake all those hands)!
    The confusion with kissing, hugging or shaking hands I recognize as well. In France they kiss max 2 times, here in NL 3 times. Good friends hug. Some people hug very easily, some not. I don’t think I would hug my bank manager, except for when he did something very special for me… 🙂
    Are there certain words used for men? “Mate” is not that nice. I like the words “love”, “dear”, etc. I often call people I know “lieverd” but I wouldn’t say this to complete strangers.
    I like politeness. Always make it a habit to say “Thank you” when something is done for me. Better too often than not often enough. Or “Sorry” when bumping into somebody or things like that. I find it very unpolite if people don’t say that after something like that.
    Thanks! xx

    1. Best grappig hè dat er al zulke grote verschillen zijn in dagelijkse dingen tussen deze twee op zich vergelijkbare culturen. Als je ergens woont, dan pas je je gewoon aan en sta je er niet zo vaak meer bij stil, dus ik vond dit persoonlijk wel een leuke blog om te schrijven 🙂 x

  4. Very interesting reading and an opener to us stay at home!i thought there might have been a dutch courage write up against an Englishman’s bull dog obstinacy

  5. That is very interesting.
    Over the years,I have become used to greeting my Dutch relatives with three kisses,equally they have been here so many times to the UK that they have noted and applied lots of British customs too.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment here Gavin 🙂 It’s funny that I don’t always see some of these (significant) differences anymore so it was quite fun reflecting on these cultural differences!

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