The importance of understanding cultural differences
Dylan is a new expat, transferred by the company he works for from the United States to the Netherlands. He has been invited to a birthday party at one of his new Dutch colleague’s house on a Saturday afternoon. When he arrived, some family members are already gathered in the living room.
Dylan: I didn’t know most of them, so I shook hands with everybody and introduced myself. When the next guests arrived, I notice that some people kiss on the cheek and others shake hands. Back home in Michigan, this would never happen. When I decided to leave after a while, the neighbor’s wife thanked me and kissed my cheeks three times. I was confused – a woman kissing a man with everybody around, what does that mean? Fortunately, my neighbor just shook my hand. But I left the party feeling awkward.
In the Netherlands, a mix of greeting gestures are used and at first it is normal to be confused. Even among the Dutch, confusion arises at times. Whether people will kiss each other or not depends on the closeness of the relationship. The neighbor’s wife probably just wanted to be friendly and expresses this by kissing him goodbye.
Where lies the connection?
In the Netherlands, there are some guidelines for different contexts that would be useful for Dylan to know:
At work: All people typically shake hands, especially when they meet for the first time. After that, handshaking is sometimes done at the beginning of a formal meeting, but usually not; colleagues just say “hoi” to each other in the morning.
Men shake hands with men, and kissing on the cheek generally not expected. Women shake hands if they meet for the first time, but if they know the person they are greeting well, then they kiss the cheeks three times. If you kiss cheeks, then you don’t need to shake hands too. The difficulty is to determine whether you know somebody well enough to kiss cheeks – it is wise to let the Dutch person take the initiative.
The Netherlands has a feminine culture, meaning it is important to make sure that all are included. In this story, it means that everybody is greeted upon arrival and when leaving.
The Dutch culture also has little need for hierarchy in social etiquette, so everybody is treated alike and quite informally. Everybody is greeted in the same informal way, regardless of position.
A handshake is considered a formal greeting, used most often in business environments and when meeting for the first time.
Once people are more familiar with each other, the formal greeting can be changed to the friendly kiss on the cheeks (three kisses, starting with the right cheek). However, the kisses are only used if one of the two people is a woman. Two men don’t kiss.
Important to know
This anecdote is based on stories that have been shared with us. Connect2Us aims to illuminate the dilemma from both sides and not to label people or suggest that one or the other should behave differently. We see in our daily intercultural work that awareness is enough for those involved to move towards each other without denying themselves. Connect2Us wants to help readers recognise and avoid prejudice.