Passing for Dutch, #1

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written Sunday 8 June 2003

Passing for Dutch, #1

I write "#1" because there'll be more to say about "passing for Dutch" later. I can't yet speak Dutch quite functionally, so for now I'll write only about "passing for Dutch" on sight, at first glance. (Don't minimize first glances: The Dutchman's ability to guess your language within two seconds of seeing you is spooky.

SO: how to defeat this guesswork, how (for more than two seconds) to pass for a local? First: our idea here is not to fool anyone, but simply to keep from distracting or even alarming the locals. If they aren't distracted by your weird clothing, etc., maybe they will actually look at you as a person. MAYBE even let you speak Dutch to them, which is our goal if we intend to speak it better. Call it conformism if you will, but language itself is the ultimate conformism, so if you want to communicate at all, it's best to worry about something else. Like finding WCs on Sunday.

So, how to pass for a local? Well, there are some things not to do, so as not to distract the locals. I give here two clues, each from a widely accepted American cultural icon:

  1. From a very popular American book of the 1980s Dress for Success... "An American executive's hair is always combed, and his shoes are always shined."
  2. From popular American songs of the past century... "Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and Smile, Smile, Smile!" ... "Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative" ... "I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles" ... "Don't Worry, Be Happy" ...Uh, anyone see a pattern, here?

Theoretically the Europeans in this holiday picture (Kalverstraat, Amsterdam, on Pinksteren Saturday) should be as happy as Europeans can get: it's a warm day, they are in one of the world's great cities, and it's a Saturday, and the next Monday is even a holiday...


How might this differ from a similar American scene?

  • Smiling: "They're all headed for a funeral" is the first thing most Americans would say about the above picture of Dutch On Holiday. Yes, there's the one smiling boy at center, but he's young and not yet culturized and so doesn't know any better. Or maybe he's an American with bad hair. Still, on the whole, what they say is very true: if you walk up to a Dutchman and smile, he will run. He won't necessarily be able to tell you why--he just knows something is wrong with it. If you want to announce your nationality as American, smile first. You won't be mistaken for Dutch. If you want to pass for Dutch while approaching a Dutchman, try to look as as though it is your current duty to arrest him for something. It's not personal.
  • Clothing: Amazingly, it's exactly what you find on any American street, particularly in the drably dressed Midwest or Northwest. I think I even see a Tampa Bay Buccaneers t-shirt in there. All the "How to Live and Get Along in Europe" books seem to have this wrong. The Parisians dress a little better than American city-dwellers, the Dutch a little poorer, but overall if you just leave your canary yellow Nikes and "I'm with Stupid" t-shirts back in the States, you'll do fine. Even better, leave all your bright colors behind (and if you're over 35 leave the sporting clothes behind), and you'll blend right in.
  • Hair: Dutch hair fashion resembles Yasir Arafat's shaving fashion. If you comb your hair, or even cut it carefully, you are obviously a vain foreigner. Likewise: if your shoes are new or otherwise free of mud, cuts, and scuffs, or holes, you are obviously trying to impress someone--stop it.

So last Sunday I applied the checklist to myself: (1) I don't smile much, so that's not a problem. (2) From previous travels, I knew about the clothing thing, so that was no problem. (3) Shoes--omigod!!! I had new shoes, and this Will Not Do. I rushed to Hilversum for shoes, and to waste no time I wore them right out of the store (by the way: hang on to the receipt if you do this, but that's a different story). I found a place between two buildings and risking arrest for wildplassen, toussled my hair savagely and then halfheartedly palmed it back, making sure to use the hand that had just held the sticky chocolade broodje. When I then reemerged back into the crowd along Kerkstraat and tried a couple of shops, INSTANTLY it was: "Goeie middag, meneer." I stood transformed. Dutch. I could pass for Dutch until I opened my mouth. My horizon had widened a little. A milestone.

Digression: let's review cultural differences as revealed by BUSINESS SHOES:

My Florida business shoes. Looking at these shoes now, after a month in the Netherlands, they look impossibly snappy. You might see such shoes in Paris, in the summertime. Lightweight and woven, which are very practical for the hot Florida climate.

My Chicago business shoes. Heavy, warm, ready for anything, yet shiny and without blemishes. Expensive, but that's the territory in Chicago. You might see such shoes in Paris in the autumn and wintertime. Here, obviously the mark of a buitenlander (a charming word basically meaning: non-Dutch).

My Dutch business shoes. Kindly note the prominent orange price tags, thoughtfully left in to inspire thrift. Hey, don't laugh--these shoes have changed my life here. I want to draw an analogy with Dorothy's magic shoes in the Wizard of Oz, but this morning I haven't yet had enough coffee to manage such.

Sometimes the whole thing is too much trouble, and I consider adopting this guy's style. (At least one would surely address him first in Dutch.) Think it would work?

posted by eric at 10.39 CET


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Readers' Comments

I'm questioning a move to naarden myself and just came across your site while doing some research. My company is located there and I might do a rotation for a couple years..just like you. I'll check back soon.


Posted by: Marc on June 17, 2003 01:54 AM

Oooh, I've set a fashion trend: come to Naarden for a couple of years. This is great.

E-mail me when you get here, and I'll show you a few good restaurants in 't Gooi!

Posted by: eric on June 18, 2003 09:28 PM

I really think you're being extreamly negative about the Dutch people.
I hear from a lot of people that it's a very nice country with very kind people, who don't run away for a smile!!!
A friend from the United States even thinks about moving to Europe, because she preffers living there, not in the US.
And the shoes! haha, that's not for business, there for on holidays and for free time.
They're called 'bootschoenen', 'boteshoes', (with sailing they are often used)
I think the shoes in the middle will be the average of the Dutch business shoe.
You should look better, because if you are nice to the Dutch, they'll be very kind to you.
They like foreign people... so please be nice to them too.

Posted by: Guido on November 13, 2003 07:35 PM

A very puzzling comment, just above. I never suggested the Dutch were unkind, just that they dress badly. And they do dress badly, and they will tell you they dress badly, even with a sort of pride in it. The shoes I pictured were actually better than the shoes most of my colleagues wear. And that's to business, to not free time, although after 6 months of working with the Dutch I've learned that some of them cannot tell the difference.

Perhaps Guido should see the Netherlands in person rather than relying on second-hand comments. (He might also post a legitimate e-mail address, as the other posters have had the courtesy to do.)

Posted by: eric on November 14, 2003 10:33 PM

Man u are wrong !

1. Dutch are very nice
2. We dress good ! its same as in america we have all american brands and ****. Like 70 % of our clothing is an american brand so.
3. I wear very nice shoes not some bowling shoe whats pictured above. I have nike's and really stylish shoes for when i go out. Ok there are some people who wear that stupid bowling shoes but there are people in the US to who wear stupid shoes right?
4. AND the dutch dont laugh when there walking on the street but that doesnt mean there not happy. If u begin to talk then suddenly there comes a SMILE :).

5. Dont tell me im wrong cause i am DUTCH and i live my whole life in Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Hope to see u soon back in Holland.

bye bye

Posted by: nouri on February 2, 2004 03:48 PM

I don't usually address a comment point by point, but for the preceding comment I'll make an exception:

1. I never said the Dutch weren't nice.
2. No, the Dutch do not dress well. My coworkers dress badly and are almost proud of it. All I know is that when I dress well, half the Dutch strangers address me in English; when I dress badly they address me in Dutch...
3. ...and when I wear bad shoes and forget to comb my hair, I always hear Dutch. QED.
4. I never said the Dutch weren't happy.
5. "Don't tell me I'm wrong cause I'm Dutch..." I hear that a lot. Infallibility must be wonderful. Did you notice that you begin by saying I'm wrong and end by telling me not to say you're wrong? Gosh!--not only infallible...but completely fair, too!

Seriously, I've always represented Downwind of Amsterdam blog as a very personal take on the Netherlands. You seem to have very different personal views of the Netherlands, and that's fine--in fact, I invite you take the trouble I did and turn your views into a blog of you own. The tools I use are available to everyone at

And, on a point of order, I don't **** in your raves, I would ask you not to **** in my blog. You are very welcome to post comments, but that way. Thanks!

Posted by: eric on February 2, 2004 08:03 PM

Being Dutch myself, I must say I feel that your comments are spot on. Well observed and elegantly written, they present us with a mirror we may or may not wish to look into. I did, and I caught myself smiling...

Posted by: kees on March 6, 2004 02:47 PM

I like your blog a lot, and being Dutch myself, I must agree that the Dutch don't take as much care about their appearance as many other peoples, and also, that we rarely look very happy in public. Of course, we strive for "tevredenheid", not for happyness.

Your pictures are wonderfull. Blog on, Eric

Posted by: Bas on April 6, 2004 10:47 AM

Eric, your comments, observations and great photos are not only appreciated, but I fell out of my chair laughing. You DO have a real talent in writing! And many comments are really accurate. I can add a few; about WCs and so forth, and many more. Regarding Amsterdam, you have to realize that it is counter-cultural; yet very deeply cultural. Takes a while to learn what that's about; it'll throw you. And the Dutch language.......well, you made a good start and your observations left me gasping for air! I speak it fluently, but not until after years of real effort. And I STILL have my American accent, which the Dutch pick up on after several words. But......if the Dutch speak English, which all do, I can also tell that they're Dutch speaking English within a few words. The languages don't mix well; and particularly pronunciations. Even though the languages have the same original roots.

I'm also American and have lived here 15+ years (Grand Rapids, Michigan). Why I moved here is a story in itself, but I did, and have never regretted it. Amsterdam is a great city to live and work in.

If anyone is planning on coming to Amsterdam, I'd be happy to answer what questions I can. I still work full time (age 63) on the trams in Amsterdam, giving me a special view of not only Amsterdam, but tourists, among which Americans.

I'm also very involved in American politics, and world/Dutch politics as well. No expert, but pretty well read.

Found your site via Google: Museumplein and then following links. What serendipity!

Keep on with your writing. I certainly enjoy it!

Earl Duthler

Posted by: Earl Duthler on September 20, 2004 06:32 PM

I'm sorry but I just had to comment on your view of Dutch habbits..I'm a student and I lived one year in the states, in a suburb of Chicago. My hostfamily came this summer to visit me, and they were just shocked of how happy everybody seemed over here. my hostdad actually said to me: how come all the adults look like they don't have any troubles or stress? they look so happy and relaxed!
I also noticed during my year in the US that the adults never go out, never drink, never just have fun (this was in a middle-class suburb, I know it doesn't count for the entire US) the summers were so hot, and their wasn't even one terrasje were you could enjoy the sun!
and the clothing...oh my god, you might be right about the men,,but the europian women, including the dutch, dress soo much better then the american..we don't were t-shirts and sneakers when we go outdoors, (maybe the poorer people but in the US even the rich women dress 'comfortable')! and when my hostdad walked around in his shorts, he noticed he was the only one wearing shorts and sneakers..he felt really uncomfortable..
I'm sorry, I really don't agree with you and I think I made my point clear!
(and what about gezellig, the word doens't even exist in the US)
Lange Leve Holland!

Posted by: Lyke de wit on November 19, 2004 02:47 PM
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