The Top 5 Cultural Differences Between Holland and the US

Hayley Barone is a student at St. Edward’s University and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently conducting research abroad with EuroScholars in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Herengracht, Leiden, NL - Barone - Photo 5
My favorite gracht (canal) near my dorm.

1. Cycling

The Dutch are experts at riding bikes. There are approximately 18 million bicycles, which leads to an average of 1.3 bicycles per person. Having a bike is a must in the Netherlands!

I reserved mine from a local Leiden Buy/Sell/Exchange Facebook group before I even left the US. When I arrived I met up with the Canadian student that was heading home from study abroad and purchased it off of her. Several of my friends purchased used bikes from local shops once they arrived in Leiden. It may seem expensive to lay down 60-80 euros right off the bat, but in the long term buying a secondhand bike is cheaper than using public transport daily and extremely safe. Bikes rule the road here with their own lanes and right of way that automobiles respect!

Bike Shed, Leiden, NL - Barone - Photo 1
My very own Dutch bike!

2. Grocery Shopping

The Dutch have grocery stores on every 5 or 6 blocks, so you’ll always find someplace close to home or on your way out. Back home in Texas I usually shop twice a month, plus some small shops if my flatmate and I are taken with a baking urge spur of the moment. However in Holland, it is the norm for students and young couples especially to stop at the grocery store every evening to pick up what will comprise dinner that night. Initially this was difficult because I would forget to stop on my way home and be stuck eating pasta and tomato sauce for a couple nights in a row. Now, it’s quite convenient because you get the best deals on produce for that day and you are assured you’re eating the freshest food. This also goes for the farmer’s market that occurs in our little town twice weekly; some of the best deals are to be had on the 1 euro veggie bushels!

Albert Heijn (pronounced like Heinz Ketchup without the z), a local grocery favorite
Albert Heijn (pronounced like Heinz Ketchup without the z), a local grocery favorite

3. Interactions and Personal Space

Holland has one of the highest population densities in the world with as many as 493 inhabitants per square kilometer*. This explains why the Dutch are so strict about there personal space. Theoretically, the Dutch compensate for a lack of physical space by expanding their personal space. Therefore interactions in the Netherlands are generally formal; to immediately call someone you don’t know by their first name is impolite. Maintaining a little distance and formality in your encounters with the Dutch will afford you plenty of cultural currency.

Waiting for the bus like a real Dutchman at Oosterkerkstraat
Waiting for the bus like a real Dutchman at Oosterkerkstraat

4. Doctor’s visits

Recently, I have been recovering from a nasty cold/flu virus with intermittent fevers and chills that’s left me with a very scratchy and sore throat. My mom urged me to go to the doctor (what is this international student health insurance for, after all?) but the Dutch students I work with and the more seasoned international students all advised me not to bother. Unlike in the United States, Dutch doctors are very selective in their medication prescribing. The running joke here says that you could go to the doctor with a gangrenous limb and you would be sent home with paracetamol (tylenol) and a recommendation of fluids and bed rest. This is obviously an exaggeration, but I have foregone visiting a doctor for my minor illness to rest and recover with over the counter decongestants and cough drops to save myself the time and stress. However I do have a list of GPs near me in case of a more severe problem; in order to get the emergency room, your GP has to see you first and refer you. This ensures that only the true emergencies reach the ER, and those people can be treated appropriately.

5. Het Leids Kwartiertje (15 Minute Rule)

At Leiden University, professors enjoy their coffee breaks too! So to accommodate everyone’s busy academic (and social) schedule, the University has adopted a unique approach called the “Het Leids Kwartiertje” which means the class lecture starts 15 minutes late; so classes scheduled for 1pm (or 13:00) unofficially begin at 1:15 (or 13:15). This unwritten rule is an exception to the notoriously punctual behavior of the Dutch.

There are many different explanations as to why this is practiced in Leiden, but it is generally agreed that the rule is to allow students and professors adequate time between classes to grab a coffee, catch up with friends, and pull out a pen and paper for lecture.

Leiden University; Bastion of Freedom
Leiden University; Bastion of Freedom