Why it seems difficult to make friends in the Netherlands

When I meet expats I am always curious to know what they think of the Netherlands, and one issue that has always come up is the one of making friends. Even though they have plenty of contact with Dutch people, it seems to be hard to get in their group of friends and still end up having mostly other expat friends.

Being Dutch I think there are several reasons that might explain why it might be difficult for an expat to make ´native´ Dutch friends. First of all, Dutch people don`t have the necessity to make new friends. This phenomenon is quite universally known among expats and the people of the country in which they live. When an expat arrives he is unlikely to know a lot of people, maybe he doesn´t even know the language, whereas his autochthonus collegues have spent their entire lives there and already have lots of friends to do stuff with, family to visit and gym`s to go to. Therefore they simply don`t feel as much need to make new friends as an expat does. That´s why it is much and much easier to make friends with your fellow expats. You share the need to make new friends and maybe even more important – you share the experience of living in a country that is not your own. 

The second reason why it is hard for many expats is – yes I will say it – the cultural difference. Dutch people can be very direct and this eventually leads to a quite clear definition of the word `friend`. In many countries a friend is someone you know, someone you hang out with every once in a while. Although the Netherlands formally doesn´t have a very hierarchical society, informally the Dutch make a big difference between an acquaintance and a friend. A Dutch person might have between 5-20 friends. This might not be a lot, yet these friends are the ones they have known for a long time and they would trust completely. Anyone else they will simply refer to as somebody they know, work with or they have once met.

Now you have to understand that just because they don´t refer to you as their friend, does not change the relationship. In a lot of countries the word `friend` is to the Dutch standards overused and this person is probably just someone you know. They will run into this person on the street and say ¨Oh we should totally get a coffee some time!¨ and then walk away without any intention of contacting that person again in the near future. They would always tell me that even though they call them their friends, they know exactly who their real friends are and who are not. In other words, the label you put on a relation might be different from the label a Dutch person puts on the relationship, but that doesn`t mean a they don`t like hanging out with you.

Another point is that in the Netherlands there is not really a big culture of inviting people over for dinner, as there might be in a lot of other countries. However when they do invite you over, they truly mean it. No invitation or suggestion to have a cup of coffee together is meant to sound nice. And when you ask a Dutch person if they want to have lunch on friday and they say ¨I will see if I can make it¨, they don´t politely try to let you down. You will honestly hear again from them in the next following days.

Although it may seem difficult, it is definitely not impossible to make Dutch `friends`. The advantage for expats is that pretty much all Dutch people speak English, and I think as soon as you are able to look past the Dutch directness and the fact that they may or may not call you their friends, it should not be such a big issue to socialize with the Dutch.


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