A TOP CITY FOR EXPATS – who don’t need friends

Millions want to visit, so why wouldn't you want to live here?

Millions want to visit; why wouldn’t you want to live here?


According to an article on the BBC website, I’m living in the one of the best places in the world to be a foreign resident.

But on delving further into an HSBC survey comparing countries’ liveability for expats, I was disconcerted to see that while the Netherlands scored well on things like job opportunities, health services, ease of transport, culture, language (meaning widely-spoken English) and good schools for expat children, it was near the bottom of the list on various social criteria.

The country rated very low for expats in ‘making local friends’, ‘social life’ and ‘integrating into the community’. China and Germany scored much higher in these categories.

There’s no way I can judge the reliability of the survey, but as an expat myself it’s interesting to consider why new arrivals find it hard to break the ice and become friends with people who speak excellent English and apparently pride themselves on their openness, tolerance and acceptance of difference.

Admittedly my own experience, while common enough, is not the typical expat one. I was fortunate to marry into Amsterdam society, as it were. Mevrouw T brought with her an instant family and a ready-made circle of Dutch friends.

It required some effort from my new family and my patient, open, tolerant new friends to help me learn enough Dutch to feel comfortable with the language. We forced ourselves to carry on halting Dutch conversations when we all knew it would have been much easier just to speak English.

That’s the first difficulty newcomers to Amsterdam complain about. Everybody insists on using English when a foreigner shows the slightest difficulty or hesitation with their Dutch. These days I feel slightly insulted when someone serving me in a shop or restaurant hears my accent and grammatical mistakes and drops into English. I forgive them when, as sometimes happens, I find it’s they who speak less than perfect Dutch.

Yet despite the Netherlanders’ language proficiency, I’ve seen social gatherings quickly divide into Dutch speakers and The Rest.

Some years ago I spent a week as a visiting author at a school with both an English and a Dutch stream. The English and Dutch staff shared a staffroom and despite the fact that they knew each other well and the Dutch teachers all spoke fluent English, at lunchtime it was as if an invisible chalkline separated the tables along the language divide.

Another problem is that since most city apartments are too small for elaborate entertaining, much Dutch social life revolves around the ‘cafe’, meaning ‘bar’.

Many Dutch people have their regular haunts, where they drop in after work, knowing that they’ll bump into their regular friends. Dutch cafes are friendly places, but as a stranger you’ll be chatted to for a few polite minutes, then left alone while the groups close ranks again around the cafe friends they’ve been talking to for years.

While in Australia almost everyone you work with, play sport with or know socially is a ‘friend’ or a ‘mate’, in Holland there’s a clear distinction between ‘vriend’ (friend) and ‘kennis’ (acquaintance). People tell me there’s only room in a Dutch person’s life for about five true ‘vrienden’. If you haven’t known someone since schooldays it’s, “Sorry, I think you’re a really nice person but you’ll always be a ‘kennis’.”

Small wonder that even expats who have lived in the Netherlands for years tend to make most of their friendships among other outsiders.

Of course there is plenty in Amsterdam to compensate for any Dutch stand-offishness. It’s beautiful, small, culturally interesting, a hub for exploring Europe and the world, well organised, bike-friendly… And there are thousands of other expats waiting to meet you.

What do you think? Are the Dutch really more open to new friendships than I’m making out? How have other expats in the Netherlands found the social experience? Let me know.

9 Comments

Filed under Holland

9 responses to “A TOP CITY FOR EXPATS – who don’t need friends

  1. I agree with some of this opinion and disagree with it also. When I came I knew no-one. Poeple were very friendly in their own way. In bars I had lots of interesting talks with fascinating people, still do. The main difference i find is caused mainly by the smallness f the living spaces, and that fact that we all lve on top of each other. It is really not done here to bring someone along if you are going visiting, something that I had to get used to. Their homes are regarded as very private places. Everyone is welcome to a bar or public place. I experienced that for the first three years you are included even if you don’t speak Dutch, but after roughly three years if you still don’t spek Dutch you are less welcome. Finaaly they are not interested in small talk. THis might seem unfriendly. Especially in Amsterdam you are expected to be aware of whats going on in the world and have an opinion. If not you are just not that interesting. They don’t make superfiial friends, but deep ones. Otherwise you are indeed an aquaintance. I like the clarity of it all, no wasting time with people you don;t have anything in common with!

    • Thanks for this, Gail. We both have the social advantage of having Dutch partners, so it’s not all that easy to see how things work for other expats.

      But you’re quite right about Dutch private homes. It’s easy in Australia to invite a few people, including some you may not know very well, over for a casual BBQ. It’s harder to do that in a tiny Amsterdam apartment with neighbours who’d complain about the music, noise and smoke!

  2. I can’t comment on Dutch life, but as an expat in Italy I have been accepted by the locals, especially in the very tiny village of Vergemoli where we have built a house. Everyone has been especially kind and helpful and we are regularly invited to social occasions and people love to drop in to check on the progress of our house and garden. There are very few foreigners in the village, so maybe we are a bit of a novelty.

    • Debra, your comment sent me back to that HSBC survey to see how expats rated their lives in Italy.

      The findings: low on income and work environment but extremely high on healthy food, local shops and markets, making local friends, learning local language and integrating into the community. Sounds like your experience exactly!

  3. betsey

    interesting. I found the English, when I was living with them, equally hard to get close to.

  4. iain tulloch

    Although more easy going on the surface the Spanish show similar traits. It may be something to do with small flats and it certainly has a lot to do with escaping from them in the hot evenings and socializing in the street. The home is normally reserved for the wider family. Barbecues are closer to the anglo saxon manner of entertaining friends, but where a house has its own garage that will often be used in preference to allowing guests into the home, One big difference is that the Spanish are definitely not linguists like the Dutch, and they happily tolerate halting conversations and small talk. However one common factor may well be the irrational fear of senior management that every visitor will be auditing the depth of dust on the furniture rather than enjoying the company!

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