Dear Dutchies, meet a new friend — personal space!

Coming to a North European country, I had certain preconceptions about the ways and habits of the people here: hyper-organized (check), sport-obsessed (check), crazy tall (check!), and socially reserved? Well…

Obviously, it’s corona times, so personal space is far more important than usual. Dutchies are advised to keep 1.5m from each other but honestly, that often doesn’t happen despite the RIVM’s guidelines. So it’s definitely worth looking at the cultural background of this phenomenon.

 

One thing I was not ready for is the complete lack of personal space in the Netherlands! And here I thought that I was finally among people who despised physical vicinity to strangers as much as I do…

Now before I dive into the most common occurrences of the Dutch lack of personal space, I am sure there are plenty of Dutchies who know the dangers of coming too close to another unwilling human, but on average the personal space diameter is down at least 50% compared to the Italian one. We Italians (or Latinos, or any southern culture really) are touchy, yes, but only with people we feel close to.

Image: Natbrock Alicia Tom/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

Personal space in the Netherlands: in a queue

You would think Dutchies were good at making a line, but you’ll be confronted with the harsh reality that they are not. Whether at the supermarket, at the exit of the train station or at the airport gate, you’ll see a mass of people swarming around and ignoring the fact that I WAS BEFORE YOU!

Dutch and Personal Space
Who considers this a queue?? Image: Aurora Signorazzi/Supplied

I suspect this has to do with a couple of things: first of all, they don’t get mad if somebody is quicker than them and cuts the line. So they assume you won’t get mad either (wrong).

Secondly, they stand really really close to you (if you’re short like me, you might feel threatened by their sheer size), so it feels like they might cut alongside you at any moment. No customary personal queue space is granted, acknowledging your spot in the line and the intention to respect it.

Personal space in the Netherlands: in an elevator

Once you step into the elevator, you might want to place yourself in the far corner so that you don’t have to face strangers’ yawns, smoke smells or just unwanted vicinity; Dutch people don’t mentally divide the available space equally so that everyone has their own. Instead, they just step in and stay where they are, regardless of the fact that another human is 10 cm away from them and the lift is otherwise empty.

I know, how crazy is that?!

Personal space in the Netherlands: chatter on public transport

When on public transport, I generally like minding my own business, reading, listening to music etc. An effective way to convey this intention is to put on headphones, face the window and basically get absorbed by the activity.

In the Netherlands, this might be disturbed by the frequent person sitting (very) close to you despite the empty wagon and the occasional Chatter who taps your shoulder to start a conversation.

The first type can be spotted frequently in the wild train lands. Anthropologists are puzzled by his/her behaviour and have not yet found what might cause it. The leading hypothesis is that the human in question is cold and needs outer sources of heat to survive.

The second specimen is however quite rare (luckily), usually in need of emotional closeness rather than a physical one; despite the evident discomfort of its targets, and unaware of its own risk, the Chatter will start by using a ploy (often travelling info) and will keep on ignoring your need for personal space (and personal time) until you relocate.

Hopefully, your next destination is home, where you can keep on being an introvert with the need of personal space of a Yeti!

What about personal space when dating? Check this out.

Did you also experience an utter disregard a difference in the perception of personal space in the Netherlands? Let us know in the comments!

Feature Image: Aurora Signorazzi/Supplied
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 2018 and was updated in December 2020 for your reading pleasure.

Aurora Signorazzi
Aurora comes from the majestic Italian capital, and is working on her PhD in virology at the University of Groningen. She has been living in the Netherlands for four years and is by now familiar with many Dutch habits... But still finds plenty of reasons to be pleasantly amazed (most of the time) by this industrious country and its brutally honest inhabitants!

8 COMMENTS

  1. “Who considers this a queue??”

    Well apparently judging from the Italians in the picture, Italians do.
    (Has the author of this piece ever set foot in Italy by the way, or has she dealt with Italians?)

    • Hi pepe, I am Italian and I did shoot that pic myself. Of course there’s no way of proving this to you, but most of those people were Dutch.
      As I have lived my first 25 years of my life in Italy, I think I know what I am talking about 😉 Italians are not the best at queueing, I’ll give you that, but they do care if someone cuts them in line. Here I often find a person next to me, maybe with no intention of cutting in front of me but surely making me uncomfortable with being too close.
      thanks for your contribution

  2. I lived in Italy for fifteen years and never had the same problems with “personal space” in buses, trains and planes, when I did use them, but maybe that was because I mostly drove my own car. In fact when I lived there the concept, in the way it’s used today, didn’t even exist. And with all of my Dutch experiences (five years) I never saw a Dutch person who was not angry being cut in line. The girl in the foto is either carrying something for a school project or highly weird if its intended to create a “safe space:. Smoking is not allowed in elevators, or hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, stores, and other spaces in The Netherlands. Maybe in many cafes and certainly in many bars. Also, Dutch strangers don’t tap other strangers on the shoulder, even occasionally, to have a conversation, although they might politely ask you for directions. Circa fifty-percent of the Dutch I ran into were really, really nice and the rest ranged from chilly to not so nice at all. But you have that in almost every country. Overall, so far, The Netherlands is a great place, so long as one lives in a house away from the cities like I have. Privacy certainly is a big deal for some of us.

  3. Without doubt the least spatially aware nation I have encountered. Sociologically anomalous for such a densely populated area.

  4. Born & raised in the NL (32 yrs), now in USA, the South (17 yrs). Everyone here wants to always hug!!! I find that invading my personal space. I can deal with the crowdedness in queueus en public transport. But not this always wanting to hug! ???

  5. The Dutch still live in the Golden Age when they were on top of the world. Now a minor player, they make up for inadequacy by pushing past people and being rude. Remember the 2010 World Cup against Spain — full of the dirtiest tackles. It´s just Dutch nature. No one here gives it a second thought.

  6. 6 years of living in NL and didn’t happen to me even once. On the contrary, people are extra-careful in making sure not to cut a line and are quick to speak out when someone cuts through.

  7. I’m not sure which part of the Netherlands you find yourself in. But a lot of your examples is not what’s general happening..

    Never see I people crawl against other people in elevators.

    Us Dutchies hate being cut in lines. But often don’t say anything about it.

    Do you know how a coupe in the train fills out? First one person per four chairs, then two people in two chairs. At this point people usually walk to another coupe to see if there is an empty chair or only one taken per four.
    And only when it starts to get busy they’ll start sitting next to you. In a distance that is set by the train builders in France and Germany..

    I don’t think you have the right grasp of the real Netherlands yet. Please don’t speak untruth about stuff, the internet is already full of that.

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