Home Culture Translation problems: things Americans new in the Netherlands may not understand

Translation problems: things Americans new in the Netherlands may not understand

Translation problems: things Americans new in the Netherlands may not understand
Image: Gabby K/Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/puzzled-woman-with-pen-studying-in-room-6237990/

Moving to the Netherlands as an American can be a whirlwind of learning, adjusting, and wonder.

But past the language, there are some other things American expats may have trouble translating here. Here’s a handy guide to prepare yourself — and advice on how to to deal with it 😉.


🇺🇸 = feet
🇳🇱 = metres

I often want to talk to someone about how tall people are and constantly struggle with converting feet into metres.

Advice: “She is the height of that lamp,” etc.

Distances – in kilometers.

🇺🇸 = miles
🇳🇱 = kilometres

How far away is that? Someone gives you a distance, and instead of admitting you’re not really sure what that means, you simply reply “oh.”

Also, Dutch people’s sense of distance is a little skewed. “Oh, that’s extremely far, an hour and a half away.” We now live in a country small enough to drive from Amsterdam to Paris in four hours. In the American Midwest, you could drive that long and still not be anywhere — just in more cornfields.

Advice: Overexaggerate when talking about distances. “That is a trillion kilometers away.” No matter where you are, a trillion is a lot. That means it’s really far. (You could also try to multiple by 1.5 to get a vague sense of the milage.)

Green = officially uses the metric system — America may be a little behind. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain


🇺🇸 = Fahrenheit
🇳🇱 = Celsius

This is particularly hard with washing machines because the temperature is in Celsius and the nobs are all in Dutch.

Advice: Talk about temperature as it relates to weather here. Mostly: coldish and wet, or sunny and warm.


🇺🇸 = dollars
🇳🇱 = euros

This is okay. Although for awhile I was doing that thing where you yell, “THIS IS ONLY 5 DOLLARS,” outing myself as an obnoxious and cheap American.

Advice: Try to be silent while shopping.

Time and dates

🇺🇸 = just kinda makes sense
🇳🇱 = very confusing, dates are reversed

Dutch time, as told in the Dutch language, is like calculus to me. Quarter til the hour minus 25. It makes absolutely no sense.

Also, if we’re honest with each other, I still haven’t fully adjusted to placing the day before the month. July 11 = 11/7. It does not = 7/11, so I’m stuck thinking that the summer barbeque is happening in November.

Advice: This gets easier. Re-read. Think about it. Double check if you’re unsure.


🇺🇸 = very open, friendly
🇳🇱 = direct and pragmatic

When I meet you, I want to tell you everything about my life. My latest fight with my mother, the last time I cried, how much weight I gained since I think things here are measured in UK stones.

But Dutch people are stoic. Feelings and explosions of emotion are more private. “Why are you telling me about this,” they think.

Advice: To start, stick to weather for conversation to gain the Dutch person’s trust. These more serious talks will come later. If you’re looking for a quicker emotional connection, reach out to fellow expats. Cry on their shoulder. Maybe they’ll understand a little easier. There is nothing wrong with hanging out with people like you until you can get your bearings, and feel more secure.

Final words of advice

Not everyone loves where you come from or thinks it’s as great as you do, so try to go with the flow. Try to learn, even if it’s slowly. There’s no reason to be ashamed of who you are, but try to be respectful of where you are now, and adapt accordingly.

Stay confident. Stay dedicated. Soon these measurements will translate more easily 😉

What was the hardest thing for you to adjust to as an American expat? Tell us in the comments below!

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in July 2015, but was fully updated in March 2021 for your reading pleasure.
Feature Image: Gabby K/Pexels



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