Coming from England, I have the habit of saying ‘sorry’ even when someone has run over my foot with a truck. So, when I found out we were moving to Holland (sorry, the Netherlands) earlier this year, one of the first words I wanted to look up was ‘sorry’ in Dutch. On my flight over I rapidly flicked through the little pocket book of Dutch I’d bought at the airport. Amongst how to order a coffee and ask for the bill, I was amused and perplexed to find that ‘sorry’ was also ‘sorry’ in Dutch.

I soon realised, however, that the Dutch don’t really say it. As an Australian friend of mine once said ‘there are no sorrys in sport’. For the Dutch there are no sorrys in life. There really is no equivalent word for the English ‘sorry’. Yes, they have lots of other ways of sort of saying ‘sorry’ (for example ‘het spijt me’, meaning ‘it displeases me’), but none of them really amount to the same thing.

Dutch kids
Sorry Johan, but I am about to hit you.

What happens if you say ‘sorry’ in Dutch?

In fact, using the word ‘sorry’ in Dutch is one of the quickest ways of being found out as a foreigner. No matter how good your ‘ja, alstublieft’, ‘nee hoor’, and ‘dank u wel’ is in the queue at Albert Heijn, as soon as you say ‘sorry’, a Dutch person will almost invariably switch to English. I’ve even tried rapidly following it up with ‘wat zeg je?’, but it never works. Where an English person says sorry, a Dutchman never would.

As I have come to realise after my first six months in the Netherlands, language tells you a lot about a country and its culture, and the lack of a word for ‘sorry’ is linked to that famed Dutch directness that you’ve heard so much about. If you’ve lived here for any length of time, though, you come to understand that it is a far more subtle and complex notion than just being direct for the sake of it.

So why don’t they say ‘sorry’?

And, perhaps even more perplexing for an Englishman, why don’t they queue? Of course the answer is that they do, when it’s necessary. But if something can be achieved quicker and more efficiently without queuing, then they do that. And this is what lies behind the lack of ‘sorry’. When you think about it, it doesn’t serve a purpose. Why say it at all, unless you really have just run over someone’s foot with a truck?

The catch is, of course, that when the English say ‘sorry’, they never really mean it. There’s always a big gulf between what they say and what they mean (this is what makes English comedy so good). If you bump into someone and they say ‘sorry’, they’re not actually apologising. It’s more like an interjection, an ‘oh!’, than a genuine expression of sorrow. Like the Dutch, then, the English aren’t really sorry, but they just say they are. Adjusting to this new reality is only one of the many challenges of living in a new country, but once you begin to see beneath the surface you might realise that we’re not so different after all. Sorry!

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14 COMMENTS

  1. I am sorry Nick, but you have to work on your Dutch a little longer. Het spijt me literally means it regrets me a.k.a. I regret.

  2. I usually say ‘pardon’, as an ‘excuse me, may I pass’, or when accidentally bumping into someone (not running over their foot, that I would be sorry for), or as a ‘sorry, can you repeat that, I didn’t hear you’, or ‘may I have your attention please’.

  3. If we didn’t hear what someone said we also say “pardon?…” But sometimes “sorry” also helps in the city center if they want to take an annoying survey.. If they only look for non-tourists they are done right away

  4. The best descirption I’ve ever read from a native English speaker (booklet “Undutchables”):

    Having just arrived in The Netherlands a Brittish person is bumped into at a grocery store.

    The Dutch person does apologize with a quick “Sorry hoor”. The Brittish person is completely baffelled as she understood it as “Surrey whore”.

    No wonder we’re seen as a blunt bunch!! 😉 😉

  5. What a load of shite. Ofcourse we say sorry in Dutch. The reason people switch to English when you say sorry is likely because you pronounce sorry the English way (“sawry” vs “sohry, with the ‘r’ in the front of the mouth”) and we recognise the accent so we immediately switch to English.

  6. I’ve lived in the Netherlands for more than thirty years, in many different regiions, towns and cities, and speak the language fluently. People here who are commenting that the Dutch DO apologise, or that the phrase “het spijt me” really DOES mean “I’m sorry” are missing the point. The point is that compared to the Brits (and many other nations too), the Dutch rarely apologise – for anything. This is not just a matter of saying sorry or not when bumping into you. The average Dutch person seems not to be prepared to admit mistakes or culpability. They will state their opinions about what did or did not happen, but rarely (by comparison) are they willing to concede and apologise for any effect their actions may have had on you. This is as true in commerce as it is in everyday life. In industry it is particularly acute, as the individuals do not typically see themselves as ambassadors of that industry. They do not typically feel responsible for the services or goods they are providing, and so will rarely apologise for any problems in those services/goods. They seem to think that the apology would imply that THEY personally had done something wrong, while they are simply a facilitator or some kind. I have had many experiences where they accept thaat there is a problem, that that has been an inconvenience, that something was confusing or that something different should have happened etc., but where they still did not simply apologize for that. It’s like there’s a collective national mental block about apologising. As a customer struggling with an issue, this can be more than a little upsetting (unless you’re Dutch of course, in which case you presumably don’t even notice).

  7. The Nederlanders do have a word for I “am Sorry”. ” Het spijt me” means I am sorry and “Ik heb er spijt van”, means I regret it. The word “Spijt” have 2 different meanings.

  8. Actually when the British say sorry they usually DO mean it, at least to some extent. This is a cultural difference that goes very deep.

  9. @OP
    “The catch is, of course, that when the English say ‘sorry’, they never really mean it.”
    This is plain wrong. We do mean it, but the meaning and strengthof “sorry” can varydepending on context. The article is wrong on may points.

    In English used within the anglophere, the word sorry can mean many things e.g:
    Apology
    Excuse me.
    Interjection
    Seeking clarification

    I have never heard anybody in Belgium apologise ( I know some do), but I have heard people in the Nederland apologise.

    Disclaimer: I’m a Brit, who has lived in Amsterdam for five years and have lived in various cities in Belgium for seven years.

    Bav/mvg, Soph

  10. In fact saying sorry can be a good way to make a Dutch person angry. As a Dutch person I have experienced this multiple times already. They can say things like ‘I don’t need to hear your excuses.’ or ‘I can’t buy anything with apologies.’ or they go really deep into how you wronged them and why so that everyone can see how they are the better person in the room.
    So I would just advise that you just explain that you understand the situation and leave it at that.

  11. When I realised I am wrong, I would say ‘Neem mij niet kwalijk’ as in…I apologise, excuse me, or oh I’m sorry. So the Dutch DO apologise. You just need to learn to listen to it.

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