Dutch Language Blog

Be normal! and other reasons why the Dutch are plain as appeltaart Posted by on May 22, 2013 in Dutch Language

Flickr Creative Commons/Dave Goodman

The Dutch are all about blending in. Funny since, as some of the world’s tallest people, they tend to stick out like sore thumbs when they travel outside the Netherlands.

The goal is to downplay achievements and possessions so as not to appear “better” than anyone else. For all that they love to leave their windows wide open and in full view, the Dutch tend to keep everything else on the down-low.

As one learns during the inbureringscurses, asking a Dutch person how much he makes or how much her new car cost is as great a transgression as asking a woman’s age is in other cultures.

Don’t brag, don’t show off, don’t display too much personality, don’t publicly show emotions, follow all the rules and regulations, don’t act like you’re better or better off than anyone else.

This way of life is attributed to the country’s Calvinist roots. Though the religion no longer dominates in the Netherlands, there are still traces of it in the language.

For starters, take the saying “doe maar gewoon” (just be normal). It might just be the most important phrase for you to learn if you want to speak Dutch. Goodness knows you’ll hear it enough in your day-to-day interactions with Dutch speakers.

Or you might be treated to its cousins “doe normaal” (be normal) or “dat is niet normaal” (that’s not normal).

Then there are all the sayings and proverbs that act as constant reminders not to color outside the lines:

Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg –> Just act normal, that’s already crazy enough

Hoge bomen vangen veel wind –> “Tall trees catch a lot of wind.” This is the Dutch equivalent of “The bigger they are, the harder they fall” or “The higher you climb, the farther you fall.”

Steek je kop niet boven het maaiveld uit –> This translates loosely to “Don’t stand out from the crowd.” It literally means “Don’t stick your head above the mowing field (lawn or ground level).” The less frequently uttered second half of that sentence is “anders wordt hij eraf gemaaid” or “or else it’ll get cut/mowed off.” Well if that’s not incentive to keep yourself in line, I don’t know what is!

Wie voor een dubbeltje geboren is, wordt nooit een kwartje –> Literally translated, it means “He who is born a dime will never be a quarter,” essentially meaning “Born poor, stay poor.” The message here is that attempts to rise above your station in life are futile.

This mentality can be quite a shock to someone such as myself who grew up in a culture that encourages being loud and proud about your differences, your quirks, your hard work, your successes, and your talents.

But it’s what makes the Dutch Dutch. They may be plain as appeltaart (apple pie), but that’s why we love them.

And now we can speak like them too!

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About the Author: tiffany

Tiffany Jansen is an American magazine and copywriter in the Netherlands.


  1. Jon:

    And that’s why we love them. 😀

    Maybe one day, I’ll pick up the language, too.

    • tiffany:

      @Jon Sure you will! Just stick with us and we’ll help you 🙂

  2. Anda:

    “As one learns during the “inbureringscurses” ” = inburgeringscursus.

    • Tiffany:

      @Anda Thanks for the correction. Freudian slip?

  3. Cora:

    I couldn’t agree more. Especially the ‘doe maar gewoon…’ saying always gets my hackles up. Give me an English eccentric any day.


  4. Tom:

    Well isn’t the last proverb an example of Catholicism or Islam (determination by God) as opposed to Calvinism (Achievements on earth are a reflection of your position in Heaven (and, hence, Calvinists strive to be successful to prove their Goodness))?

  5. Janeen:

    Great article!

    I’ve never been to Holland, but my ethnic heritage is Dutch on both sides and I grew up in Northwest Iowa, where almost everyone else also has a Dutch surname.
    I can certainly confirm the statement that “the Dutch are all about blending in.” I have ADD, (diagnosed only a couple of years ago), which makes me a natural non-conformist…problematic where there is such strange pressure to “not color outside of the lines.”
    [I.e. We’re Dutch, we think/believe/act/dress *this* way, you’re different, you’re *WEIRD*]… I can still remember the disgust on one woman’s face and in her voice, describing someone else, thinking that the word “weird” was such an insult. She wasn’t talking about me but she might as well have been. Thank goodness I no longer live where I grew up, and I married a man with a old English last name. I like to think I literally have the license to be my slightly off-kilter true self now. There really cannot be any such thing as an eccentric Dutch person…{we are the Calvinist Borg, resistance is futile, you *will* be assimilated}. Heh! I honestly take weird as a compliment; to me it means being unique and interesting, which is far better than fitting oneself into the same mold as everyone else.

  6. Jayce:

    They’re an awful people. I’ll be so happy to finally get out of this place. :/

    • Tiffany:

      @Jayce Sorry you’ve had such a negative experience. All the best to you wherever your journey takes you next!

  7. john:

    you had to finish off with a nice pleasant remark just to be fake friendly and keep on pleasing audience (even though that from the rest of ur text, u clearly dont love them for this) xD ur hilarious

    • Tiffany:

      @john Not fake friendly at all! My husband, in-laws and some of my dearest friends are Dutch. And for all their quirks (and goodness knows my fellow Americans and I have our own) I do love them very much indeed

  8. Estarling:

    Dutch! The best people to work with.
    They never disappoint you professionally.
    After work you always can have a long, nice or burning discussion with them along several beers.
    The best colleagues ever. Don’t try to ask for more.
    They appreciate the good and strong characters.
    They will never speak to you in Dutch as you babel
    in their own language. Thus you must be very Dutch ready to get out of their mouth een hartelijk: Ja hoor!
    to your invitation to speak Dutch with you.