Britsoc: The British Society of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. Serving the British Expat community since 1920.

An Englishman in Amsterdam

An Englishman in Amsterdam

A day in Amsterdam: Britons are conservative, intelligent, agreeable and humorous

‘The trade point of view is a great similarity between both countries’


By Juul Seesing

The British General Stores in the Eerste Constantijn Huygensstraat, Amsterdam: a store located in one of the old-fashioned buildings in the street. With its crenellated roof and products like a mug of  The Beatles and a can of mushy peas displayed for sale behind the window, the store attracts the customers with a pure flurry of nostalgic, British desire.

The British General Stores is one of the signs the Britons are highly represented in The Netherlands. According to the most recent measurement of the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (a Dutch authority that gathers statistical information), 47,789 people born in the United Kingdom lived in The Netherlands in 2013. But what is the Dutch perspective on British people who are living and working in their country?

mugabbeyPaul Schouten (67) has just got some food at the bakery near the British General Stores. He is looking to the shopping (British) persons who are walking into the store. “I think British people are intelligent”, the Amsterdamer says. “Their whole island is surrounded by the sea. If you can defend your land well against the sea, then you are smart.” Schouten is therefore happy with the Britons who decided to live in The Netherlands, also because ‘the culture they bring with them’, referring to the history in the theatre and the pop music. “But I also think British people are conservative. When I was in Britain, I noticed the people wanted to be bound to a tight regime.”

This pronouncement is familiar to Dr Dennis Kersten. As a teacher British Culture and History at Radboud University, he learned how Dutch persons generally think about Britons. “Especially expressions of the culture of South-England reach Dutch people: historical period dramas, like Downton Abbey. Because of this, the Dutch think of the British as people who are stylish, very traditional and who attach a great importance to history.” Kersten sees in the traditional feature of the British a great difference from the Dutch. “In The Netherlands, individuality is perhaps more appreciated. Everybody wants to distinguish themselves. When somebody has green hair, we encourage that one to keep it that way. In Britain, people think more communally.”

medlrew_1584307fBack to the streets of Amsterdam. What is conspicuous is that almost every interviewee comes up with one of the following words when asked about their image of Britons: conservative, intelligent, agreeable or humorous. Whether it is the 26-year-old Amsterdamer Jan Estrada (“I have worked at with British people and they were very agreeable guys”) or the 28-year-old Natasha Sneiders (“Britons have a great sense of humour”): almost every Dutch person in the centre of Amsterdam on this Monday afternoon primarily has a positive image of British persons and is happy an amount of them lives here.

Who has certainly met plenty of British people in The Netherlands, is Michiel van Eijck. As a gallery owner, he has met ‘enough’ Britons. “Yes, they are very positive people”, the 52-year-old man says. “They are convivial, sympathetic and have a great sense of humour.” Van Eijck is eating a bread roll which he just ordered at a bakery opposite the former British and Irish products store Arkwrights in the Rozengracht. A lonely board is the only indication that here was once a store where you could find food from Britain and Ireland. Van Eijck takes a bite of his roll. “I think every culture which comes to The Netherlands has something to add to our country. But the Britons who come here, are highly educated. As far as I am concerned, there may come more of them.”

However, not every Dutch person is happy with the amount of British people in The Netherlands. A 76-year-old woman, who wants to stay anonymous, worked at a publisher of scientific magazines and dealt with many Britons down here. “I was always an Anglophile, but this changed when I began to work with Britons. They are too occupied with hierarchy: they always want to ask everything to their bosses and are not right to the point.”

online-students-social-mediaDr Dennis Kersten indeed sees the difference between the Dutch face-to-face culture and the British reserve. “For the British, it is not decent to say something face to face. The Dutch just think that is unfair. When you are working with each other, this will manifest itself.” Nonetheless, Kersten underlines the similarities between the British, but especially the English, and the Dutch. “Already in the very past, The Netherlands and England were superpowers of the trade at the sea. Now, you see that Mark Rutte and David Cameron can get along well: they are both supporters of a European Union as a free trade area, and not a political centre of federal Europe. This trade point of view is a great similarity between both countries.”


‘The English language skills of the Dutch make the settling easier for Brits’

Confronted with the Dutch image on British people, Vaughan Collinson (54) points out one thing: the Dutch boldness versus the maintained British reserve. “Dutch people always think that all the British people are like the people from South-England. But I lived in the north of England and we are also blunt: we say what we mean and we mean what we say.” For Collinson, who is currently living in Amsterdam, a trip to South-England was ‘more a culture shock’ than a voyage to The Netherlands: “The Dutch have similar attitudes to life as the northern English.”

Amanda van Mulligen thinks the ability of most Dutch people to speak English on an acceptable level, is the point whereby The Netherlands is a country in which the British can easily adapt. She is in her 40s, lives in Zoetermeer, and lived in various places in Hertfordshire. “The excellent English language skills of the Dutch make the settling in The Netherlands easier for Brits than for some other nationalities. Whilst I was getting my Dutch up to scratch it was a huge help to still be able to communicate and find my way around.”

But how do the British inhabitants of The Netherlands exactly think of their countrymen? Collinson, Van Mulligen and Abigail Holdom all agree: the Dutch are very willing to talk to you. “The Dutch are forthcoming”, Holdom, a 43-year-old English inhabitant of Amsterdam, says. “They are always happy to talk to you. And, in general, they do this in a loud way, haha.”

British self-control and Dutch boldness

  • 47,789 people born in the United Kingdom lived in The Netherlands in 2013, the most recent measurement of the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek107553986_crowd_301450c
  • “The most common motives for moving to the Netherlands are pragmatic ones, like having a job or a Dutch partner”, Dr Dennis Kersten explains.
  • According to an article in Ons Engeland, a special edition about Britain of the opinion magazine Elsevier in 2012, Dutch people admire the British sense of humour, self-control and perseverance.
  • The other way around, the British see the Dutch as ‘bold, economical, and hardworking’, as reported by the same edition of Elsevier.
  • Another latest measurement of the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek shows that 6,880 Dutch persons emigrated to the United Kingdom (2009).