Stories from Afar & Up Close


It’s a recurring theme in the rants of even the most experienced expats living in the Netherlands: why the generally friendly or at least often smiling Dutch people never say ‘sorry’. (It’s a recurring theme in our inter-cultural marital fights as well, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.) And since for many expats, I’m one of the few Dutch people they know well (that’s apparently another thing that still baffles foreigners living here; how hard it is to become friends with a true Dutchie, but let’s leave that aside as well), they come to me for an explanation.

The first few times it came up, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I don’t find the Dutch people particularly rude, nor do I think they don’t apologize when they do something wrong.*

But I remembered that I was often annoyed, when living in the United States and in Lebanon, by people who kept saying sorry when I felt they didn’t even mean it. “I had a flat tire” – “I’m sorry”. “It’s raining outside so I can’t go out” – “I’m sorry”. “My dog died” – “I’m sorry”. I mean, I knew it was supposed to be friendly, but those ‘apologies’ only made me want to ask ‘why?’ Did you puncture my tire? Are you the one who made it rain? Or worse: did you kill my dog?

And then I realized what the problem was, and luckily it wasn’t rudeness: a different notion of what it means when you say sorry. The foreigners say sorry when they feel bad for you; the Dutch when it’s their fault that you feel bad. Don’t think we don’t sympathize with you – we just don’t want you to think we’re to blame.

*Except when we really did something wrong, like made a fortune by trading slaves. Then it becomes a lot harder to say ‘sorry’.