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Life in the Netherlands

No matter where you come from, life in the Netherlands will be a little (or a lot) different to your home country.

Although we could fill a book or blog with the characteristics that make the Dutch Dutch, we've highlighted a few points in this section that may help you prepare for your time with us, and to get your studies and semester off to a good start!

Many people are impressed by how organised the Netherlands is in general. Despite a perceived high level of bureaucracy, generally international students feel quite positive about how well everything runs. The public transport system is excellent, the bike paths are defined and safe, the medical system is efficient, etc.

With this organisation comes a high degree of adherence to rules (written and unwritten). Although from abroad the Netherlands often has a reputation that doesn't quite line up with this image, within the country the Dutch tend to be quite an organized and structured folk, who frown on breaking of rules and laws. For the international exchange student, knowing this can help you in several ways during your semester/year with us:

  • Please be aware that the idea of the Netherlands that is found in popular culture (whether the Amsterdam-variety or the tulip-clogs-cows variety) is just that - an image or stereotype with a certain degree of truth. Students studying with us in Leiden or the Hague will become a part of Dutch life, and are expected to act accordingly.
  • Students will be expected to know the Leiden University rules and regulations regarding course and exam registration, plagarism, semester dates, housing, etc.
  • The more you are aware of the unwritten rules of Dutch society, the better you will be able to navigate it. For example, be prepared to speak up and claim your spot in your local bakery when the baker asks whose turn it is. The unwritten rule here is that you need to be actively engaged and ready to go without delay when it's your turn. Read a book about Dutch culture, talk to Dutch family or friends, spend a little time acclimatising before the semester starts. This is of course true of any culture in which you will be immersed for a period of time.
  • Learn the rules of the road. One of the first things you will do in the Netherlands is purchase a bike. Bike paths and routes all over the country are well designed and a wonderful way to get around and to see the city or country. For your safety, it's crucial that you learn the rules regarding right of way and signposting early on. Hesitation tends to confuse traffic situations; again, you need to learn how this works and claim your rightful place on the road (using good common sense as well of course). Review the brochure Road Traffic Signs and Regulations in the Netherlands (pdf) issued by the Dutch government to get you started.

Dutch students tend to be quite independent compared to students from other cultures (particularly outside of Europe). They generally move out on their own after high school, and are used to resolving issues on their own and being treated as adults. Leiden University offers many services to its students in all areas related to their studies; however, students are also expected to excercise and develop independence and to take responsibility for their own studies. For students coming from a strongly service-oriented society such as the USA and Canada, this approach and expectation can take a little getting used to - it may be helpful to keep this context in mind.

The Dutch are known for their directness. It is typical for people to say what they feel or think about anything and everything. Although those students coming from a different culture may experience this as confrontational, this characteristic is actually highly valued in Dutch society. Dutch people feel that by being direct, and giving one's opinion straight, situations are clear, transparent, and everybody knows where everybody stands. Try not to be taken aback by this approach, but view it as information sharing and the starting point of a discussion.

Use your time in the Netherlands to learn to speak up about your own opinions as well. You will be expected to actively participate in classes, to speak up and give your opinion about the study materials. This may take a little practice, but try not to be nervous; if everyone takes part in the discussion the class will be more meaningful for all participants.

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