The Dutch Waiters

The first mistake anyone can make when entering a Dutch bar, café or restaurant and trying to get the Dutch waiter’s attention is; entering a Dutch bar, café or restaurant and trying to get the Dutch waiter’s attention. Dutch waiters simply don’t like their attention being got. It is a fact of nature. Trying to get the attention of a Dutch waiter, waitress or any other member of bar staff is a battle of wills which can rarely be won. You might eventually get served but this only occurs when the Dutch waiter has decided to acknowledge your attempts to do so (which they will still do begrudgingly).

For example:Whenever you enter a café in Holland it is inevitable that the waiter behind the bar is cleaning a glass. It is also inevitable that they will suddenly develop extreme tunnel vision and your approach to the bar will go unnoticed. In addition to this, they will become extremely dedicated to the cleanliness and hygiene of that one single glass in a way that suggests an extreme case of obsessive compulsive disorder as they clean it over and over again and seemingly fails to notice you waiting for them to put it down. It should be noted that a blind and deaf man has more awareness of his surroundings than a Dutch waiter who wants to avoid dealing with customers.

This glass cleaning technique will continue well past the point of uncomfortable-ness and force you to question your own existence as all of your coughing, arm waving and flair firing continue to go unnoticed during their Gollum like fascination with the very clean glass.

However, if you have the strength to wait long enough even a Dutch waiter will eventually have to admit to themselves that the glass is clean enough, put it down and (if they don’t pick up another) let their attention be got.

There is one very important thing that must be remembered once you have the attention of a Dutch waiter; Do not attempt to order in Dutch. Seriously, don’t do it. The waiter is already unhappy that they had to give you their attention. If you attempt to order in Dutch you will become their play thing as they pick your Dutch speaking ability to pieces and refuse to for fill your order until you can pronounce it better then Queen Betrx herself. You will not be allowed to switch back to English either. They will force you to finish what you started in the interest of, “learning the language.”

In fact, Dutch waiters are so strict when it comes to the use of their own language that if they were used as part of the Inburgeringstoets process (Dutch Immigration and citizenship test) most applicants would probably end up being barred from the country. That or give up after being ignored for so long and move to Belgium.

You better enjoy that beer once you have it because it will be a long time until you get another. Dutch waiters really don’t like their attention to be got.

33 responses to “The Dutch Waiters”

  1. VallyP says:

    I read your post out to Koos, stu, and he was saying ‘yes,yes,yes!!’ throughout the piece, laughed uproarously (as did i) and agreed with every single word. It’s a wonder they make any money really isn’t it? It’s the apparent boredom they demonstrate when they do eventually accede that they have to serve you that gets me going…

  2. Alison says:

    This is why we almost never go anywhere other than our local. We’re good friends now with the family and staff that owns/runs the place, so it’s not a problem. On the other hand, when I went to a cafe for lunch with a visiting friend of mine, it took forever to get service and then when I tried to order a Perrier (with the French pronunciation, which we use even in the US), the waitress had no idea what I was ordering until I finally had to point to it on the menu. Then she corrected me by pronouncing the R at the end of the word. Come on! The Netherlands is closer to France than the US! If we can say it properly in the US, it shouldn’t be so confusing here in the Netherlands! Then she forgot to actually place our food order. But at least she was very cheery throughout the whole mess!

  3. Neil says:

    I’ve noticed this myself :) I normally end up shouting ‘excuse me!’ and making the situation even worse!
    I’ve only recently discovered your site and am enjoying reading the back catalogue of articles. Thanks!

  4. Lily says:

    Am I the only one who doesn’t recognise this behaviour?! :-) Any time we go to a pub here, we’re always approached (pretty quickly) and place our order. We don’t have to stand at the bar or anything. I can order in Dutch okay – they’re USUALLY pretty friendly and patient around these parts & when I speak Dutch, people usually ask me questions about where I’m from or why I’m here. Perhaps it’s a difference between living in somewhere like Amsterdam and a small-ish town?

  5. Anneke says:

    Amsterdam does have a nasty reputation service wise. Most cities I’ve been/lived are npt like that. Then again, Amsterdammers are known throughout the country for being assholes…

  6. Laura says:

    I asked for a coffee at our Volksuniversiteit canteen last night (the Haarlem one where I take Dutch lessons). I try to order in Dutch (not that asking for “koffie” is a great effort!) Although the coffee wasn’t ready, she said I could get free coffee from the machine. Fine.

    Then I asked for “zoetjes”, which you can’t get from the machine (Canderel or sweetener, whatever you want to call it). The woman didn’t understand me. I kept saying, “zoutjes! zoutjes” “Canderel!” “voor de koffie!” “niet suiker maar…zoetjes!” my hands flying around, gesturing.

    She replied in English, “the coffee machine is in the corner!” “Nee!!” I said, “zoutjes! voor in de koffie!”

    After saying the word ten times, she finally said, “oh, zoutjes?” and she pointed to the end of the counter, where a bowl of zoutjes were.

    Could somebody PLEASE tell me how I was supposed to pronounce it any differently than I did? rofl!! If I can’t even get that right after five years, I’m dooooomed…;)

  7. Keith says:

    Stu – I take it that some insensitive waiter has upset you then? There’s no need to get all bitter and twisted about it; the next time this happens just go over to him and give him a good hard kick on the shin bone, whilst screaming into his ear “Oy! I NEED A DRINK/FOOD COS I’M BLOODY STARVING!”. See? Just use a little tact. It works every time. . .

  8. zed says:

    The beer is far better in Belgium anyway ;-)

  9. Anneke says:

    @ Laura, I always just say ‘nepsuiker’ :) Btw, the oe is pronounced like the o in do. (as in the verb ;) )

  10. thamarai says:

    Perhaps Amsterdam is one extreme. Though I din’t find the waiters to be all sweet and super helpful, but they din’t make us wait so long in Eindhoven. But I have to admit the general rudeness level is pretty high.

  11. Invader_Stu says:

    VallyP – I know. They are never even happy when you want to pay the bill. I also wonder how they make their money.

    Alison & Laura – As an English person I really don’t get it. I hear people from other countries pronouncing whole sentences badly in my language and I can still understand them. But with the Dutch if one sound is slightyl off they can’t seem to make the connection.

    Neil – Welcome to the site :) It seems that anything you do to get noticed just annoys them more.

    Lily – You are one of the lucky ones :)

    Keith – It is a good idea but there is no knowing what a Dutch waiter would do if I did that. They don’t react like normal people.

    zed – That I can agree with. I’m just happy that the beer in Holland is better then the bear in England.

    thamarai – I would not be surprised if any tourist city is an extreme case.

  12. Anita says:

    Hehehe ! That’s why I like to read expats’ blogs. Can you believe that even at a company party (& while pregnant) the waitress wouldn’t serve me canapes ? I even heard she commenting loud to another waitress: “Pregnants eat for two. This woman always want something from my tray”. Incredible !

  13. Amanda Blog and Kiss says:

    On the flip side of this, it feels soooo nice to work in bars and not give a crap about the customers. Coming from an American “the customer is right even when he’s wrong and HE KNOWS IT” background, the ability to ignore a customer until you’re ready is priceless.

    There, I said it. So sue me.

    See you tonight!

  14. Invader Stu says:

    Anita – Wow. That takes it to a whole other level

    Amanda Blog and Kiss – Is that why you never served me? :( :P

  15. be.bart says:

    Why would you order anything in a Dutch bar? If you want a decent drink, go south young man (I agree with Zoe on that one).

    But if you really must, take a flare gun with you. Works for me!

  16. renee says:

    haha! I always say, to whomever I’m with at a cafe, pub or restaurant “First rule of being a waiter in Europe – Avoid
    ALL eye contact!” Maybe it’s a generalisation, but it happens not only in the Netherlands but is pretty common across Europe. We now avoid the places with this sort of “service” and go to the places that actually care about the customer. Takes a while to find the ones who really like their job, but well worth it in the end.

  17. Invader Stu says:

    be.bart – I tried that. Still nothing :p

    Renee – The avoid all eye contact rule sounds about right. It always amuses me how they can look around a room full of people and yet make no eye contact at the same time.

  18. Melissa says:

    Ha! I’m glad to see it’s not just me. Actually, my friends and I have developed a theory about the lack of customer service here. There is a distinct lack of hierarchy in NL, the attitude of “only dogs have bosses” and all that. So, we think it just may be this feeling of “we are all equal and you are no better than me just because I am paid to serve you, dear customer”. So, I guess doing something like taking orders, bringing food, drinks, etc. is contrary to their inclincation, so they resist it as long as possible. They truly do not seem to enjoy giving good customer service.
    But, there is one thing we don’t understand. As dutch are know for their, uh…frugal nature, we wonder why they don’t embrace the commercial side of things. If they were more proactive with drink orders, they could at least double their alcohol turnover, really. So, pride is more important than money I guess?

  19. Brentulus says:

    Right on the money, although what really interests me is *why*. Melissa’s theory above goes in the right direction I think (their unwillingness to acknowledge the subservient position of waiting staff), but I don’t think it’s the whole story.

    One could argue that it’s because they’re all just students and don’t give a shit, but there are lots of student waiters and waitresses in Australia (where I’m from) who *do* give a shit, so that can’t be it either. One way I describe the behaviour of Dutch waiting staff to people is “They’re there to serve their boss, not their customers”. And the boss is there for him/herself and is only interested in making a quick buck (true to Dutch form). Dutch Horeca owners therefore focus on the measurable aspects of business and not on soft skills, such as service, so staff are never encouraged to give good service (waste of effort) and are never reprimanded if they don’t, because it’s just not important. But still, this can’t be the whole story.

    Another thought I had recently was the fact that all Dutch people are raised to develop an unshakeable sense of self-esteem, which is impervious to any attack and prevents them from feeling shame. This is related to the whole ‘you’re-not-better-than-me’ mentality and the ‘everybody’s-opinion-is-important’/poldermodel mentality. And because they always have that feeling as a safety net to fall back on, it means they never need to rely on their conduct (or anything else) to feel good about themselves, hence the general poor work ethic in the Netherlands, not just in hospitality. So waiting staff (and pretty much all employees) do just enough not to get fired, but never feel bad for doing a half-assed job because they’re convinced of their right to exist as human beings regardless. And their bosses don’t care, and they’re apathetic students… it all stacks up.

    One thing I always say about the Dutch is that they get the facts right, but miss the point entirely. This is nowhere truer than in hospitality. The Dutch proprietor’s method for running a restaurant is finding a way to get orders from customers’ mouths to the kitchen and back as fast as possible, which usually employs a kind of ‘beehive’ model (waiters for taking orders, for making drinks, for bringing drinks, for bringing food, etc.). What they don’t realise is that the whole point of going out for drinks or food is to have the feeling that there is someone looking after you, and with these beehive models, everybody’s task is so telescoped that no-one actually cares whether you’re having a good time. It all becomes about efficiency and not about service. Although it would be much more efficient to serve the customer at the bar straight away instead of cleaning the glass for minutes at a time.

    I don’t know. It’s a mystery wrapped up in an enigma wrapped up in a riddle.

  20. Kathleen says:

    I’ll never forget the time my husband and I first took our three boys (Dutch born and raised, Dutch dad and American mom) to New York City. We were sitting in a (now sadly defunct) Howard Johnson’s in Times Square and the typically prompt and friendly waiter had just poured our water, told us the specials, asked where we were from, expertly took our order and left. Par for the course. But our middle son, then about 12, looked at us in amazement. ‘The waiters here are friendly,’ he said, with a ‘hoe is het mogelijk’ emphasis on that strange word ‘friendly’. ‘Waiter’ and ‘friendly’ just didn’t belong in the same sentence for him. Ha.
    I”ve lived in the NL 32 years and frankly love it, but the waiters…. tja. As far as I’m concerned there are two reasons. The first is the afore-mentioned ‘only dogs have bosses’ thing. Very true. And the second is the simple fact that they don’t work for tips. Makes all the difference in the world.
    Love the blog, by the way!

  21. Geraldine says:

    Love the blog! Bravo! I think you described Dutch waiters to perfection… :)
    Being a woman, they are not so hard on me and if I try to order in Dutch they laugh and help me out. I believe that with men it’s another story! ;)

  22. Perovskia says:

    I read this and (after a laugh) I wonder, “What am I getting into?” (moving over in a year or so). I’m a customer service snob (having been in the business); I fear this might drive me mad! :P

    Great blog. Thanks for being honest and entertaining :)

  23. jimmy says:

    There is a distinct lack of hierarchy in NL, the attitude of “only dogs have bosses” and all that?thats bullshit,in fact there is a strong hierarchy in NL but you havent expierenced it yet.
    The reason why the service lacks in a dutch bar or restaurant is very simple,
    they simply have no food culture

  24. Anna says:

    The misunderstanding about ordering Perrier makes some sense. We just say water, not a brand. Usually Dutch people just ask for tap water, because it is perfecly fine to drink that. Otherwise you still order water, instead of Perrier. So I guess there is a large part of the polulation that doesn’t even know what it is.

    Other than that, service in Amsterdam is pretty bad in general. But it sounds even worse than it actual is in my opinion, but still entertaining!!

  25. rona says:

    Lol! Now imagine a deadly combination of a Dutch service on a caribbean island!
    Nothing worst than that! I leave here for a few years and cannot get used to it.

  26. James Hout says:

    I thought that I was the only one that noticed bad service every time we went out to eat , but after reading up I know now that I am not alone , and the service really stinks in Holland , regardless of where you go eat , so after a while I ve had it and stopped dinning out . Besides the sorry low service , the prices are outrageous and my coca cola refills did it . Believe me I can go on and on about services here whether it is my Internet provider , bank , dentist , pharmacy and etc I miss the us service , the service was so good from the second you walk in a place till you leave .
    Dutch service cost money to call like 900 numbers , give me a break .

  27. gesina bernstein says:

    tips!!!!!to insure proper service….or in case of the banking system ,bribes work i

  28. Dutchgirl says:

    it is not entirely true because Dutch people are very friendly just go look in Brabanr because it is very gezelig (lol)

  29. Dutchgirl says:


  30. Coen says:

    I think Brentulus is taking it a bit too far with his comments on the Dutch “poor work ethic”…Ever since the Dutch Golden Age (VOC days) the Dutch have been well-known for their work ethics in trade..The Dutch are really into making money..Service has never been of much importance to them..I think Jimmy is right. The Dutch have always seen eating as a necessity…You need it as fuel,but you don’t want to spend too much time consuming food…
    Going out for a meal, taking your time and enjoying it isn’t really part of Dutch culture..
    If you go to a Chinese or Indonesian restaurant (of which there are many in Holland you will immediately notice the difference..They will pay a lot more attention to service..
    I agree with some of the other writers that, when it comes to service,bars and restaurants in Amsterdam are generally worse than in other parts of the Netherlands.

  31. cem says:

    if you say,”meneer/mevrouw mag ik bestellen?” then you can get their attention. I’ve tried it a couple of times and it worked. Ordering part is still challenging though.

  32. jeztastic says:

    Dutch waiters are ten times better than French waiters – and I have found Dutch bars much friendlier than French. I think the thing is what English speakers call ‘manners’ – please, thank you, sorry. The Dutch don’t bother with unless completely necessary, they are very direct. So they don’t mind if you get their attention more directly as the poster above said. They also get unsettled when you apologise unnecessarily, I think they suspect you of being passive aggressive.

  33. Japie says:

    These posts are somewhat humorous, but I can’t understand the frequent use of comparing foreigners’ Dutch with the Royal family’s. Except for the few quite strong German accents we had in there in the past, the current Royals don’t have any obvious defects as far as I can determine. Saving perhaps Maxima, but she’s Argentinian anyway.

    Although obviously meant for comedy, I don’t agree with all of the observations here.
    Ordering at a bar CAN be less-than-successful, especially if you’re like me, and I supposed most well-behaved Brits, somewhat docile/well-mannered. I guess most bar-goers here are just a little more forceful and direct.
    The service itself on the other hand, I don’t really find waiters getting ‘annoyed’ at being required to served someone, thought they might do it with less of a faked kindness compared to, for instance the US. Or even with less of a natural (more honest) hospitality compared to more touristy countries, where foreigners will be more likely to provide a bigger share of their income.

    I guess we’re just more down-to-earth, no-nonsense kind of people.

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