The Dutch Three Kiss Rule

If you have a Dutch friend it is inevitable that at some point during your friendship they will try to kiss you. It’s a simple fact. They can’t control themselves. However, when this does happen it is important to not get to excited (or scared). It is not necessarily a sign that they have finally given into your animal magnetism and wish to take your friendship to the next level. No. You have probably just encountered the Dutch three kiss rule.

The Dutch Cheek Kiss

In the Netherlands it is considered quite normal for Dutch people to greet each other with three kisses on the cheek. It is also custom to do the same again when saying good bye. It’s just a friendly way of saying hello and farewell. It’s not limited to the Dutch either. As part of your inburgering process you might be expected to join in too. This can seem rather shocking if you come from a country such as England where shaking hands before the third date is sometimes considered being quite forward. Luckily there are a few unwritten rules to help guide you and stop things becoming too socially awkward.

Who Should I Be Kissing?

Sometimes it is hard to know just how familiar you have to be with someone before you should start kissing them on the cheeks every time you see them. I see my dentist on a regular occasion but should I start kissing him on the cheeks three times before he starts my six month check up? What about the people on the train that I see every day but don’t actually know the names of yet? Should I be working my way down the train carriage, kissing each of them three times on the cheeks as I go? Probably not. It would seem that it is best to only use the three kiss greeting with close friends and family (unless you want to course a scene or be forced to find a new dentist).

But Who Kisses Who?

Depending on how you look at it, it would seem that the ladies have drawn the short straw when it comes to cheek kissing. They are expected to kiss and get kissed by everyone. Men, women, children… house hold pets if they are really unlucky. However, men are only expected to cheek kiss women. This seems to be an unwritten rule that they might have had some involvement in the writing of (if it had been written down).

Real vs. Fake

There is some debate over whether the cheek kisses given should be real or fake air kisses. There seem to be variations on this part of the three kiss rule. However, all parties involved tend to agree that it is not good etiquette to lick your lips and proceed to make the other person cheeks very wet.

Left, Right, Left or Right, Left, Right?

It is a good idea to have some kind of signal worked out beforehand for who is going to go which way first. Get it wrong and there is a high risk that your friendship will suddenly become far more intimate than before or (if at a family gathering) you will never hear the end of the story about the time you tried to make out with your Grandmother (Oma).

Kissing Like An Expat

Equally confusing is what happens when neither of you are Dutch. Do you still follow the Dutch three kiss rule or do the greeting rules of your own country apply? What if you are both from different countries with different rules? What then? Which rule overrides which? One kiss? Two kisses? Three? Four?! FIVE??!!

And what about the extremely awkward moments where one of you goes in for a kiss but the other goes in for a hug (and you end up accidentally kissing their neck) or a handshake (and you end up randomly kissing the air in front of their face)?

And even the Dutch don’t know what to do sometimes. It can be very confusing. What are you supposed to do as a Dutch person when faced with a group of expats? Kiss? Hug? Shake hands? Nod? Give them a friendly punch on the arm? Rub noses? The whole thing can be very distressing.

Birthday Cheek Kissing

If you are attending someone’s birthday it is often expected split up the word ‘gefeliciteerd’ while kissing them on the cheek three times as if attempting some kind of ventriloquist trick.

Ge… *kiss* …felic… *kiss* …iteerd *kiss*

And finally… A Word of Warning about the three kiss rule

Be careful when dealing with the elderly. They have become extremely cheeky in their old age and will try to bend the rules of the three kiss system. They have gone rogue.

Maybe you notice that their first cheek kiss was dangerously close to the corner of your mouth. It could have been an accident. Maybe their eye sight is not so good any more. So you take extra precaution on the second kiss and try to steer them more towards the cheek area with an extra turn of your head. However, they seem to resist your attempts and the second kiss lands right on the corner of your mouth. You feel part of their lips on yours! With a sudden horror you realize there is still one more kiss to go and it was not an accident. They are zeroing in, getting closer and closer. They are actually attempting to kiss you! There is only one terrifying question that fills your mind at that point. What do I do? What do I do?!

For that I have no answer. The Dutch three kiss rule won’t help you either. You are on your own!

39 responses to “The Dutch Three Kiss Rule”

  1. Hazel says:

    hahahaha especially that last part when kissing the elderly. I found that horrific as a child. And still…

  2. Naomi says:

    Haha brilliant!
    I’m Dutch and i live in the UK, and the other way round it can be really ackward as well! When i first came here i did not know to just shake someone’s hand or give them one or two kisses?

    • Invader Stu says:

      You must have made a lot of English people very nervous shortly after you arrived :p

  3. Valentina says:

    ahahah this post is really really fantastic!! :D I can’t stop to laugh, but I agree with you at all! I’m Italian, so we use to kiss on the cheek two times but sometime, when you make some friendship with foreign people there are some embarrassing situation about, kisses, how many, or not, or what! So you try a little of everything, try with faint move of your body or hand or face.. and observe what your expat friend do! :D

    • Invader Stu says:

      Hehe. I can see how that tactic would lead to some interesting out comes.

    • Alison says:

      It always gets confusing when I see my Italian mother-in-law. First there’s deciding which side to start on, then I forget that Italians only do the two kiss, and I surprise her with the Dutch three kiss.

  4. Eva says:

    Haha, brillant. And even after 30 years of living in Holland, it was confusing. Especially which side to start kissing :-)

    • Invader Stu says:

      So what you are saying is that there is no hope of ever really working it out :p

  5. Hoo, boy. The last part about the elderly reminds me very strongly of a slightly-aged French male co-worker of mine who steps the “air-kisses” boundaries to give me ACTUAL kisses on the cheek, narrowly missing the corners of my mouth. I secretly call him Mr. Slobberlips.

    Having grown up in South Florida, it is customary to do what is generically known as the “Latino kiss”: one air kiss on the cheek.

    Now, whenever I go back to Miami, I freak out my family, friends, acquaintances, even hair stylists and dental assistants, with the two-kisses French “bise.” It throws them off and I am left apologizing after having given them a 200% raise in the kissing department. :P

  6. Anna says:

    Ha, brilliant. I’m Dutch and have some UK friends and it’s really quite awkward when you go in for that third kiss and they are pulling away, haha.

    Slight addition to the Left, Right, Left or Right, Left, Right? -segment: it’s usually
    right cheeks touching, left cheeks, then right cheeks again :) (please don’t ask me why, though)

    • Invader Stu says:

      Thank you :)

      They can’t be that British if they didn’t already feel awkward by the first kiss :p

  7. Robbert Michel says:

    If you follow old etiquette, you would only kiss twice. In my grandparent’s generation this was known as the “Brabantse Drieklapper”, and it was only common below the rivers.
    It migrated north somewhere in the middle of the 20th century though. At the time, no matter whether it was 2 or 3 kisses, the first kiss was always a matter of personal preference, and always a bit messy. Maybe that’s why the 3 kisses caught on. It gives you some time to recover;)

    However due to intensive traffic training about which way you should watch before crossing the road, pretty much anyone grown up in and after the seventies will kiss left, right, left. :)
    The most important thing is to clearly focus on he cheek you intend to kiss (while keeping an eye on where the other person is focussing. That way it should all go flawless.

  8. Marike says:

    brilliant Stu ! I once met an elderly person and he wanted to kiss me, I turn my head to provide he would kiss my mouth. then what happened ? his kiss came down at my ear ! yak!!!!

  9. Yvette says:

    In Hungary we only do two kisses, so whenever I visit my relatives and instinctively want to do a third my relatives always laugh. Oh those silly Dutch with that illogical third kiss!

    Btw it’s also interesting because I have many work colleagues I’m on friendly terms with, so if we meet in a professional setting we do a handshake but if we meet up at a party we do the kisses. Sorta makes sense, one’s professional and one’s personal.

  10. sorana says:


    ‘Ge… *kiss* …felic… *kiss* …iteerd *kiss*’… Yes!!! lol.

  11. Imogen Moore says:

    As a multi-country expat I’ve resigned myself to getting it wrong All The Time. Still in Australia? Rarely kiss, but when you do it’s only once.

    Most of Europe? Two kisses, and random back slaps.

    Serbia and the Netherlands? Three kisses, but only in certain situations. And apparently never when someone is just leaning over you to get a pen.

    There should be a Disabled sticker for foreigners to wear in social situations

  12. Rouke Broersma says:

    My parents have always taught me it’s left, right, left if you know the person; and right, left, right if you just met the person.

  13. dragonlady says:

    One thing you didn’t mention. Are men expected to kiss other men. The Dragon keeper would freak out. He just about manages a hand shake.

  14. Lisa says:

    I am always confused whether to kiss one time or three. Guess what: I’m Dutch!

  15. The blogs I read - Olympic Wanderings says:

    […] and he has a very Jerry Seinfeld way of looking at life. He talks about the little things; the Dutch three kiss rule, getting trapped in a lift and figuring out all the fuss about Sinterklaas. But my favourite post […]

  16. MikeTheRed says:

    As an American expat now living in NL, I find myself completely baffled by the rules of physical interaction here. As an American, the general rule is:

    “Unless you’re family or a really close friend, you only shake hands, and from a respectable distance”

    Here, beyond the kissing, I’ve noticed there’s a lot of hugging, also standing very close when talking (compared to US standards) for people that aren’t necessarily close.

    I imagine I look like a deer caught in headlights for the first 15-20min of any social gathering here.

  17. Catherine says:

    Haha! Love this. I find it difficult enough in the UK when some friends hug upon meeting and others don’t – what am I to do?!? Could not cope if kissing was thrown into the mix as well!

  18. Jack says:

    Like it, birthday cheek kissing part, I really need to do that in next month. Dank je wel!

  19. Rowina says:

    I must say that my dutch husband experienced an embarrassing moment when he was in my country. He started kissing a female relative that never heard of the Dutch 3 kiss rule and on the last one because she stopped moving – landed on her mouth! that was shock to all! It is still told till this day ;-)

  20. Cornelis says:

    Thank you Stu for your observations. Even for the Dutch themselves this can be quite confusing because there are regional, local and interpersonal variations. I have a few personal additions to your observations though.
    Exceptions to the main rule.
    You’re alone in new company; shake hands.
    You’re in a formal situation; shake hands. Unless you’re on a friendly basis with the handshakee; then you fall back to the main rule. However keep a safe distance so body’s don’t touch from the chin down.
    In some festive or mournful situations you will get kissed anyway. Even by complete strangerettes.
    Men kissing men?
    The main rule is: Men don’t kiss men. They shake hands (formal) or give a brief hug with firm pats on the back (friends).
    Nowadays heterosexual men also kiss their gay male friends, the gay male friends of their significant other and the close gay male friends of other close friends. The “body’s don’t touch from the chin down” rule also applies here.
    I hope these additions are useful to someone.

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