Business meeting etiquette


Meetings are a normal feature of the Dutch business scene, either face-to-face or, with the predominance of international activities and the emergence of virtual teams, over the telecom/Internet network. These vary in their nature and content, but are a very common part of organisational life.

In his book Dealing with the Dutch, Jacob Vossestein quotes the complaint of a foreign business visitor: “I wouldn’t mind missing the Dutch meeting culture. If you phone someone, inevitably the answer is: he’s in a meeting, can you phone again? That disturbed me right from the beginning of my stay. They only meet here for the sake of meeting. The positive side is that everyone is seeking consensus with one another, although often the opinions are fixed beforehand. It becomes a charade, a ritual, sponsored by coffee producers” (Vossestein, J.; Dealing with the Dutch; Royal Tropical Institute Press 1998). The irony of this complaint is that it comes from a German.

Increasingly, meetings are team-oriented, with or without the participation of senior management. Project team meetings may be planned at short notice and often go on longer than the participants really want. It may be necessary to plan ahead when arranging meetings with senior executives, as agendas tend to be booked up some time in advance.

Importance of business meeting

It is good practice in the Netherlands to make an appointment, one or two weeks in advance: once the timing has been agreed there is no need to check or reconfirm. If you have a conflict of priorities later, explain the situation to your Dutch partner and he or she will certainly understand and find an alternative arrangement.

The most suitable time for a business meeting is probably about 10 in the morning or in the early afternoon.

If you have a specific product or proposition to offer, by all means supply some background details (price excepted) in advance. Information about the other company may well be available on the Internet.

Business meeting planning

Being pragmatic and relatively non-hierarchical people, Dutch managers can generally be approached directly for an appointment: this certainly applies in the SME sector, where the younger generation of managers has abandoned the hierarchical style of its predecessors. Only occasionally will you find yourself dealing with a secretary or personal assistant.

If confirmation is necessary, this can be done by e-mail. Punctuality and a respectful use of time are generally appreciated in the Netherlands and meetings will not normally be allowed to run on too long over the allotted time. For social meetings in private or in business, one can arrive 5 minutes late, but “official” social meetings, especially in a business context will start on time. Most official (or social) meetings (where one can expect a speech), will even indicate a 15 or 30 minutes timeslot to arrive before an event starts.

Getting to meeting venues should not normally be a problem. The transport infrastructure in the main cities is generally good and taxi services are regulated.

If formal presentations are planned,  the venue of meetings, who needs to attend, and any required equipment, (e.g. PowerPoint beamer or overhead projector), need to be arranged in advance. Plan to keep to the scheduled finish time, and try to leave with a firm conclusion. You may wish to submit draft minutes or a memorandum of understanding later.

Internet and video conferencing and conference calls are a regular event these days.

Negotiation process

As the visitor, avoid any hint of superiority or of being overbearing. This is a very egalitarian society where everyone can have his or her say. The worker representatives on the company council (ondernemingsraad) can be influential, so there should be no secrets or backroom dealings within the organisation.

Describing the Dutch approach to negotiation in his book The Low Sky, Han van der Horst says: “Outright rejections are very rare. Comments are usually presented as suggestions for improvement, marginal rather than challenging anything essential. The person submitting the proposals is open to such suggestions and lays his loose change on the table, one coin at a time. This requires skill and experience. The quicker he shows his loose change, the more the others will demand from him. It is a slow and, for outsiders, sometimes irritating process – particularly as it is so difficult to intervene while the process runs its course. Any expression of one’s own talent or excellence tends to be counterproductive as does any defence of the proposals based on their inherent superiority” (van der Horst, H.; The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch; Midpoint Trade Books 2012).

In negotiations, the Dutch ultimately say what they think and expect you to do the same. Furthermore, they will be suspicious of inflated claims, and want concrete facts, hard data and statistics. There is little room for emotion or subjectivity, and the influence of what is called interpersonal attraction on negotiations is limited. If you mean ‘no’, say so: the Dutch accept directness and dislike evasiveness, although politeness may prevent them from saying ‘no’ to a proposal from the other side. Diversity of opinion, across and on both sides of the negotiating table, is readily accepted.

As in any other culture, some Dutch business people – particularly the descendants of traders who have inherited the pirate tradition, rather than the farmers – are known to play tricks, a habit that may have something to do with the satisfaction of outwitting a competitor. It might happen that the Dutch pretend they understand you even though it might not be the case.

Once you know this, you have the advantage in two respects. In the first place, the Dutch often seem to be permanently programmed in teaching mode (though, being a democratic people, they moralise as much to themselves as they do to others). This may provide you with the opportunity to act the good listener and play on their vanity. They also tend to focus so single-mindedly on an agreed objective that, even if they suspect there may be an alternative strategy that would serve their case better, they will stick to the original one. So, again, you always know where you are. The Dutch will insist, in project work, on respecting the original specification down to the last detail. Once the deal is clinched, the Dutch are unlikely to go back on it. Once a decision is made, that’s it.

For further information, please see below:

Meeting protocol

Apart from an older generation who have adopted French ways, Dutch business people tend to be informal in their behaviour, although observers have noticed a slight increase in formality in recent years.

Start by shaking hands with everybody, giving your name and saying something like “good day” or “a pleasure to meet you”. Do not feel obliged to present your business card at this stage.

You should refrain from too vigorous a handshake or physical contact such as backslapping. Smiling suggests positive intentions but, again, should not be overdone.

In a meeting with many attendees where not everyone knows each other, the chairperson will go around the room, to allow each person to introduce themselves, with their name and job title, or if external to the organisation, the company they represent.

It is also customary to shake hands with everybody on leaving a meeting.

For further information please see below:

How to run a business meeting

When running a meeting, the most important factor to be aware of is the planning and preparation necessary to ensure the meeting achieves its objectives.

Ensure all the required attendees are aware of the meeting, and any necessary work they may need to do in advance. It is important that you know who will be attending and what their specific functions are.

Ensure the location is thought through, that the room has all the required facilities, and has enough space for the numbers likely to attend. If you are responsible for the meeting, it is advisable to arrive early before the start of the meeting to check the room layout and ensure that enough chairs are available. Also, do make sure there is a reasonable supply of good coffee as well as soft drinks.

Most probably you will be able to rely on English as the lingua franca for the occasion. If simultaneous translation is felt to be essential, then make sure the choice of interpreter(s) is acceptable to both sides.

In the Netherlands it is usual to allow other people to speak, and not to interrupt them when they are speaking. It is also useful to obtain feedback after the meeting and to establish what the attendees thought of the content and what was discussed.

Follow up letter after meeting with client

It is advisable to send a written record of the decisions made at the meeting – minutes or a ‘memorandum of understanding’ to all attendees. Deadlines should be clearly stated and, if delivery of a product or service is involved, details of specifications and price confirmed. It is essential to give a firm and realistic delivery date. Ask for written confirmation of acceptance, but do not necessarily expect it unless a formal contract is involved.

Your Dutch counterparts will be impressed by prompt follow-up of actions agreed at the meeting.

As a general rule with the Dutch, it is important to confirm receipt of contracts or important business correspondence, preferably by mail, alternatively by email.

Business meals

The business meal provides a suitable occasion to develop the social relationships that represent the gateway to success in any business encounter in a foreign country. Although your Dutch counterpart may not be seeking to create deep social bonds, these occasions provide the opportunity to develop trust and find out more about the other side.

Attitudes to business meals

The Dutch are less inclined than their Belgian neighbours to combine business with pleasure. This particularly applies to the working lunch, which will be relatively fast and efficient so that you can get back to business and may take the form of a sandwich and a glass of milk in the office, a meal in the company canteen, or a visit to the local café or restaurant for the dagschotel (daily special).

The Dutch are more likely to invite business partners to a restaurant to mark a significant event, such as the closing of a deal. The probability of being invited to a private home is low.

After-hours drinks are not appropriate for detailed discussions, as your Dutch counterpart will probably be anxious to get home, but such gatherings may represent a good opportunity for informal discussions and the development of social bonds.

Restaurant Etiquette

When eating out at a restaurant, show that you are as democratic as the average Dutch person by treating the waiter with respect and getting his attention with simple eye contact and a nod. If the service is particularly good, you may wish to leave a tip of 5-10%, even though a service charge is included in the bill. Also be prepared to give a tip of 50 cent to the washroom attendant.

Common sense and general dining rules should be followed in order to cause neither embarrassment nor annoyance. The golden rules are: make an effort to eat and drink at the same pace as the rest of the group, don’t speak with your mouth full, don’t stretch across the table, and don’t wave your cutlery about. Again, it is good practice to follow the host’s lead.

The general rules of restaurant etiquette are as follows:

  • Turn off your mobile phone
  • Only the host picks up the wine list
  • Order the same number of courses as your Dutch colleagues. This should not alarm you, as the tendency at business lunches is increasingly to have just a main course and coffee
  • Keep your hands on the table
  • If you can, avoid leaving anything on your plate
  • When you have finished your starter/main course, place your knife and fork at twenty to four with the points of the fork facing upwards

The Netherlands unlike its neighbour, Belgium, is not a country known for gastronomic excess – though it also has its rituals, notably the Indonesian rijstafel.

In addition to the three traditional meals a day – a breakfast of bread, cheese and cold meats, lunch and dinner – many people will have a snack at 10 a.m. (remember the Dutch have started early!) and another at 4 p.m. Dairy products are a staple feature of the Dutch diet.

If you are invited to dine at your Dutch partner’s home (a great honour), be sure to arrive pretty punctually. Dinner, which will most probably be served at 18.30-19.00 hours, is generally considered to be the most important meal of the day.

For further information, please see below:

Business Meeting tips

It may be appropriate to start a business meeting with a few pleasantries, though this should not take too long.

Ensure that you bring enough business cards and information material about your company. The ideal time to hand out this background material is at the beginning of the meeting.

Negotiations and decisions are usually open and flexible. Your Dutch counterparts will favour a win/win approach.

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