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Belgium - Language, Culture, Customs and Business Etiquette

Belgian FlagFacts and Statistics

Location: Western Europe, bordering France 620 km, Germany 167 km, Luxembourg 148 km, Netherlands 450 km

Capital: Brussels

Climate: temperate; mild winters, cool summers; rainy, humid, cloudy

Population: 10,348,276 (July 2004 est.)

Ethnic Make-up: Fleming 58%, Walloon 31%, mixed or other 11%


Religions: Roman Catholic 75%, Protestant or other 25%

Government: federal parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch

Languages of Belgium

Official Languages of Belgium are French, Dutch and German. Wallon is used by 33% of population. Flemish, the local variant of Dutch, is used by more than 60% of the population, and is spoken in the northern part of the country. The languages learned at school are officially labelled French and Dutch. German, spoken by 1% of population can be found in the cantons in the east of the Wallon region. Brussels, the capital of Belgium, has two official languages: French and Dutch. Luxembourgish is spoken by around 0.5% of the population, but the language has no official status. About 10% of the Belgian population are non-native, and languages spoken include Italian, Spanish, Greek, Arabic and Turkish.

Why not learn some useful French phrases, Dutch phrases or German phrases?

Belgian Society & Culture

Belgium is not a homogeneous country with one national identity. As such, it is therefore difficult to give a general overview that applies to all Belgians. Each area will have its own particularities. The three predominant cultures are: 1) in north, Flanders - primarily Dutch, 2)in the south, Wallonia - primarily French and 3) the northeast - primarily German influenced. The following are brief aspects that are applicable to all areas.

Belgian Family Values

o Family plays a central role in most Belgians' lives.
o The obligation to the family is a person's first priority.
o Many people remain in the town in which they were raised, which creates close extended families.

Appearances Matter

o Appearances are important to Belgians.
o They can often be seen washing the pavement or steps in front of their house or even sweeping the street.
o Cleanliness is a matter of national pride.
o Belgians take great pride in their houses. To have overgrown hedges or untidy gardens would disgrace the family and insult their neighbours.
o Belgians take pride in their personal appearance too. They dress well and are concerned with the impression they make on others.

Egalitarianism in Belgian Society

o Belgium is on the whole an egalitarian society.
o Women are not expected to change their name when they marry.
o There are laws governing paternity as well as maternity leaves and laws forbidding sexual harassment in the workplace.

Etiquette & Protocol Guidelines for Belgium

Meeting Etiquette

o Greetings entail a degree of formality. A brief handshake is the common greeting among people who do not know each other.
o Once a relationship is developed, three kisses on the cheek may replace the handshake. This is more a kissing of the air near the person's cheek. Start with the left cheek and alternate.
o Men never kiss other men; they always shake hands.

Gift Giving Etiquette

o If you are invited to a Belgian's house, bring flowers or good quality chocolates for the hostess.
o Older Belgians may expect flowers to be unwrapped.
o Do not give white chrysanthemums as they signify death.
o Flowers should be given in an odd number, but not 13.
o Liquor or wine should only be given to close friends.
o Gifts are opened when received.

Dining Etiquette

o Belgians socialize in their homes and restaurants, although the home is reserved for family or close friends.
o If you receive a written invitation, the response must be written as well.
o Wait for your host or hostess to introduce you to the other guests.
o Dress conservatively. Belgians take pride in their appearance and expect you to do the same.
o Arrive on time. Punctuality demonstrates respect.
o Wait for your host to tell you where to sit.
o Women take their seats before men.
o Table manners are Continental -- the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating.
o Keep your wrists above the table when eating.
o Wait to see if your host offers a toast before sipping your drink.
o The guest of honour may also give a toast.
o Women may offer a toast.
o It is polite to stand for a toast.
o The Flemish raise their glasses twice during a toast. The glass is initially raised during the toast and then at the completion of the toast.
o Never leave food on your plate. It is seen as both rude and wasteful.
o Indicate you have finished eating by laying your knife and fork parallel on your plate, tines facing upwards, with the handles facing to the right.
o Belgians take pride in their cuisine, so praising a meal is a sincere compliment.

Business Etiquette and Protocol in Belgium


Etiquette in BelgiumRelationships & Communication

o Although third-party introductions are not necessary, they often smooth the way.
o Regardless of how you are introduced, you must always be polite and well mannered.
o Belgians are careful and prudent so take time before they trust others, be they individuals or representatives of companies.
o Business dealings tend to be bureaucratic. There are many procedures and a great deal of paperwork.
o Belgians are excellent linguists and many are sufficiently fluent to conduct meetings in English.
o Belgians prefer subtlety to directness, believing that subtlety is a reflection of intelligence.
o Although they are more direct in their communication than many cultures, if a response is too direct it may be seen as simplistic.
o They prefer communication to be logical and based on reason
o Belgians often engage in long, critical discussions before reaching a decision so that they can be certain that they have considered all the alternatives.
o They believe it is rude to be confrontational.

Business Meeting Etiquette

o Appointments are necessary
o The person you are meeting will generally set the time for the meeting, usually mid morning or mid afternoon.
o Avoid scheduling meetings during July and August, which are prime vacation times; the week before Easter; and the week between Christmas and New Year.
o Everyone is expected to arrive on time
o Arriving late may brand you as unreliable.
o Meetings are formal
o First appointments are more socially than business oriented, as Belgians prefer to do business with those they know.
o Do not remove your jacket during a meeting.

Dress Etiquette

o Men should wear dark coloured, conservative business suits with white shirts and silk ties.
o Women should wear business suits or conservative dresses.
o Men should only wear laced shoes, never loafers or other slip-ons, as they are too casual.
o Polished shoes are an integral part of a professional image.

Business Cards

o Business cards are exchanged without formal ritual.
o Have one side of your business card translated into French or Dutch. This shows respect and understanding of the linguistic heritage of your colleagues.
o If you have meetings in both areas, have two sets of business cards printed, and be careful to use the proper ones.
o Present your business card so the recipient can read the side with their national language. 

Need some formal training on Belgian business culture? Pop over to our page: Belgium Cultural Awareness Training

 
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