Doing Business in Belgium
Most people know Belgium for a number of things including beer, chocolate and waffles… It is also said to be home to the well-loved french-fry. Yet in a country divided by more than just language, there is much more than just delicious cuisine to discover…
Dutch, French and German are the three official languages of Belgium and although there exists no official data regarding their distribution amongst the population, this is also the order by number of native speakers. Although officially tri-lingual, the country is essentially split into two ethnic majorities: the Dutch speakers aka. the Flemish, who inhabit the northern Flanders region, and the French-speakers (sometimes known as the Walloons) of whom the majority live in Wallonia. Despite its location in the middle of a Flemish region, Brussels is also a French-speaking city, with 57% of the population French-only speakers.
The small German speaking enclave of Belgium is made up of around 75,000 people mostly living to the east of Wallonia.
Perhaps due to the diversity within their own country, Belgians are well-known for their advanced English skills – particularly in big cities – so in a business context, it is best to stick to English to avoid appearing to favour one faction or the other: the political/cultural division between the Flemish and Walloons is rather fraught with tension.
Business & Communication
In a country characterised by internal division, Belgians have become used to finding compromises and working towards practical solutions, although these may take time to find and to implement.
Traditionally business in Belgium was dominated by the French-speaking Walloons whose approach to business was hierarchical and conservative. Recent decades have brought affluence to the North of the country and the egalitarian Flemish are now just as much involved in business as their Southern countrymen. As a whole, the people of Belgium are known for being very modest, reserved and hard-working as well as unwilling to enter into open debate or conflict. They are also very good listeners who are both flexible and open to compromise. Yet, there are detectable differences between the Flemish and Walloon Belgians when it comes to business matters.
In general, the Flemish are direct in speech and results-oriented. As a whole, they are more open to discussion and debate in business contexts than their Wallonian counterparts, especially as the hierarchical approach to business is currently under-attack. The Walloons are fond of rhetoric and are more prone to digression in speech. They are concerned with building relationships in order to complete a task, yet are, in general, more deferential to those of higher standing.
The preservation of harmonious working relationships is of utmost importance to both. It is often said that the Belgians work much better in a multi-cultural team than one made up of only Flemish and Walloons. When working with Belgians, it is best to avid any kind of behaviour which may be construed as arrogant or boastful.
Meetings are more concerned with passing on information and open discussion or debate should be kept out of the meeting room. Managers tend to make decisions based on lengthy consultation and discussion.
Although women are not commonly found in the higher strata of business in Belgium, foreign businesswomen are welcomed and should not face any negativity or sexism from their Belgian business partners.
Arranging Meetings & Punctuality
It is best to arrange a meeting a few days in advance although Belgians are flexible and will be good-natured and understanding should plans have to change for any reason.
Punctuality is perhaps more important to the more straight-talking Flemish than the Walloons. Although it is definitely not considered good form to be late. As a general rule, 5 minutes late is OK, 10 minutes merits a phone call and 15 is enough to reschedule a meeting.
In Belgium, it is common to shake hands when you meet people for the first time. Back-slapping, finger-pointing and extravagant gestures such as hugging (in a business context) are not acceptable and will be considered rude. Most likely you will be introduced formally to each person before a meeting begins, often shaking hands with everyone in the room. It is polite to stick to formal means of address (surnames) until invited to be on first-name terms with someone – a stage which may take longer to reach in Belgium than in other European countries.
Although an open culture in general, Belgians are very private people who like to keep their home-life separate from business. Intrusive personal questions about someone’s family life or anything relating to regional, linguistic and political issues or differences within Belgium should be avoided. As should religion and money. Nonetheless, Belgians do like to talk about their country and enjoy hearing positive comments about it from foreigners. Safe topics for small talk also include: the weather, holidays, world news, cycling, tennis, food, football and music.
Dress Code & Weather
Belgians dress rather conservatively so it is best to stick to business attire and avoid anything garish or attention-grabbing. If in doubt, just ask someone you are working with about the most appropriate form of dress for the situation.
Like the UK, Belgium has a reputation for rain although it is perhaps easier to overlook as the climate feels more continental than Atlantic. Average annual rainfall is 780 mm and average temperature is 9.8 degrees centigrade.
Food is an immensely important part of Belgian culture and the people like to enjoy it to the full. You may be invited to a business lunch but it is best to keep the business talk to a minimum until the coffee (incidentally, also very good in Belgium) is served or until the conversation is initiated by the other party. It considered a compliment to finish your plate of food rather than an offensive gesture indicating you would like more, as in some other cultures. And with so many delicacies ranging from french fries to beer-soaked rabbit to shrimp, it should not be a difficult task to clean your plate!
Eating etiquette is the same as most other European countries. Remember common sense manners like: do not speak with your mouth full, wave cutlery around or interrupt others and you should be fine.
Service is usually included in the charge in Belgian restaurants so no additional tip is necessary.
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