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Society and culture

This section gives specific advice and guidance on Belgium's Society and cultural norms, including religion, status of the family alongside business and social etiquette, customs and protocols with Meeting & Greeting alongside appropriate communication styles in each country to enable an employee to move, live and work abroad.

Belgium is not a homogenous country with one national identity.  As such, it is therefore difficult to give a general overview that applies to all Belgians.  Each are has its own particular features with three predominant cultures are 1) in the north, Flanders –primarily Dutch, 2) in the South Wallonia – primarily French and  3) the north-east primarily German influenced, however these aspects can be applicable to all areas.

Family Values

Family plays a central role in most people’s lives and is seen as a major priority.  Many people remain in town in which they were raised, which creates close extended families.

Appearances Matter

Belgians see appearances as very important, and therefore even to the extent of washing the pavement or steps in front of the house or even sweeping the street. Cleanliness is a matter of national pride.  Belgians tend to great pride in their houses, therefore having overgrown hedge or untidy gardens would disgrace the family and be insulting to their neighbours.  Belgians take pride in their personal appearance as well and are concerned with the impression they make on others

Egalitarianism in Belgian Society

Belgium is seen as a very equal society, and women are not expected to change their name even when they marry.  There are laws governing paternity as well as maternity leave and laws forbidding sexual harassment in the workplace, where Belgium has taken a lead.

Meeting Etiquette

General greetings entail a degree of formality. A brief handshake is the common greeting among people who do not know each other.  Once a relationship is developed – three kisses on the cheek may replace the handshake.  The kissing protocol is more of an air kiss near the person’s cheek, and always start with the left cheek and alternate. However, traditionally men never kiss other men, only a handshake is acceptable.

Gift Giving Etiquette

If you are invited to a Belgian’s house, then bring flowers or good quality chocolates for the hostess.  Belgian’s from an older generation may expect flowers to be unwrapped. Never give white chrysanthemums as they signify death, and flowers should always be given in odd number only, so 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 but not 13.  Wine or liquor should be given to close friends. Gifts are always opened when received.

Dining Etiquette

Belgians socialise in their homes and restaurants, and the home is reserved for family and close friends.  If you receive a written invite, always respond back with a written reply.  Always wait for your hosts to introduce you to other guests.  Belgians take pride in their appearance and expect you and your guests to dress conservatively and formally. 

Always remember to arrive on time, punctuality is seen as a great virtue and demonstrates respect.  In order to sit down always wait for your host to tell you where, and women always take their seats before the men.  Table manners are continental – the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating.  Always keep your wrists above the table when eating and wait to sip your drink in case the host wants to toast the beginning of the meal.  The guest of honour may also give a toast.  It is polite to stand for a toast and women may offer a toast too. 

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.  Never leave food on your plate as it is seen as both rude and wasteful.  Always 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.  Belgians take pride in their cuisine so praising a meal is a sincere compliment.

Business Etiquette in Terms of Relationship and Communication

Third-party introductions are not necessary but always smooth the way through new relationships.  Regardless of the manner of introduction, always be polite and well-mannered.  Belgians are cautious in nature so take time before they trust others, whether they may be individuals or representatives of companies.  Business dealings tend to be bureaucratic and there are many procedures which produce a severe mountain of paperwork.  Belgians are excellent linguists and most are sufficiently fluent to be able to conduct entire business meetings in English.  Belgians prefer subtlety to directness, and therefore subtlety is a reflection of intelligence.  Although much of their communication is direct in nature, if a response is too direct it will be taken as very simplistic, and therefore like communications to be based on logic and reasoning.  It is well known in Belgian circles that enjoy long critical discussions before reaching a decision to ensure every possible angle has been considered to the given decision required. Being rude is considered confrontational and avoided at all costs. 

Business Meeting Etiquette

All appointments are necessary.  The person you are meeting will generally set the time for a meeting, either mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Always avoid scheduling meetings during July and August, which are prime vacation times, and the week before Easter and week between Christmas and the New Year.  Punctuality is key to a good meeting, and arriving late may be seen in the eyes of some as very unreliable.  Meetings are formal, and the first appointments are more social than business orientated as Belgians like to get to know who they are working with and the kind of values which are promoted. Finally never remove your jacket during a meeting as this is not seen as good etiquette.

Dress Etiquette

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

Business Cards

Business cards are exchanged without any formal ritual.  If you can have one of side of your businesses card translated into French or Dutch, then this shows respect and understanding of the linguistic heritage of your colleagues.  If you have meetings in both areas, then have two sets of business cards and also ensure you use the proper ones with either group.   Always present your business card so the recipient can read the side with their national language on top.