Belgium cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
Men and women shake hands when they meet for the first time. At the first meeting, it is polite to say - nice to meet you ("enchanté" or "aangenaam"). An effort to speak the language (either Dutch or French) is always welcome.
When meeting someone for the first time, the topic "where are you from?" is always a good idea. Work can be discussed as well, as long as there is not a huge gap between the levels of the two parties (boastfulness is not well perceived). In Belgium, a sensitive issue is the relations between Dutch and French speakers. You should avoid questions or comments on that topic. As a general trend, humour is more than welcome. Belgians are known for their auto derision and their sense of humour (although, of course, there are exceptions). On the other hand, Belgian culture is more formal than Canadian culture. An extensive use of the words "thank you" and "sorry" is recommended.
Upon being introduced to someone, one can very well talk about subjects like the family and work. In general, Belgians do not like to be thought of as being the same as French and because of the somewhat tense situation between French speaking and Flemish speaking Belgians, political subjects are better left alone at a first meeting. It also has to be noted that Belgium is a monarchy. Some of the citizens are in favour of this monarchy while others aren't: this is a subject that should be avoided. A French Canadian accent can be somewhat difficult for Belgians to understand. To be understood, a foreigner should, as much as possible, avoid using his own vernacular language and use a more universal and widespread French.
A good distance when speaking to someone is far enough not to touch the person involuntarily but close enough to show interest in the conversation. Usually, Belgians do not gesture much. The sense of space is not as strong in Belgium as it is in Canada but the space increases when talking to strangers. At work, usually more space is allotted to each talker than in casual conversation. The right distance may vary according to the personality of the person.
People touch each other more in Belgium than in Canada. For instance, when greeting each other, it is recommended to stop and shake hands. Friends or family members kiss each other (one kiss on the right cheek). At the workplace, it is not necessary to take the time to shake hands with everybody everyday.
The tone of the voice is usually quiet. There is not as much intonation as there is in Canada. Some expressions or gesture are considered as rude: middle finger pointed upwards, tongue out, pointing at someone/something, making noise while eating, talking loudly, etc.
Making eye contact is very important. Failure to do so, shows a lack of interest. As in Canada, it is considered a sign of dishonesty if a person refuses to or is reluctant to make eye contact.
While talking to other people, one should keep a distance of approximately one meter. This distance allows the two persons to feel at ease while talking. Eye contact is important during a conversation. It is a matter of politeness and a way of telling the other person that we are listening. Hence, it is quite acceptable to look a person in the eyes, be this person a man or a woman. Women should not be surprised if, during a first contact with a man or a woman, this person gets closer to kiss them on one cheek (la bise). Some Belgian men will also give each other la bise. Hand movements, facial expressions and tone of voice as well as frankness might be more apparent for some Belgians. Using one's international French might be an asset to be understood from the start.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection are acceptable and common. For instance, friends often touch each other, lovers walk hand in hand. However, public displays of anger have to be avoided. Happiness is always good to show and share (with some limits). Laughs and a smile are well perceived. Sadness and pain are only shown to people known/friends/close persons. In comparison with Canadians, Belgians do not react as strongly to something that a speaker tells them. One should only show empathy if s/he really cares about the subject.
Signs of affection, anger or others are acceptable in public. Sometimes people will raise their voice in public. If a conversation becomes heated, one is better not to interfere and go about one's own business, but rarely does such a heated conversation evolve into something more. In public, couples can openly show their affection towards each other.
Dress, punctuality & formality
The appropriate dress code depends on the workplace. Usually, it is what we call "tenue de ville", i.e. a suit. Habits may vary from place to place but the classic dark suit is always the safest solution. Usually, women are a bit more casual than men. Colleagues and employers are often addressed by their first name, but using Mr. or Mrs. with the last name is usually more appropriate for addressing a supervisor. Moreover, it is more appropriate to address people using the "polite form" if the used language is French or Dutch ("Vous" or "U").
People are expected to be punctual and deadlines have to be respected. A lot of workers have the 9-5 schedule but this can be adapted to the situation. Once one reaches a certain level, he/she no longer has a schedule (i.e. the work has to be done, whatever the time it takes). Absenteeism from work has to be justified and one should inform his/her supervisor of his/her absence. The expected level of productivity varies according to the work but usually one has to justify his/her wages and, therefore, be quite productive.
In Belgium, depending on the workplace, the dress code is similar to Canada's: avoid wearing jeans and if you are office employees, dress conservatively. If you are unsure, dress conservatively and then seek your manager's or HR's advice. People tend to use the French polite form for the second person (Vous). At a first contact, it is important to use this French form. It is equally recommended to use the title Monsieur and Madame. Belgians are quite punctual and expect the same from the others. So, one has to be punctual for work or appointments.
Preferred managerial qualities
A superior is expected to have great expertise in the field he/she is working in and he/she must know how to do the work of each of his co-workers. A superior is supposed to provide a significant leadership. Superiors should be open to new ideas but often are not (or are only in theory). If the superior is a non-local, the same criteria will apply. Ability to integrate the country and culture will be appreciated.
Generally, the mood of the staff is reflected in their productivity level. People tend not to work as well if they do not have a very high respect/esteem for their supervisor. If workers carefully respect their schedule and try to steal every possible minute, it is a sign that the supervisor is not doing well. A good supervisor will know each of his/her workers and is accessible to them (it is possible to talk with him/her).
Belgium is a very multicultural society. Being of foreign origin is not a problem in Belgium if you are in a management position. In Belgium, a Canadian BA is called a "licence". Most of the higher positions require it. An equivalency is easily obtained and should be sought before looking for a job. A minimum number of years of experience in a similar position is also required. Leadership, diligence and an open mind are important. An employee unhappy with the management of the team will let you know that you are not acting properly in view of the situation. Most of the Belgian workplaces are open to employee suggestions and are attentive to their needs.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Usually, there is a clear view of who takes which decision at work and everybody is aware of it (new workers are trained at the beginning of their employment).
Although decision taking is a manager's responsibility, employees have also a say in the process. As a consequence of a sustained dialogue between employees and employers, everybody takes part in the final decision. Being a very important player in Belgium, the private sector offers tremendous work opportunities and values its employees. An immediate supervisor is easily accessible to answer employees' questions and hear their feedback.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Belgiums are not as pernickety as Canadians are on gender issues. In both French and Dutch, the use of masculine is traditionally considered as comprising female and male. However, this situation is currently changing slowly. When talking to people, one has to be careful about genders. When talking or writing in the abstract, one can use only the male form.
Belgian's are generally open to different religions as long as it does not interfere with the work.
Nobility exists but people will try to hide differences. Belgians are not always very tolerant with other classes.
Belgium had several immigration waves: the Italians were called to work in the mines, then Africans came and, more recently, North Africans. Reproduction of the country of origin in Belgium is not really well perceived (to live in quarters with only immigrants from the same country). Nowadays, the North African community is the most important one and it causes trouble. Extremist political parties have an increasing support.
Belgian has a particular bilingual history (Belgium has three official languages but conflicts arise mostly between the French and Dutch speakers, not the German speakers). This particularity makes that Belgians are used to differences but the question of language is often the most crucial one. In the workplace, differences are not supposed to bias any decision. As a general trend, this is usually respected.
Although sexism still lingers, gender equality is well established in Belgium. Discrimination based on sex is frowned upon and will not be tolerated.
In Belgium, Catholicism is the most widespread religion. There are also Moslems, Jews and Protestants. In general, people are open-minded about other religions. Moslems can occasionally feel uncomfortable because of the events of the last few years and months.
The majority of Belgians belong to the middle classes. There is some class discrimination, but in general people are tolerant.
Belgium is a multicultural country. About 8% of the actual population is of a different nationality. In general, multiculturalism is not a source of conflict and Belgians are quite open to foreigners living in their country. Belgium belongs to the European Union and therefore, it is not surprising to find so many people from other European countries. In the workplace, minorities are protected by legislation. There is very little tolerance for those who do not abide by this legislation. The legislation breakers can be reprimanded and even fired for inappropriate comments or behaviour.
To establish a personal relation is not a prerequisite to do business. On the contrary, Belgians have a quite strong notion of privacy. Once you know quite well the persons you work with, you will know things from their personal lives as a matter of fact. But personal topics are not the proper way to start a business relation.
Colleagues end up knowing each other because they spend the whole day together. However, if the workplace is competitive, personal relationships will not arise easily. If the workplace is not so competitive, people are more relaxed and come up with personal things after a while (this varies according to the workplace and to the persons).
There is no best way to establish personal relationship at work. It will just come by itself. It is not a good thing to be very secret about one's personal life but it is not well perceived to talk only about private things at work. Firms are trying to increase personal relations between the workers but that is still a recent trend and therefore, depends on the firm.
Establishing a personal relationship with a colleague or a client is important to foster respect and trust. Business and friendship relations can sometimes intertwine, but it is not an absolute necessity to strengthen a business relationship. A simple business relationship based on mutual respect can exist between two persons working together. This mutual respect is essential for team members to be able to work together. Occasionally, people who work together socialize amongst themselves outside of work. This is quite frequent and encouraged.
Privileges and favouritism
Officially, it is considered as very bad to give privileges because of a personal relation. In practice, however, it happens that personal relationships help to get preferred treatment. However, a pay increase will not vary because of a personal relationship. Normally, it is not well considered to hire friends or family but it happens. Then, the hired person has often to show that s/he is worthy of the job to the rest of the staff.
A colleague should not expect any special consideration because of his friendship with you. His work performance should be the only consideration for promotion. It is unacceptable to use friendship as the only factor for promotion. For instance, in such a case, it would not be the recipient of the promotion who gets blamed but it is the manager who gave it who gets blamed for mixing friendship with business As a consequence, this manager could be fired.
Conflicts in the workplace
Talking to the colleague in private would be the best solution. If the problem persists, you should go to the superior. Then, the supervisor will handle the problem.
Work problems with colleagues should be resolved in a straightforward way and in private. If the problem remains, a neutral third party can be consulted. It could be a supervisor, or somebody from Human Resources, but this third party should not have a friendship relation with either of the two colleagues. The best way to find out if a colleague is offended by something you may have done is to respectfully ask him. If two colleagues cannot discuss minor problems in a reasonable way, it would be preferable to have the discussion and the solution of the problem in question taken by a supervisor. In general, healthy and respectful business relations between colleagues should be strong enough to allow the resolution of conflicts.
Motivating local colleagues
Performance is often related to well-being at work. If workers are rewarded for their work (by recognition of their good work, monetary incentives, promises kept...), they will try to do better. However, a competitive environment is not desirable.
Several factors can foster better performance by employees. The best one is certainly for them to be able to keep their job and consequently the salary and the fringe benefits. For some, job satisfaction is the main motivation, while for others, money and promotions are paramount.
Recommended books, films & foods
It is useful to become familiar with the history of Belgium in order to avoid mistakes concerning relations between Flemish and Walloons. The history of the world wars has also had a strong impact on Belgium. Those two elements are very important to understanding Belgium. The issue of the monarchy is interesting as well.
It is mostly recommended to understand the auto derision of Belgians and to try not to take everything seriously.
To read a guide about Belgium is a good idea. Better is to look at general websites (such as wikipaedia, with the terms Belgium or, on the French version of the website, with "belgitude"). To read Belgian literature and watch Belgian movies is a good thing but is not necessary to understand the culture of the country.
To learn about Belgian culture, one can read books such as in French, "Histoire de la Belgique : De l'Antiquité à nos jours" by Marie-Thérèse Bitsch, "Le mal du pays : de la Belgique" by Patrick Roegiers, and in English, "Culture Shock! Belgium: A Guide to Customs & Etiquette" by Mark Elliot. "Le guide du routard de la Belgique" is also very informative but mostly of interest to tourists. Belgium is synonymous with comic strips; it is there that they were born. "Tintin", "Spirou", "Gaston", the "Smurfs" or "Lucky Luke", these are all Belgian comic strips.
As to the movie industry, the Palme d'Or award of the 52nd Edition of the Cannes Festival went to the movie Rosetta, a Belgian movie. There are several Belgian TV programs, some available only in Belgium while others are shown on TV5. A lot of information is available on Belgium at the Belgian Embassy in Ottawa. Unfortunately, there are no Belgian restaurants in Ottawa. Yet one can find the typical Belgian dish, mussels and fries, in some restaurants in Ottawa. Belgian beer is readily available in several Ottawa bars. In Montreal, the restaurant Le Petit Moulinsart offers an interesting selection of Belgian dishes.
As to television shows, there are only few Belgian television channels. The most important and interesting channels are the public ones: "RTB" (French speaking) and "BRT" (Dutch speaking). Belgian movies have their own style. For instance: the movies directed by the Dardennes brothers ("Rosetta", "Le huitième jour", "La promesse", "Le fils"...) and the movies with Benoit Poelvoorde ("C'est arrivé près de chez vous", "Podium", "Les randonneurs attendent"...).
A few Belgian authors are becoming very famous and write nice novels: Amélie Nothomb and Didier Van Cauwelaert are two examples.
The most important places to visit are: Brussels (the capital), the coast (Zwin), the Ardennes and Bruges. As Belgium is a very small country, a nice way to visit it is to take the train (there are very cheap tickets with which you can go from any station to any other within the country for a fix price, they are called "gopass"). It is very nice to go at the Binche's carnival (which is part of the UNESCO patrimony).
The national dish is mussels with French fries.
A lot of websites are devoted to activities in Belgium. A quick research on the internet according to one's favourite activities is sufficient to find a lot of possibilities. Tourism websites are:
- Tourism in the Flanders and Brussels: http://www.tourismebelgique.com/
- Tourism in the Walloon region and Brussels: http://www.opt.be/home/home.htm
- Tourism in Belgium: http://www.office-de-tourisme.com/belgique.html
Magazines on social life can be found in public places (like bars and restaurants): they advertise events according to the region.
For more information about the Belgian culture and people, one can watch programs on TV5 which could be of interest, for instance the Belgian new bulletin (Le journal belge) which presents information on Belgium. Belgians are big fans of soccer; the tournaments and league games are often shown on television. Soccer is to the Belgians what hockey is to Canadians. RTBF is the national Belgian broadcaster. It is heard through satellite or on Internet at www.lapremiere.be. Among Belgian humorists the most notorious are François Pirette, Pierre Desproges and Laurent Ruquier. You could also visit www.tourismebelgique.com which offers a wide variety of cultural and tourist information.
Belgium does not have a lot of heroes. Belgians are proud of the singer Jacques Brel, the actor Benoit Poelvoorde and tennis players Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.
Several Belgians have left their mark in different domains and for each in his own way. In the scientific arena, Georges Lemaître has initiated the Big Bang theory and Pierre Deligne has been one of the most famous mathematicians of the century. Victor Horta and Henri Van de Velde have both been very famous architects. Although they lived at different times, Belgian musicians have influenced the musical scene of their generation: Roland de Lassus, César Franck, Adolphe Sax and Jacques Brel. Writers like Janssen and Raymond Devos and artists like Pierre Breugel, Pierre-Paul Rubens and Paul Devaux are equally quite famous, each in his own style. Athletes like Eddy Merckx, one of the best cyclists of all times, Jacky Ickx, former automobile racer, Jean-Michel Saive, excellent table tennis player and Enzo Scifo, one of the great soccer players of his generation, have all left their mark on their own discipline.
Shared historical events with Canada
Belgium and Canada always had a good economic, diplomatic and cultural relation.
There is no historic event that could affect negatively the relations between Belgium and Canada. On the contrary, thirty years ago, Canada and Belgium have tightened their economic, cultural and academic relations.
Belgians might imagine the typical Canadian as a woodcutter, removing the snow from his path and eating maple syrup but this might not be harmful to effective relations. Canadians are usually seen as sympathetic individuals.
I can't think of stereotypes either way that might have an impact on relations.
On a final note: Belgium brings beer (there are more than 400 brands!), chocolate, waffles and Manneken-Pis to mind. It is easy to forget the rich history and architecture of this country, it is also noticeably multicultural. In fact, more than half the Belgians are Flemish who live in the north of the country and speak Flemish. The Walloons (French speakers) live in the south of Belgium and have their very own culture. Only in Brussels, the capital, do the two groups coexist. Brussels is one of the rare officially bilingual capitals of the world. Some German speaking Belgians live in the Eastern part. To add to this diversity, a lot of foreigners live in Belgium.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Brussels, Belgium, the youngest of two children. She lived in Blanmont, a small town located exactly at the geographical center of Belgium, until the age of 20 years old. Then, she moved to study in Louvain-La-Neuve.. After graduation, your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada to study at the University of Toronto. Although your cultural interpreter belongs to the French speaking group of Belgium, a branch of her family was originally Dutch speaking. This was four generations ago. At that time, the upper-class was French speaking and, as did a lot of Dutch speaking people, her ancestors decided to learn and speak only French. The situation is now different: there is an upper class in each region but more and more industries are becoming predominantly Dutch.
Your cultural interpreter is born in Quebec City, third of four children. She grew up in a suburb of Ottawa. She studied at the University of Ottawa in 1997 and, in 1999, at Université Libre de Bruxelles. Her studies and hobbies took her traveling abroad on several occasions since 1988, to Cuba, France, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Great-Britain, Belgium, Egypt, Thailand and Malaysia. She is now back in Ottawa where she studies to be a nutritionist.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.