Excerpted from the Belgium Career Guide
Belgium is a small country that is remarkably diverse. The country is now a federal parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch, consisting of three distinct autonomous regions: Flanders (in the north and west), Wallonia (in the south and east) and Brussels (the capital), each with its own governing body. More significantly for the foreign businessperson, each has its own language, culture, customs and traditions. Three languages are recognized by the Belgian constitution: French (spoken in the Wallonia region), Flemish (or Dutch, spoken in the Flanders region) and German (spoken in just a small area on the border of Germany). Belgium’s capital city, Brussels, is officially bilingual (French and Flemish). It is perhaps not surprising that the Belgian approach to business is consistent with the country’s internal divide: inflexibility of opinion or position is not acceptable and everything has to be a compromise.
There are 17,000 sports clubs in Belgium. Belgium is also a cyclist's dream, with over 2,000 kilometers/1,200 miles of towpaths (trails following waterways) open for cycling. Aided by Belgium's mostly flat terrain, this network makes it easy to bike across the country in relative peace, quiet and security. The national sport is considered to be football (soccer), with thousands of clubs. Other popular sports include field hockey, tennis, basketball and golf. Pétanque, a game similar to bowling or curling from the south of France, is also popular, especially during the summer months.
Belgians as a whole tend to be rather formal, and shake hands at the beginning and ending of each interaction, both when meeting someone for the first time and when leaving a meeting. Everyone in the party is expected to shake hands, including the administrative assistant. Kissing on the cheeks, usually three kisses on alternating cheeks, is also a common custom, even when meeting someone for the first time; however, this will not always happen in work situations, and the visitor/foreigner is recommended to wait for a cue from the colleague/business associate. Men usually only shake hands. A common polite greeting is ‘enchanté’ in French or ‘aangenaam’ in Dutch. It is also considered polite to address a person by name or title when arriving or leaving. Personal space should be about an arm's length.
If You Want to Act Like a Local...
Frites (fries/chips) are eaten with mayonnaise.
Bathroom attendants should be tipped.
The North American 'okay' symbol using the thumb and index finger means 'zero.'
Do not offer chrysanthemums as a gift, as these are associated with death.
Though deeply traditional in many ways, Belgians are flexible and multicultural in outlook. In general, Belgians can seem extremely reserved and private. They respect individuals who have experience and knowledge: age and seniority count. The Flemish tend to be more direct and matter-of-fact in their communication, and avoid arrogance and boastfulness. Thus, it is best in Flanders to appear low key and modest. Walloons, on the other hand, tend to be somewhat more indirect and talkative in their day-to-day conversations.
Belgians approach work with a desire for compromise and the need to reach a workable, acceptable solution for all parties. Issues, including both pros and cons, are discussed and worked through to a solution. Privacy and individual accomplishment of one’s tasks are critical in Belgium; however, there can be much involvement between supervisors, staff, and within and among team members. In general, executives in Belgium are willing to listen and compromise. Decision making can take a long time since managers tend to rely heavily on consultation and discussion, and even peripheral concerns may be taken into consideration. Managers need to be seen as inclusive, knowledgeable about the issues, and able to set clear goals. In Wallonia more so than in Flanders, directive leadership is expected.
Due to the formality of business situations in Belgium, appointments are still preferred for meetings. It is recommended that a person telephone or write for an appointment at least one week in advance. Quite often, the first appointment will be more social since most Belgians like to get to know someone before proceeding with business of any kind.
Punctuality is very important. In case of a delay, one should advise the other party with a telephone call. Because Belgians like their meetings to be well focused, and because time needs to be carefully managed, meetings must be planned carefully (and confirmed) well in advance, with a detailed agenda circulated prior to the meeting. Casually changing time and place is not appreciated. The best times for meetings are from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 to 6 p.m. Many Belgians speak excellent English, and meetings may be held in this language.
Women in the Workplace
Although there is a high percentage of women in the Belgian workforce, Belgium is a somewhat conservative country and women do not yet play a very significant role in the senior levels of Belgian businesses. This situation is slowly changing with the times, however, and businesswomen will usually find acceptance throughout corporate Belgium, especially in the major cities like Brussels and Antwerp. There are laws governing maternity and paternity leave, and also sexual harassment. It is acceptable for a foreign businesswoman to invite a Belgian man to dinner and pay the tab.
This is just a short sample of what you’ll find in over 100 pages of information in the Belgium Guide.