Excerpted from the Belgium Career Guide
Belgium gets its name from the Belgae, a Celtic tribe that inhabited the region prior to Roman conquest in the 1st century BCE. By the 4th century, however, Germanic tribes had overrun the Roman provinces, including Belgium. Eventually, what is now Belgium came under Spanish and Austrian Hapsburg rule.
Belgium is world renowned for its chocolate (with more than 2,000 shops in the country) and beer. A chocolatier in Brussels invented pralines (nut, fruit or cream filling coated by chocolate) in 1912. There are more than 1,000 original Belgian beers and it is the only place in the world where Lambic beer is made, due to special strains of yeast and bacteria found only in the Senne Valley.
There are 17,000 sports clubs in Flanders. The Flemish government strongly invests in sports clubs via Bloso, the Flemish sports agency. ADEPS is its French-speaking counterpart. Both organizations distribute government support funds to sports federations and clubs.
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.
Three languages are recognized by the Belgian constitution: French (spoken in Wallonia), Flemish (or Dutch, spoken in Flanders) and German (spoken in a small area on the border of Germany). Brussels is officially bilingual (French and Flemish).
If You Want to Act Like a Local...
Frites (fries/chips) are eaten with mayonnaise.
The North American 'okay' symbol connecting the thumb and index finger means 'zero.'
Do not offer chrysanthemums as a gift, as these are associated with death.
Backslapping is an offensive gesture.
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.
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 am to 12 pm and from 2 pm to 6 pm. Many Belgians speak excellent English, and meetings may be held in this language.
This is just a short sample of what you’ll find in over 100 pages of information in the Belgium Guide.