Cultural Differences – Belgium

With Brussels at the center of the European Union, the Belgian working world is more international than in many other EU countries. In addition to the multicultural influences of its numerous foreign inhabitants, Belgium also has domestic economic, political and above all cultural borders. By several state reforms in the 80s and 90s, the three autonomous member states of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels were created, which do not necessarily coexist peacefully in today’s federal state of Belgium.

About half of the Belgians in the northern part of Flanders speak Flemish (Belgian Dutch), about a third in the southern part of Wallonia speak French in addition to the Walloon language. Brussels is a French-speaking enclave within Flanders, where both French and Flemish are official languages. In East Belgium, within Wallonia, there is also a small German-speaking community. There is little evidence of total national unity in the Kingdom of Belgium. Many inhabitants identify primarily as Flemings or Walloons and then as Belgian nationals.

Egalitarian Flemings, hierarchically thinking Walloons

Accordingly, there are still major differences in the business cultures of these various Belgian regions. Flemish companies, for example, are much more egalitarian than Walloon companies. Here, decisions tend to be made by consensus between upper and middle management levels rather than by a single managing director. As a rule, the managers of a company are accessible to everyone, with the boss and employees at all levels discussing with each other at eye level and jointly developing new strategies. Similarly, responsibility is also delegated downwards. The Flemings are regarded as straightforward, hard-working and business-minded.

In the Walloon working world there are many similarities to French behavior patterns. As a rule, companies are strongly hierarchized here, with the top management level pursuing an authoritarian, very direct management style. Decisions tend to be made by the top management, mostly behind closed doors. Only comparatively little responsibility is transferred downwards. Power is an important factor in Walloon companies, which is clearly reflected in status symbols such as office sizes, equipment, company cars with allocated parking spaces and in the design of business cards.

Different communication style

There are also some striking differences between Flemish and Walloon communication styles. The Flemish communicate more informally in business life, while the Walloons prefer to use formal communication channels, sticking to the hierarchical structure that exists in the company. At the same time, the French-speaking Walloons are talkative and clearly more expressive in their non-verbal communication, while the Flemings speak more quietly. All in all, the Walloons often appear more open and cordial, while many Flemings can seem a bit taciturn. What they all have in common, however, is a very direct way of expressing themselves. As a rule, Belgians frankly say what they think, without beating around the bush.

Even though English has established itself everywhere as a business language, foreign managers in Belgium should never underestimate the continuing relevance of the so called “language dispute”. Especially for the Flemings, speaking Flemish is an expression of their cultural identity. Many Flemings therefore have a strong aversion to speaking French and criticize the country’s progressive francophonization – especially in the capital Brussels. It is therefore advisable for expats or foreign business people who actually do speak French to only speak English with Flemish business partners – and to ignore their most likely excellent French.

Be careful with criticism

You certainly are allowed to tell Belgians what you like and what you don’t like. However, direct criticism should be softened with some friendly words. In Wallonia in particular, it is important to let everyone save face. A few specific remarks are therefore usually sufficient to ensure that the criticism expressed is understood precisely. On the other hand, French-speaking Belgians tend to skillfully avoid unpleasant topics or questions.

Meetings and negotiations

At meetings and negotiations in Flanders, international managers will mainly meet with delegations of experts of different levels. The focus of these well-structured discussions is always on the best solution for everyone involved. Therefore, Flemings are capable of compromise. Their negotiation style is levelheaded and pragmatic.

In Wallonia, foreign business people usually meet only a few negotiators. According to the hierarchical structure of Wallonian companies, these selected representatives of the upper management level are equipped with all necessary decision-making powers so that negotiations will result in a speedy conclusion.

However, meetings and negotiations are less structured here. Managers from other countries often have to get used to the Walloon negotiating style first. Like their French neighbors, they enjoy abstract discussions and jump from one topic to another before they ultimately decide on open questions and points.

In both business cultures, however, direct confrontations in negotiations will not be welcomed. A tough negotiating style with verbal outbursts or indirect threats is a breach of the Belgian meeting etiquette. In general, it is therefore advisable to always show good will and follow common sense.

In Belgium, differences are bridged with creative, often surprising solutions. Because of their constant national conflicts, Belgians seem to be used to seeking – and above all finding – compromises. For business people who think in a more conclusion-oriented, straightforward way, this actually very flexible behavior can sometimes seem undecided or undetermined.

Business dinners are very important

Like their Dutch neighbors, the Flemings have a great sense of family and like to go home early after work. Business dinners in the evening are therefore rather rare in Flanders. A joint lunch during a business meeting is often used to relax before returning to the negotiating table. This is why friendly small talk for general entertainment usually dominates among the Flemish.

The Walloons – much like the French – enjoy going to expensive restaurants in the evenings, where they have long and extensive meals. Here, too, little is said about business. However, spending a pleasant evening together has some influence on the later success of the business development.

Small talk topics that touch the national unity between Flanders and Wallonia in any way should be avoided as far as possible in both parts of the country. However, it is highly appreciated everywhere in Belgium if foreign business partners know a little about Belgium’s geography and can assign the correct language to each city/region. A positive attitude towards the EU and Brussels’ role as a unifying capital also provides a good basis for trust-building conversations during a business dinner.

Punctuality is important

Belgians are generally very punctual. Schedules and deadlines are taken very seriously and should therefore be precisely defined and respected. Delays must be announced in good time and, above all, well justified. Due to the laid-back nature of many Belgians, international business partners sometimes mistakenly assume that they might not be too precise about scheduling.

In Belgium, it is always an advantage to take a closer look at the subtleties of the respective regional business cultures. Comparing Walloons with French and Flemings with Dutch helps to understand existing structures and typical behavior patterns. It is nevertheless important to understand the peculiarities of both cultures.

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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