10 tips for doing business in Belgium

Introduction to Belgium business culture

Belgium has a rich cultural history but also politically, a very complex and sometimes troubled one. There continue to be tensions in the country between the Flemings in the north and Walloons in the south. Be sure that you know the difference and that the Flemings are Dutch speakers, but are not Dutch, while the Walloons speak French, but are not French. The Walloons can also be sensitive about being seen as quieter versions of the French. Be careful not to speak French to Flemings or Dutch to Walloons. German should only be spoken to those in the small, German speaking region of Belgium.

Belgians are modest, pragmatic and flexible. They are not given to loud or aggressive behaviour and will not take well to those who are very boisterous, pushy or aggressive. They respect creativity and flexibility and a willingness to compromise and find common and agreed ground in business situations. Those in the north are more given to a consensual style of negotiation and decision-making than those in the south and attitudes and expectations should be tailored accordingly.

The Belgians are friendly and outgoing and will take well to those who have an open, respectful attitude. They will expect colleagues to be friendly but efficient and to live up to their promises and agreements. While Belgians are pragmatic and do not like to waste time, they like to enjoy friendly relationships with their business counterparts. They enjoy business entertainment – eating and drinking are favourite past times. Good topics of conversation include food and drink, sports, Belgian art and architecture.

Despite the size of the country, its achievements culturally and economically are considerable and should not be underestimated. Some painful parts of their history – including religion and war, should be avoided. Belgians are enthusiastic supporters of the EU, which should be understood and acknowledged.

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Top 10 tips on Belgium business culture

Here are 10 essential tips for making a good impression when doing business in Belgium:

  1. Be alert to differences within Belgian society and culture – North – Flanders, primarily Dutch; South – Wallonia, primarily French; Northeast – primarily German influenced. Print bi-lingual business cards as appropriate.
  2. Recognise that Belgians tend to be careful and conservative; they will take their time before trusting others. Build extra time into your planning.
  3. Maintain a friendly, open attitude. Being confrontational is considered rude.
  4. Work at being subtle rather than overly direct. Directness is sometimes associated with being too simplistic.
  5. Expect to have to deal with many procedures and a lot of paperwork.
  6. Work through issues in a gradual way; communication should be logical and reason-based.
  7. Arrive on time for meetings; arriving late may cause you to be seen as unreliable. Meetings tend to be formal, although first meetings are often more social than business focused.
  8. Be prepared for lengthy discussions of issues to make sure all alternatives have been considered.
  9. Be acquainted with Belgian history and in particular, the economic achievements of the country. Demonstrate a positive orientation toward Europe.
  10. Try to avoid religious issues or issues related to the tensions between the regions of Belgium; do not criticize the monarchy.

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belgian business culture

About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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