Belgium, one of the most urbanised countries in the world, is surrounded by a host of land from France in the south, to Germany in the east, to Luxembourg in the southeast, and the Netherlands in the north. It is famed for far more than just chocolates, beer, waffles, and of course the world-renowned European Union. It is a beautiful country laden with varied landscapes including high hills and wild forests to the east, whilst the west provides a myriad of polders and beaches. And who knew such inventions as the Body Mass Index (BMI) and the saxophone are thanks to the Belgians? Or that it is the world’s leading exporter of billiard balls?!
As for Belgian industries, it is in fact steel that wins the day, steel production being the most important sector of industry. However, there are many more strings to its bow, with engineering, motor vehicle assembly, scientific instruments, textiles, chemicals and diamond-cutting (based in Antwerp) also bringing in much revenue to the country.
So what do you do as a business if you want to set up or invest in Belgium? Quite simply put, do your research. You wouldn’t try to run before you could walk, so why dive head first into business with Belgians without knowing what to expect? Here are just a handful of useful cultural tips to give you a head start.
When it comes to helping your business cause in Belgium it would be helpful to know which language to learn as it depends which part of the country you have your international investment. If you go to Flanders in the north, the Flemish region of Belgium, Dutch is the official language. It is also where you’ll find most of the country’s industrial resources. The local variant of French on the other hand is spoken in the south of the country in Wallonia, known as Wallon. Contrary to what many people think, the most spoken language is in fact Flemish (the local form of Dutch), spoken by 60% of the country, not French, which counts for only 33%. Although German is an official language, only 1% of the population is German-speaking and is generally found in the eastern area of Wallon in the cantons.
Even though the majority of Belgians are excellent linguists and English is usually the preferred language in international business, it will always pay to make the effort to converse in their language with the odd word or two. A few useful phrases to tuck under your belt include hello (Fr -Bonjour / Fl – Goeiedag), thank you (Fr – Merci / Fl – Dank u wel), please (Fr – S’il vous plait / Fl – Alstublieft), how are you? (Fr – Comment allez-vous? / Fl – Hoe gaat het (met u)?
Business meeting etiquette
If you want to make sure you get on the right side of your Belgian counterparts it is essential that you arrange an appointment beforehand, as dropping in out of the blue might lead your business venture to take a nosedive before it’s even taken off! The time will usually be decided by the person you wish to meet, which will generally take place midmorning or mid afternoon. It is also advisable to avoid scheduling a meeting during the months of July and August, when Europe tends to be closed for business, everyone being on holiday at this time! Unless you want to earn a reputation for unreliability, punctuality to meetings is also essential. Other meeting etiquette includes not removing your jacket during this time and expect your business encounter to be formal.
Business card etiquette
There is no particular formality when it comes to exchanging business cards, however, show courtesy by presenting your business card with their native language showing. It is therefore advisable to have your card translated into Dutch or French, which in turn shows respect. If your business venture takes you to areas of the country where both languages are spoken then bring two sets of cards, but be sure to show the correct language side in the right area!
Gift giving etiquette
Giving gifts is not the norm in Belgian business, however, it might feel appropriate to offer a present when sealing the deal for example. Presents should never bear your company’s logo or have your business card attached, keep it neutral. If offered a gift by your counterparts, it is courtesy to open it in front of them and show your appreciation straight away.
Should you be bestowed with the honour of being invited to your Belgian client’s home, it is appropriate to take the host a gift, such as chocolates and flowers, although make sure you don’t take white chrysanthemums due to their association with death and only give a bunch of flowers containing an odd number, except for 13. Avoid the faux pas of giving wine and spirits, as this type of present is usually exchanged between close friends.
To make your business relationship long-lasting like the lingering satisfaction of a fine Belgian beer, take heed of these few useful tips, but be sure to delve deeper into the chocolate box of Belgian cultural etiquette to allow you to make the most of your international investment.
By Madeline Prusmann, Project Manager, December 2017