We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Belgium
Don’t associate the country with the European Union, or at least don’t tell Belgian people about it. Although the EU has chosen to put most of its headquarters in Belgium, it doesn’t mean that Belgians have anything to do with it. Most Belgian people don’t care about the EU any more than an other person in another country in the continent. Foreigner’s perception of Belgium as being ‘the EU country’ is not only strange to Belgians but also very offensive to them because it sounds like you bypass them to focus on a organization in which they are just one country amongst 28 (don’t forget, the EU also has institutions headquartered in other countries too). You wouldn’t call the United States ‘the UN country’ just because the UN has its headquarters in New-York, so don’t do the same to Belgium. Belgians don’t like to talk about their income or politics. You must also avoid asking people about their views on religion. Religion is considered a strictly private matter. The Flanders-Wallonia question or dispute and the high number of separatist and extreme-right votes in Flanders are controversial topics and you must avoid asking people about their views on these as well. Keep any opinions or biases to yourself. Do NOT try to speak French in Flanders, and Dutch in Wallonia! Speaking the “wrong” language can be considered very offensive in the two regions, and you will either be ignored or at worst get an icy response and substandard service. However, the closer you get to the language border this will happen less frequently. The situation is also less intense within the legally bilingual Brussels though French is usually a better bet there. Across the country, the lingua franca between both Flemings and Wallons has become English especially among the younger generations, to avoid being spoken to in the “other language”. That is why as a tourist, it is best to start a conversation in English or the “correct” language, that is Dutch in Flanders and French in Wallonia. Do NOT tell the Walloons (and most of the people of Brussels) that they are French. Most Walloons, despite speaking French, are not and do not consider themselves French and dislike being associated with their neighbour France. And for the same reason, do NOT tell the Flemish (and also the people of Brussels) that they are Dutch. Most Flemings, despite speaking Dutch (Flemish), are not and do not consider themselves Dutch and dislike being associated with their neighbour the Netherlands. Belgians in general are very proud of their comic book artists. The “Belgian school of comic books” is hailed as a national pride. In Belgium, comic books are valuable books printed with a hard cover. There are dozens of beautiful yet expensive merchandizing items, and the Belgians are fond of them. A plastic figurine of a comic book character or a special artwork of a hailed comic book artist would be a perfect gift for your Belgian friends and in-laws, for example. Giving tips shows that you were content with the service given, but you are certainly not obliged to do so. It is sometimes done in bars and restaurants. Depending on the total, a tip of 0,50 to 2,50 is considered generous. It is considered EXTREMELY IMPOLITE in Belgium to give unwarranted advice. Belgian people are usually quiet and good-humoured but they will surprise you with big anger if you jump in to give them your opinion on what they are doing without them asking for it. Do not tell people what they should do with their life in Belgium, ever. Have respect for the things that are made in Belgium (or at least considered to be made). For example, you have to be respectful for the Belgian made fries.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Belgium, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Belgium food and drinks:
Local food you should try in Belgium and No miss drinks in Belgium.
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Belgium? Please comment below.