Belgium Business Etiquette

Welkom in Belgie! (‘‘Welcome to Belgium!” in Dutch)

Bienvenue en Belgique! (‘‘Welcome to Belgium!” in French)

Wilkommen in Belgien! (‘‘Welcome to Belgium!” in German)

Belgium is one of the European countries with less exposure. The nation borders France, Germany, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands; consequently, it is a diverse land of many languages and cultures (unlike more homogenized nations like the U.S. and the U.K.). Let’s take a look at some things that Belgium is commonly known for.

Beer: There are hundreds of kinds of beers brewed in Belgium – about 800, to be exact. And the Belgian people drink a lot of beer. CNBC ranked Belgium #7 on the list of the Top 20 Beer Drinking Countries due to the fact that Belgians typically drink 93 liters of beer per person per year. For those who don’t know the metric system, that’s over 24 liquid gallons!

As an additional beer factoid, the world’s first beer academy opened in Belgium in 1999. They are seriously committed to their suds.

 Chocolate: You think Belgians produce and drink a lot of beer? Wait until you hear the stats on chocolate.  According to CNN’s list of the top chocolate-consuming countries, the average Belgian eats 6.8 kg (almost 15 pounds!) of chocolate a year. Wow.

            Chocolate pralines, or "bonbons."

           Chocolate pralines, or "bonbons."

Chocolate is an essential part of Belgium’s economy. The world’s largest seller of chocolate is the Brussels National Airport. People are so psyched to be flying into Belgium that the first thing they do upon landing is buy some of the renowned chocolate.

Some of the top Belgian chocolate companies are Leonidas, Godiva, and Neuhaus. In fact, Belgian chocolatier Jean Neuhaus invented the chocolate staple praline (or “bonbon”) in 1912. What a genius!

 Waffles: Most of you have probably heard of (or eaten) a Belgian waffle in your lifetime. Belgium has delicious bakeries, and waffles are one of the confections which have been concocted here.

There are three types of Belgian waffles: Brussels, Liege, and galettes. For more information on the history Belgian waffles and the proper way to eat them, read this article.

 So, before you decide to fly off to Belgium, let’s first learn about the dos and don’ts of Belgian business etiquette.

The Lowdown

  • The capital of Belgium is Brussels, which is also its largest city. Another major Belgian city is Bruges
  • Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French, and German. The majority of Belgian citizens speak the Flemish dialect of Dutch and French.
  • Approximately 60% of the Belgian population is Fleming and 30% is Walloon.
  • Belgium is a Christian nation – approximately two-thirds of citizens are Catholics, and the other third is predominantly Protestant.
  • Belgium is a federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy (the current monarch is King Philippe).
  • Fun fact: Belgium was once part of The Netherlands, but successfully seceded during the Belgian Revolution in 1830. In fact, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg all have similar, remarkably low-lying topography which long ago earned them the nickname “The Low Countries.”

Dressing Sharp

  • As with many other countries, appearances matter in the Belgian business community.
  • Cleanliness is important – many Belgians will take care to maintain the appearance of their home or yard just as carefully as their personal appearance.
  • Men should wear: dark, clean business suits with a pressed shirt and tie.
  • Women should wear: dark, clean business suits (with either pants or a skirt) or a dress.
  • Accessories should be well-kept and conservative.

Make or Break Meetings

  • The initial greeting will likely be very formal. If you do not know the Belgian party well, a handshake is the proper greeting. As the relationship progresses, you may greet the opposite sex with three “air kisses” on alternating cheeks. (Note: men do not kiss men in Belgian society).
  • If you happen to have a mutual third party contact who knows both yourself and the Belgian party, they may be helpful in facilitating introductions.
  • Because Belgium is a land of many languages, your Belgian business contact may know more than one language, including English. Check their fluency before arriving.
  • Be punctual, polite, and respectful during all meetings. This will ensure the Belgian party that you are trustworthy and may help you build a meaningful relationship.

Dining Decorum

  • A business meal may be eaten in either a restaurant of Belgian home. Most likely, it will be in a restaurant because the home is reserved for family gatherings. 
  • Protocol is important in Belgium. For example, if you receive a written invitation to dinner, your RSVP should be written as well.
  • Be on time or early for the dinner engagement.
  • Wait for the Belgian party to instruct you where to sit. Women will sit first.
  • Toasts are common at the beginning of the meal. However, because the population is so diverse, the toast style may depend on the host. Follow the lead of the toaster.
  • Table manners, as with most other European nations, are Continental. Also, do not put your hands in your lap while eating.
  • Finish all food on your plate. Failure to do so may be viewed as rude or in bad taste.
  • When you are finished eating, place your utensils parallel across the plate.

Giving and Getting Gifts

  • Gift giving is not a normal aspect of the Belgian business process.
  • If you do decide to give a gift, ensure that the gift is modest and inexpensive.
  • Acceptable gifts include chocolate and flowers. Flowers should be unwrapped and in an odd number (not unlucky 13, though). Do not give yellow flowers, carnations, or chrysanthemums.
  • Do not give liquor, wine, or anything adorned with your company logo.
  • Gifts are typically opened upon receipt.

Down to Business

  • Belgium has a strong anti-corruption stance, so keep this in mind when conducting business here.
  • Remain polite and polished through the negotiation process, even if you have developed a rapport with the Belgian party. This shows you are committed to the deal and are a serious business person.
  • Unlike more direct nations like Germany and the United States, Belgians are more subtle in their communication style. However, they are not as indirect as many Asian nations.
  • Presentations should be factual and logical.
  • Avoid aggressive and confrontational sales tactics, as this as seen as rude.
  • Negotiations will likely be bureaucratic. As a result, it may take time for the process to reach its end.

Now that you're well prepared for your next jet-setting business trip to Belgium, don't forget to stay tuned for our next Business Etiquette blurb!

Vaarwel! (‘‘Goodbye!” or “Farewell!” in Dutch)

Au revoir! (‘‘Goodbye!” in French)

Auf Wiedersehen! (‘‘Goodbye!” in German)

Belgian flag.gif


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