Business communication

Belgium-flag-140The following section focuses on the communication aspects of business practice. Issues such as verbal and non-verbal communication are discussed with an accent on normative business etiquette. Also included, is information about general Belgian working practices and habits that may be relevant for business negotiations.

Miscommunication during a business encounter may have serious consequences on the success of the deal. Whereas we may not find any problems when communicating with our business partner in our mother country, this situation may rapidly change when negotiating business abroad. In a foreign country you will usually come across people from different backgrounds and thus their style of communication will also differ. Without awareness of this issue you may experience culture shock when dealing with your business partners, cause yourself embarrassment and consequently make your counterpart uncomfortable.

While outwardly modest on the international scene, most Belgians know their own value and are conscious of their roots. The existence of parallel cultures, Flemish, Walloon (French) and German in the same small country makes it particularly important to address individuals in their language of preference. The simplest way to avoid any communication glitches is to use English. It is also worth remembering that Belgians have a close attachment to their local community, even at the level of the town or village. Asking where someone comes from is rarely likely to be found intrusive.

This section will focus on the successful mastery of the initial contact that is particularly important for creating a positive image. Verbal as well as non-verbal aspects of business communication will be outlined.

It is particularly important to note that all commercial publicity or display material should be presented in the language of the community concerned (though some foreign companies cheat by publishing everything in English!).

Face-to-face Communication

Introductions may be difficult as they depend on the circumstances of a particular situation. Generally, the best practice is to be introduced by a third party. However, in certain situations this may not be possible. When introducing yourself, it is essential to shake hands in a firm manner. When shaking hands with a woman, it is polite to wait for her to proffer her hand and then squeeze it gently.

Belgians may look to you to ‘break the ice’. Choose a general topic, avoiding issues like language, Belgian politics, or questions about the other party’s family life. A good starting point can be a comment on the high quality of Belgian food, beer or chocolate. Fallbacks, depending on the interests of the other party, are football, popular music, cartoons (Belgium has the highest ratio of successful professional cartoonists of any country in the world) or tennis, at which the Belgians currently excel. If you are French or Dutch, avoid making jokes at the Belgians’ expense.

As a rule, the Flemish Belgians tend to be a little more focused on the task at hand. The difference was well expressed by a young Flemish consultant who said: “When I send an email to a Walloon, I come straight to the point. But when my Walloon colleague emails back, he starts by asking me how I am and did I have a good weekend?… and then he gets to the point. And I feel angry. I ask myself, is that because of what the politicians keep telling me, or is it simply because we are different? But, when I meet my Walloon friend, we get on very well together and we enjoy ourselves.”

However, in their underlying value systems, all Belgians tend to share the same priorities: conflict avoidance, attachment to one’s roots, mistrust of authority (a German journalist married to a Flemish Belgian concluded that “the Belgian defers to any authority yet, in his heart, he is a convinced anarchist”), and a proper appreciation of the good things in life.

Generally, the foreigner can expect an amiable, even warm, reception from Belgians in business. The pervasive good nature of the people is well summed up by the Dutch journalist Derk-Jan Eppink who, in his book Belgian Adventures writes: “After much reflection, I am now convinced that a Dutchman who comes to live in Belgium will never be the same Dutchman ever again. Belgium reforms you. Belgium deforms you – but in the nicest possible way. So what has Belgium changed in me? Above all, Belgium has helped me to put things in their proper perspective; to see that there is not just one universal truth, but a whole range of different truths; to understand that no one person is always right, but that lots of people are sometimes a little bit right”.

Language Matters

Foreign language competence is generally typical of educated Belgians, more so in the case of the Flemish than the French speakers. This reflects the fact that the country lies on a linguistic fault-line and has also had to negotiate and trade with other countries in order to survive.

Most Flemish speakers you encounter in international business will have good English and French, in addition to their mother tongue, and may also be conversant with German. French is the second language of choice in most Flemish SMEs. Foreign language competence in the French-speaking Community is largely limited to approximate English.

International reports show that Flanders, by teaching an average of 2.6 foreign languages per student, is close to the top of the European league. The recent success of similar initiatives in the French Community, with the vast majority choosing Dutch as a language of immersion, is prompting further initiatives on foreign-language teaching at primary school level in Flanders as well. French has officially been compulsory in primary education since September 2004. Otherwise, the most popular second language taught in all areas of Belgium is English, which is generally integrated into teaching programmes in Flanders from the age of 13-14.

Thus, international negotiations in Belgium are generally conducted in English, although French may be an option. It will rarely be necessary to use interpreters when negotiating with Belgian business people. In fact, doing so may even be regarded as showing a lack of trust.

Provincial people, both the Flemish when speaking French and the Walloons, have no inhibitions about addressing strangers with the familiar tu. Likewise they will use the formal uw and vous as a sign of respect when addressing senior family members and colleagues.

The following topics are safe and suitable for discussions with your Belgian counterparts:

  • The weather – e.g. “Nice day!”
  • Food and drink – e.g. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” or “Are you hungry?”
  • Travel – e.g. “How was the journey?” or “Did you have a pleasant flight?”
  • Family – e.g. “Please give my best regards to your wife”
  • Entertainment – e.g. “Did you see the film last night on TV?”
  • Holidays – e.g. “When do you plan to go on holiday?”
  • Music – e.g. “Do you like pop music?”
  • News – e.g. “Did you hear about the demonstrations in France?”
  • Sport, particularly football, cycling or tennis – “I see the winner was a Belgian!”
  • General topics – e.g. “How was your day yesterday?” or “See you on Monday.”
  • If you know that your partner has a particular interest – such as a hobby, studies, work, cars – you can focus the discussion around the topic. The golden rule is not to attempt to find out too much personal information as this might be considered an intrusion into the privacy that Belgians value greatly.  

Business Relationships

While not as focused on this as their neighbours the French, most Belgians attach a lot of importance to developing personal relationships, the Walloons somewhat more so than the Flemish, although this is important for both communities.

The Walloons are particularly ‘relationship-oriented’, more so than the Flemish who tend to be more ‘task-oriented’. The difference between the two Communities is essentially a question of priorities: the Walloons are inclined to develop the relationship in order to complete the task, whereas the Flemish will concentrate more on the task while at the same time investing in the relationship.

All Belgians, however, are inclined to set a strict dividing line between business and social matters. The private life of most Belgians is ‘off limits’ for anyone except family and close friends.

Depending on the size of the business, it is  usual practice not to consider a deal complete until it has been acknowledged and confirmed in writing . Thus, it is crucial to ensure that all the conditions and characteristics of a deal discussed during a meeting are included in the written document.

Making contact

A handshake is the usual form of greeting in Belgium, accompanied by an appropriate phrase like ‘good day’. In a social as opposed to a business setting, women and people of the opposite sex may also kiss – generally three times starting with the right cheek (the left cheek from the point of view of the person kissing): Walloon men may also kiss one another if they are old friends. When meeting someone for the first time, the Flemish and German speakers are likely to be more reserved than the Walloons. French speakers in the Brussels region may also be relatively formal.

Normally, welcomes and responses will be warm without being overly intimate. In business meetings, it is customary for a new arrival to go round the room shaking all the participants by the hand.

The ‘intimate zone’ of most Belgians tends to be in the region of 50 cm. When meeting for the first time, ensure steady eye contact when listening. Avoid intense eye contact as this may be felt to be invasive.

For further information, please see below:

Personal titles

Titles and qualifications (Ingenieur, etc) are used sparingly in Belgium, without resorting to the informality that is characteristic of the British or Americans. With the exception of university professors and lawyers, it is not normal to address individuals by their professional titles, in contrast to the practice in Germanic or some Nordic cultures. First names should only be used once a relationship has been established, and preferably at the initiative of the Belgian party. Particular attention needs to be paid to the older members of any organisation.

Remember also, that if you venture into French or Flemish, you will be confronted with the option of using the intimate ‘you’ or the formal one. To be on the safe side, stick to the formal method of address until your Belgian colleague indicates otherwise.

For further information, please see below:

Do you want to learn more about business culture in Belgium?