Any advice on ‘etiquette' must be taken with a pinch of salt. It is up to the individual to decide how much to behave or misbehave in any given situation. With that disclaimer, here is a short guide to Belgian social conventions.
There is something endearing about monkeys bonding through ritualised grooming of one another's hair, I decided while travelling round Sri Lanka. But one would think that is not the done thing for a human – well, think again.
In many parts of medieval Europe, the hunt for head lice was considered a highly civilised act of grooming, but became a peasant occupation by the 17th century, as illustrated by Andries Both, the Dutch painter.
This demonstrates how much social norms, even within a given society, change radically over time. Moreover, it also shows that any advice on ‘etiquette' must be taken with a pinch of salt. It is up to the individual to decide how much to behave or misbehave in any given situation.
With that disclaimer, here is a short guide to Belgian social conventions.
Belgians are generally a quiet and fairly unassuming people. Whereas in some cultures, raised voices are seen as a sign of excitement or interest, in Belgium, people view loud speakers as aggressive or obnoxious. Volume control is essential, as is strict turn taking.
“You shouldn't be boastful or outspoken, Belgians like modesty,” advises Patrick, a Belgian who works at an EU institution.
Small talk and banter are enjoyed in Belgium. As in other parts of northern Europe, one topic of endless fascination is the temperamental weather. Come rain, sleet, snow or heat wave, that's a guaranteed talking point!
One topic that can only be broached at great personal risk is income. “Never ask a Belgian how much he or she earns,” warn Peter Perceval and Bert Kruismans in their hilarious België voor beginnelingen (Belgium for beginners/foreigners). “Only in exceptional circumstances (at gunpoint or as a sign of deep friendship) will he answer and then only to say ‘Not enough'.”
Belgians are generally private people and guard their private space jealously. Many would rather have their nails pulled out than comment openly on the behaviour of others, no matter how unconventional or bizarre, or intervene in a public situation. On public transport, Belgians tend to maintain minimum eye contact with their fellow travellers and conceal themselves behind the curtain of a book, magazine or headphones.
The same applies to the home. Belgians are usually cautious not to invade or trespass on the private space of others. This means that it can take neighbours a long time before they are on speaking or even nodding terms.
The kissing minefield
Belgian kissing practices are complex and littered with pitfalls. The simplest is the Walloon convention, particularly amongst the young and hip, to kiss everyone on practically every occasion – many will even throw virtual kisses down the phone with a casual “Bisou!”
“We kiss friends every time we meet. We even kiss colleagues at work. Personally, I kiss my boss, as well,” said Myrrhine, an office worker in Brussels.
The Flemish are more standoffish and will usually only kiss when they have not seen each other in a while. Normally, women kiss women and men kiss women. However, it is also becoming increasingly common among young people – particularly in Brussels and Francophone areas – for men to kiss men in greeting.
Adjusting one's kiss counter can be a challenging thing for newcomers. The Walloons tend to give friends one kiss – some claim two – and family three. The Flemings tend to go for three kisses for family and friends on special occasions.
Out and about
There are certain conventions a punter should bear in mind when visiting a Belgian café or bar. First is that there is no hurry. Belgians don't like to rush or be rushed when out drinking, and establishments do not make you feel obliged to order constantly.
There is a certain art to beer presentation and consumption. “Each beer has its own particular glass and that is sacred,” explains Jose, a Brussels barman. “The shape and dimensions of the glass make a huge difference to the taste.”
In Belgium, friends tend to take turns in buying rounds, except if it is a special occasion like a birthday party. At restaurants, people tend to split the bill, unless someone explicitly says that it is a treat.
Tipping is not essential at bars but is expected at restaurants.
When invited round people's home for a party or dinner, it is always thoughtful to bring a little something along, such as a nice bottle of wine, flowers or even chocolate. Belgians like to be punctual, so try to turn up around the time specified when invited for dinner. Parties are more flexible.
When entertaining, it is often a good idea to invite people as soon as possible, since many Belgians plan their time well in advance.
This is by no means an exhaustive overview and certain generalisations were necessary given the available space. Cultural norms are by no means universally accepted and every society has a wide range of subcultures.
This article appeared in the September 2006 issue of (A)WAY magazine.