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Thread: European cultures : (2) The Belgians

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    European cultures : (2) The Belgians



    It is more difficult to define the Belgian national character than that of most other European countries, because of Belgium's division in 3 linguistico-cultural groups : the Dutch-speaking Flemings, the French-speaking Walloons, and the tiny German-speaking community at the German border (also part of Wallonia).

    I will try to find what the Belgians share in common beyond their cultural group.

    Belgium has only existed as an independent country since 1830, but it existed as a common entitity under the French, Austrian and Spanish administrations from the 15th century, apart from the Principality of Liege (part of the Holy German Empire), which nevertheless had close connections and interactions with the rest of the territory.

    One thing the Belgians may have inherited from their numerous foreign rulers (and particularily the Spaniards) is mistrust of strangers, foreign or not. This has probably a lot to do with their strong individualism and acute critical sense. If two proverbs had to be chosen to define commonly shared values of the Belgians, they would be :

    - "Prudence is the mother of safety" (or alternatively "Don't pu all your eggs in one basket")
    - "Believe nothing of what you hear, and only half of what you see". (or alternatively "Trust no one unless you have eaten much salt with him.")

    This is maybe why Belgian people dislike and distrust so much politicians. Typical Belgians would tell you that "politicians are worse than criminals". Indeed, cheating on the government (e.g. taxes) and breaking stupid laws is a national sport in Belgium (and Belgium doesn't lack laws about everything immaginable). This attitude is due to a blend of distrust, critical thinking and individualism.

    The Belgians are also notorious entrepreneurs, preferring start-ups to big companies, with a sense of commercial opportunities. In that sense, as well as for their disregard for the government, they are very much like the Italians. No wonder they are called the Italians of the North (like the Danes). Government corruption and dangerous driving is another thing they share with them.

    One quality often associated with the Belgians is debrouillardise, an untranslatable French word more commonly used in Belgium, and that roughly translate as "resourceful, smart, independent-minded". In other words someone that can cope with any kind of situation without help. Consulting firms are not big in Belgium. The locals tend to distrust them and are not willing to pay someone to hear their opinion, as they think that they can do that by themselves.

    It has been said that few neighbouring countries are so culturally different as Belgium and the Netherlands. This may be a bit exaggerated, as both countries have a reputation for a sharp commercial sense and thrift. However, the Dutch tend to do things much more "by the book", follow rules and avoid conspicuous behaviour. They also tend to be less flexible for that reason. Belgian people question rules and prefer to compromise on a case by case basis. And Belgians do need to compromise, by the very nature of their multi-cultural society. This makes them particularily open-minded and good at working in cosmopolitan environments. No wonder both the EU and NATO have chosen Belgium for the headquarters.

    One major difference between Belgian and Dutch people is that the former have a higher "uncertainty avoidance" (see this thread for definition), which means that they tend to feel more insecure in a non-organised context. This may seem contradictory, as Belgians don't like laws or rules. Well, maybe they like and even need them, but easily disagree about the content. A low uncertainty avoidance like the Dutch, but especially the Brits and Scandinavians, is typically reflected by people not being well-prepared for meetings and not booking hotels or trains in advance, and decide once they get there. That's why so many backpackers are from these countries, and so few from countries with a high uncertainty avoidance like Belgium, France, Germany, Italy or Spain (or even the US)*. So the Belgians are closer to the French, Germans or Japanese, in that they need things to be well organised, planned and structured to feel comfortable. This is compatible with their carefulness and mistrust for the unknown.

    Many Belgians are have an innate sense of leaderships. Interestingly for a country that was not independent before 1830, history has seen many great Begium-born leaders, such as Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade (the most successful), heading 100,000 knights from all over Europe (in other words, the first great international army Europe had seen); Balwin IX of Flanders, leader of the 4th crusade that took Constantinople (he appointed himself as Emperor); Emperor Charles V of Habsburg, the greatest ruler in Europe between the Roman Empire and Napoleon. Richard Hill explains in his book EuroManagers & Martians, that during WWII, in a German prisoner-of-war camp, made up of 3,000 French, 350 Belgians, 100 Brits and 50 other people, 142 self-appointed prisoners leaders emerged, among whom 115 were Belgians.

    More recently, Belgian politicians have played an important role in European politics. Belgium was the only country to have the guts to create a War Crimes Law of universal jurisdiction that could judge any war criminals anywhere around the world, including former US presidents (the US didn't like that and pressured the government to scrap the law or face consequences).


    * In that regard, I am an exception among Belgians.

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    Here's a challenge for anyone non-Belgian - name three famous Belgians!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gaijin 06
    Here's a challenge for anyone non-Belgian - name three famous Belgians!
    List of famous Belgians. I hope you know at least 3 of them.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    This is maybe why Belgian people dislike and distrust so much politicians. Typical Belgians would tell you that "politicians are worse than criminals". Indeed, cheating on the government (e.g. taxes) and breaking stupid laws is a national sport in Belgium (and Belgium doesn't lack laws about everything immaginable). This attitude is due to a blend of distrust, critical thinking and individualism.
    Damn right !! I do think they are not to be trusted. I wouldn't go as far as saying they are criminals though.

    One quality often associated with the Belgians is debrouillardise, an untranslatable French word more commonly used in Belgium, and that roughly translate as "resourceful, smart, independent-minded". In other words someone that can cope with any kind of situation without help. Consulting firms are not big in Belgium. The locals tend to distrust them and are not willing to pay someone to hear their opinion, as they think that they can do that by themselves.
    It comes from 'se débrouiller', which in English means "getting by(on their own)" or "making a living out of nothing".AFAIK :)

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    Edie Merx, the Paff's, Belle Perez... and K3 of course

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    Belgians are not what they appear to be... I learned that much ;)

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    Quote Originally Posted by RockLee
    Damn right !! I do think they are not to be trusted. I wouldn't go as far as saying they are criminals though.
    That's not my personal opinion. But if corruption is a crime, then quite a few politicians (esp. socialists) are criminals.

    It comes from 'se débrouiller', which in English means "getting by(on their own)" or "making a living out of nothing".AFAIK :)
    It doesn't only refer to the financial aspect. You can use "se debrouiller" for example for a child who can do as well as an adult to use public transports, reserve a hotel, get an official document from the town hall, etc. You can use it when you have to find information about how to set up a company by yourself, or even when you are lost in the jungle and need to find a way to survive on your own, using your imagination and resolve. The idea is to solve a problem without someone else's help (or without relying on others). Pure independent individualistic behaviour. I think that British people are pretty good at this too.

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    I guess one famous Belgian would be Jean Claude Van Damme.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Duo
    Belgians are not what they appear to be... I learned that much ;)
    Could you develop a bit more on this. I am interested to hear what was your image of Belgians before coming to Belgium, just after you arrived and how it evolved until now.

    Did you notice any significant difference in mentality between Dutch speakers and French speakers ?

    I think that French speakers tend to be more laissez-faire and nonchalant (e.g. lack of punctuality).

    I am under the impression that the Flemish care less about social classes than the Walloons. Maybe that is because Wallonia has more castles (2 per village in average in the Condroz region), which reminds Walloon more of old aristocratic times, and maybe also because the noblesse (and bourgeoisie) speaks predominantly French, even in Flanders (esp. in Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels).

    I feel that the Flemish (esp. in the West) are a bit more Catholic than the Walloons. This is maybe related to the fact that the great Gothic cathedrals are in the North(-West). Or maybe just because Dutch speakers have always been more religious than French speakers. In Wallonia, most of those who call themselves Catholic or Christian are in fact non-religious Deists or Agnostics, as opposed to true Atheists.

    Another point that probably describe well Belgian people (maybe more French-speakers ?) is their ability to grumble and ***** about everything and nothing. Such a person is called a rouspeteur or a raleur in French (from the verbs rouspeter and raler). This may also characterise French people, but I found this attitude even more predominent in (French-speaking) Belgium.

    This article (in French) of Le Monde Diplomatique shed some lights on intercultural differences between Flemish and Walloons.

    For example, the Flemish are against smoking in restaurants and cafes, but not the Walloons. The Flemish tend to be more austere, more contientious and more creative, and more motivated to learn other languages. One thing both sides share in common is the importance they attach to their house. The proverb says "An Englishman's home is his castle", but that works as well (if not better) for the Belgians.

    Personally, I am a French speaker, but I am much more like a Flemish in character, and also agree more often with them.
    Last edited by Maciamo; 21-11-05 at 04:49.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    It doesn't only refer to the financial aspect. You can use "se debrouiller" for example for a child who can do as well as an adult to use public transports, reserve a hotel, get an official document from the town hall, etc. You can use it when you have to find information about how to set up a company by yourself, or even when you are lost in the jungle and need to find a way to survive on your own, using your imagination and resolve. The idea is to solve a problem without someone else's help (or without relying on others). Pure independent individualistic behaviour. I think that British people are pretty good at this too.
    That's what I said ->
    "getting by(on their own)"
    By that I mean without any help from somebody else.In Dutch it's much easier to explain though.

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    Maciamo, you should do one of these for the British. Kinsao, Mycernius, Jack2 and I will tell you if it's accurate!

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    ? i dont get youre post....

    well mabye it just me...
    but can you explain?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tsuyoiko
    Maciamo, you should do one of these for the British. Kinsao, Mycernius, Jack2 and I will tell you if it's accurate!
    I don't know the 2nd one, but Aurdey Hepburn is half-British on her father's side (and half-Dutch from her mother). She is in the list because she was born in Belgium (although not Belgian).

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    I know Audrey Hepburn is a borderline case - but she was born in Belgium so I think that counts! The second one is the actor Patrick Bauchau. He was born in Brussels to a Belgian father and a Russian mother.

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    Richard Hill in his books about Europeans says that Belgians have a "discount mentally", and that sometimes in Belgium, to sell something, the percentage of discount is more important that the price itself. I have understood this while reading Belgians are European champions for vouchers on Expatica.

    Quote Originally Posted by Expatica
    Belgium is the undisputed European champion when it comes to shopping vouchers, with an average of 12 used per person per year, according to new figures.

    Market survey group Promocontrol says this is only slightly lower than the world voucher leaders, the US, with 13 per person.

    In 2005, major companies distributed some 3.9 billion vouchers in letterboxes, on items sold in shops and in magazines and newspapers.

    Although most are ignored, 136 million were returned to the check-out, generating EUR 88 million in savings.
    ...

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    ~Bump~
    My husband is half Belge, but I donft know much about Belgium, I like reading threads in the Eupedia forum, keep me inform and entertain.

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    famous

    Quote Originally Posted by Ma Cherie
    I guess one famous Belgian would be Jean Claude Van Damme.
    I hope not the most famous

    I knew Van Eyck, Rubens, Van dyck...brueghel.

    I didn't know or remember that sax was from belgium. the same with magritte. shame on me

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    I always thought Jean Claude Van Damme is French but apparently I am wrong.

    There are Belge who thought "Quick" is French but it is Belge.

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    Name ten famous Belgians...

    I've only just stumbled across this thread... That's one of the stupidest jokes I know, which only shows how ignorant people can be. Here's a few for a start, from personal research (and not difficult to find either):

    Leaders: Ambiorix; Charlemagne, King of the Franks; Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor


    Public servants: Paul-Henri Spaak, Etienne Davignon, Jacques Rogge, Adolf Daens, Carton de Wiart

    Painters: Pieter Bruegel, Jan van Eyck, Hubert van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Dirk Bouts, Hans Memling, Jan Gossaert, Quentin Metsys, Pieter Paul Rubens, David Teniers, Adrian Brouwer, Antoon van Dyck, Joachim Patinir, James Ensor, Réné Magritte, Paul Delvaux, Constant Permeke, Rik Wouters, Jean-Michel Folon

    Sculptors: Panamarenko (Henri van Herreweghe)

    Musicians: Ludwig van Beethoven (his father came from Heist op den Berg), Cesar Franck, Toots Tielemans, Django Reinhardt

    Dancers: Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

    Fashion designers: Ann Demeulemeester, Diane Von Furstenberg

    Architects: Victor Horta

    Historians: Henri Pïrenne

    Philosophers: Justus Lipsius

    Writers: Georges Simenon, Marguerite Yourcenar (de Crayencour), Françoise Mallet-Joris, Hugo Claus, Maurice Maeterlinck (work of fiction: Hercule Poirot)

    Filmmakers: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, André Delvaux

    Film actors: Jean Claude Van Damme, Audrey Hepburn, Dirk Bogard, Yolande Moreau

    Inventors/scientists: Christoffel Plantijn, Gerardus Mercator, Andreas Vesalius, Leo Baekeland, Ernest Solvay, Zenobe Gramme, Christian de Duve, Ilya Prigogine, Paul Janssen, Corneille Heymans, Adolphe Sax, Robert Calliau, Paul Janssen

    Cartoonists: Hergé, and god knows how many others

    Singers: Jacques Brel, Johnny Hallyday (Belgian assuming a French identity??), Salvatore Adamo (Italian assuming a Belgian identity), Helmut Lotti, Plastic Bertrand, Axelle Red

    Sports: Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Kim Gevaerts, Eddy Merckx, Emile Puttemans, Stefan Everts, Jacky Ickx

    ... and so on.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Peter5 View Post
    Anyone knows what a 'tripple B' is?
    Joke apart, BBB is used by Francophone Belgians to mean "Bleu Blanc Belge". Originally it referred to the black and white Frisian cows ("blue" being the dark blue to black coat), but employers have been known to use the acronym for recruitment policy, meaning that they don't want foreigners (or at least non-Europeans). That made quite a scandal when it was divulged in the news last year.

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    Hey, first congrats on your site, it's a brilliant mine to dig into for info about the whole continent. Here are my 2 cents about the thread: As a Belgian passport holder, I can confirm that everything that has been said on this thread is true to some extend. I am very often puzzled to see how Belgians are perceived abroad, and that includes beyond the linguistic border. I have crisscrossed the continent for the last 12 years and lost most of my Belgianness in the process, which allows me now to look into that with some hindsight. I am a bit confused about the fact that nobody mentioned the variety of local customs and dialects as weird. It is taken for granted in countries as France or Italy, but wildly overlooked in Belgium. I was born in Mons, but lived in Liège and Sint-Truiden while working in Brussels (Evere and Uccle) in the 90s. All I can say is that there is nothing to compare between a Liégeois and a Limbourgeois from Sint-Truiden. It is also true with a Montois and a Namurois and even truer when you look at the hundreds of micro-societal units that compose Belgium. The linguistic border is surely to blame to some extent, being a scar that separates Europe´s Latin and Germanic worlds for nearly a 1.000 years. We have to keep in mind that it is Europe's most ancient border and that in barely budged while empires were built and collapsed all around it. This is the exact point where two worlds with a very different cultural heritage crash into each other. Religion, socio-economic conditions, invasions and foreign rule finished to bury the aspirations to people for a simple and easy life. We can bet the border will still be there for a few generations. Politics have been a major actor into the fragmentation of belgian society, notably through the much-hated Fusion des communes, which combined to the loss of Wallonia's heavy industry and the shift of economical clout from south to north gave wings to a new generation of flemish politicians to reinvindicate their cultural heritage, often seen opposed to the latin laziness, lack of initiative, political corruption and parasitism widespread in Wallonia. Brussels is seen as a sick child in the middle of a divorcing couple, but whoever has custody gets the maintenance check paid for by the international bodies and companies having their seat there. I often compare Belgium to a Tampax inserted into Europe's arse to ease the tensions between the then-superpowers. The tampon has no more reasons to be there and should be discarded. The tragedy is that the people living on that land are paying for the decisions taken by some aristocrats and politicians pouring over a map in 1830. Belgians have no great sense of identity because they lack the common cement that forges a nation into one entity. Belgium's problem is unlikely to be ever solved because it is to western Europe what the Balkans are to the eastern part. Many books have been written about the Belgians but none can reach a solid conclusion, cause Belgium is a patchwork of great little places with a fierce pride for local culture and traditions. I hope that will not change anytime soon.

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    funny song,.. but a great way to learn a bit about us :

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    This is maybe why Belgian people dislike and distrust so much politicians. Typical Belgians would tell you that "politicians are worse than criminals". Indeed, cheating on the government (e.g. taxes) and breaking stupid laws is a national sport in Belgium (and Belgium doesn't lack laws about everything immaginable). This attitude is due to a blend of distrust, critical thinking and individualism.

    The Belgians are also notorious entrepreneurs, preferring start-ups to big companies, with a sense of commercial opportunities. In that sense, as well as for their disregard for the government, they are very much like the Italians. No wonder they are called the Italians of the North (like the Danes). Government corruption and dangerous driving is another thing they share with them.
    They share these traits with the English too. The English distrust politicians whilst having given my countries their system of government.
    Also most of the businesses are small here, England's economy is not in the City of London or at the large factories but in the small businesses of the industrial estates and small retailers.

    England has a higher degree of small businesses than France or Germany by far.

    This may be a bit exaggerated, as both countries have a reputation for a sharp commercial sense and thrift.
    We need a saving culture here.

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