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What makes Belgian people so typically Belgian?

About the author: Maciamo Hay is a Belgian-born historian, population geneticist, and travel writer. His interests also include economics, philosophy, evolutionary biology, bioengineering, neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, cultural studies and linguistics. He has travelled in over 50 countries and spent at least a few months in 10 countries, during which time he attentively studied the language, customs and cultural traits of the locals. He has learnt 10 languages and achieved fluency in six of them in addition to his native French.

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, except for the Principality of Liège (an integral part of the Holy German Empire until 1792), 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 particularly 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 put 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 imaginable). 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 débrouillardise, an untranslatable French word more commonly used in Belgium, and that roughly translate as "resourcefulness mixed with independent-mindedness". 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 particularly 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 topic for an explanation), 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, or even more so the Brits and Scandinavians, is typically reflected by people not being well-prepared for meetings and not booking hotels or trains in advance, and deciding things 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 USA). 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. In that sense they are not adventurous.

Many Belgians have an innate sense of leaderships. Interestingly for a country that was not independent before 1830, history has seen many great Belgium-born leaders, such as Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade (the most successful of all the crusades), leading 100,000 knights from all over Europe (in other words, the first great international army Europe had ever 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, which means that Belgian courts were legally authorised to judge any war criminals from anywhere around the world, including former US presidents if they deemed their actions criminal. Needless to say that the US government under the G.W. Bush administration didn't like it and pressured the Belgian government to scrap the law or face consequences (such as losing the NATO headquarters).


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