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Expats may face some culture shock in Belgium, especially when they first arrive. Most notably, there are three main languages and many different cultures all wrapped up in one fairly small country. Here are a few points to be aware of when settling into life in Belgium.
Languages in Belgium
The northern half of Belgium is occupied by the Flemings, who speak Dutch, whereas the southern half is mostly occupied by the French-speaking Walloons. This is a result of the troubled history of the region that is now Belgium, which has been invaded and occupied many times. The country as it exists today has only been around since the mid-1800s.
The cultural and linguistic differences can be striking if one travels north into the Flemish areas or south into Wallonia. The buildings are different, the people are different, and the two communities generally have different traits, so it can sometimes feel like a country divided in half.
The general perception is that Flemings are more industrious and serious, as they tend to be quieter and more reserved. Walloons are known to be more relaxed, expressive, easy-going, and outwardly emotional.
Most Belgians, particularly in Brussels, are adept with languages and can speak English in addition to their French and Dutch. It's still a good idea for expats to learn some Dutch or French, depending on the area they are going to be living in and the type of work they will do.
Greetings in Belgium
In many respects, the customs and etiquette in Belgium are fairly typical of the wider Western European region. Belgians are generally quite reserved and usually greet people they don’t know as friends with a handshake. In the French-speaking community, a kiss on the cheek is often common among people who already know each other.
►Doing Business in Belgium gives an overview of the country's work culture and etiquette
►Read Accommodation in Belgium for advice on finding a place to live
"I was lucky to have a range of expat and local friends. It’s such a bonus that nearly all Antwerp locals speak perfect English so language isn’t a barrier. Having said that, my number one piece of advice would be to learn the language. At parties, even if you can start a conversation in Dutch before switching to English, it shows you care." For more, read Nina's expat interview about Belgium.
"The locals seem very friendly, but quite reserved. It’s unusual to be invited to the home of someone in Belgium, and in six months I haven’t been invited out for a beer after work." Read more of Scottish expat David's interview about living in Belgium.
Are you an expat living in Belgium?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Belgium. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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