I like the Belgians. I really do. There's no but's here: I like them.
But the Belgians have a few traits that make them - different. Not different weird, just different unique. Let's see if we can figure them out:
(Yes, you're right of course. You can't stereotype an entire nation. It's bad taste and people should be seen as individuals and there are exceptions to the rule and...
I'm doing it anyways.)
So, what are the Belgians really like, when you can finally look past the chocolates and the beer?
Let's see. My first observation would have to be that, if looks could kill, Belgium would be the murder capital of the world. Kwaai tannies met kwaai kyke - they strike fear into the very heart of non-abiding expat citizens!
People here take things really seriously. Things like rules and manners and regulations and etiquette - they actually abide by them. In South Africa, of course, we don't. We frown upon crime, but we park illegaly every now and then, we break speed limits, we don't recycle, we let a swearword slip on occasion, and if we have 5 cents too little to pay for the bread you ask the shop owner if that's ok. Don't you try that over here. 'n Kwaai kyk - 'n dreadful dreaded kwaai kyk - that's what it will get you. Be warned!
Second observation: Belgians are hard-working. This is for me the one thing that really stands out about the Belgians. On the one hand I respect this immensely, but on the other hand - I can't really condone it fully. Being hard-working is a good thing of course. I'm not saying it's not. But you do know the expression "all work and no play..."? Yep, it's that bad.
I always thought South Africans were hard-working. But ever since we've lived here I've had to adjust that value slightly. South Africans are hard-working in an ambitious sort of way. That is, they're hard-working at their jobs, if their jobs have a promise of promotion or payment attached. But they're not hard-working in the iron-11-o'clock-at-night-no-time-for-tv type of way. The Belgians are.
One way in which this shows, is that almost all Belgian women work. In this way they differ a lot from the Dutch (and the Germans, and the Brits...). There is almost no such thing as a stay-at-home-mom here. As an expat this is a draw-back. In SA you have so many activities and clubs for SAHM's - here not. You should be working - not having breakfast with your friends while your cleaner is doing your laundry. Sies! Go work already!
Third observation: predictability. Belgians like predictability. They like certainty. They like having things set in rules, and then abiding by those rules. And I'm not making this up - this one has actually been proved.
Some background: I'm referring to Geert Hofstede's dimensions. Geert analyzed work ethics of people in various countries, based on data collected by IBM in the 70's. He established 5 dimensions at the hand of which work attitudes can be better understood. He later continued and updated this research and has released several books and papers on the findings. You can find more info at http://www.geert-hofstede.com
The 5 dimensions are: attitudes towards power, individuality, masculinity, long-term orientation and uncertainty. The latter is where the Belgians really make a break with other European counterparts. The uncertainty avoidance score measures the extent to which uncertainty and ambiguity make people feel uncomfortable, and the effort that they would put into avoiding that uncertainty. The higher the score, the less tolerant they are of uncertainty. European average for this dimension is 74, the US scores 46, South Africa 45, the Dutch 53, the world average is 64. Now try to guess where the Belgians rank: how hard, on a scale of 1 to 100, will they try to avoid uncertainty? The answer is 94. Ninety-four! They will do almost ANYTHING to avoid uncertainty!
What does it mean in practice? In practice it means that as a nation, the Belgians like rules. They like things set in stone. They don't like exceptions. They can't tolerate rule-benders. And you certainly shouldn't expect your expat butt to be pampered because you feel you're special. Not here, you ain't!
In fact, this is quite hard to get used to if you come from a country with a high uncertainty index like South Africa or America. We sort of like doing things our own way; we like thinking that our needs are special; and we like those needs to be met. In fact, we EXPECT those needs to be met.
Uh-uh, not here.
You arrived in Belgium 10 October and want to take a language class? Sorry, the next enrollement night is in Feb. You'll just have to wait 4 months.
You want your child to swim? Pay the swimclub upfront for the entire year please. (For a child of 5 who changes his mind every week? I ask you!)
There are homeless people sleeping on the streets in the icy cold? Disgrace! This should have been regulated last year! We need new laws, NOW!
It does make life easy in a certain sense. Everything works. Everything is taken care of by the government. It's nice, once you get used to it. Once you get over yourself being o-so-special and all that. It's nice as long as you don't like change. And as long as you can find it in you to abide. by. the. rules.
Ok, that's about it. Let's summarise: The Belgians
1) have looks that can kill
2) are hard working
3) are avid uncertainty avoiders
But still, I really like them. Why? They're genuine. Down-to-earth genuine people. Not showy. Not arrogant. Humble but with confidence that they are competent. They're competent. They're respectful. They're responsible. They treat nature with respect. They recycle. They're good cooks. EXCELLENT cooks. They make beer. They're orderly. They're neat. They're polite. They're...uniquely Belgian.
I like the Belgians. I really really do.