The Belgium Series Part 1: The most southern country of Northern Europe

Whether we know it for the hotbed of EU politics or its outstanding waffles, Belgium largely continues to be a mystery for most of their European counterparts. In this exclusive four-part series, ToTalent delves into a country we know absolutely everything, but also absolutely nothing about: Belgium. 

Jasper Spanjaart on February 20, 2020 Average reading time: 5 min
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The Belgium Series Part 1: The most southern country of Northern Europe

Europe, oh Europe. A strange accumulation of a vast array of different countries, different cultures, and different languages. Each with its own norms and values. Some good at particular sports, and some… less so. Outsiders may think we’re all the same, but we all know that’s not true. Researcher Michael Hoppe even goes one step further in his book Managing Across Cultures: Issues and Perspectives. He states that Europe can be split in two different parts: northern and southern European countries, with the dividing line being drawn where the former Roman Empire once ended. 

Though the Southern part of the Netherlands is where Julius Caesar and his men once halted their operations, it meant that Belgium was well and truly soaked in Roman wine. Many cultural differences within what is essentially Northern Europe can potentially be attested to this very occurrence; the fact that the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries were never or never fully part of Caesar’s empire. Countries that were part of the Empire, later largely became Catholic, while the other countries opted a Protestant church. 

While it is hard to really prove that a different turn in the course of history changed the outlook of Europe forever, it would be hard to argue against it. After all, cultural differences between North and South exist in abundance. Something to take in mind is the notion that a country’s culture is always directly reflected in its corporate culture – you see, ToTalent didn’t suddenly become the History Channel. When looking to hire personnel from Belgium or looking to bring in personnel from other countries into Belgium, some knowledge with regards to its corporate culture (and therefore its culture in general) is necessary. 

Keep the Belgian culture in mind

The Southern culture is something to keep in mind when contemplating to hire Belgian personnel for a Northern Europe-based company – or the other way around. If you don’t comprehend the cultural difference, this can and will result in unwanted consequences. Think of: a sense of incomprehension between two different nationalities, stiff working relations, which can sometimes even escalate into a hostile working-environment. 

While culture is something we’re taught, and not innate; it is transmitted through our social environment, not through our genes. Personalities are what they say on the tin: personal. That means that even though we may be fully intertwined with a certain culture, its subsequent set of spoken and unspoken rules, its values, and everything else – we do have an ability to break free from what seems like part of our DNA at times: our culture. Empathy is the first step toward understanding that your colleague or employee may live by different rules. Not because he or she is a bad character, but because of his or her cultural background.

The cultural model of Geert Hofstede

To map out a company or organisational culture, many use the cultural model of Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, who sadly passed away in February 2020 aged 91. Hofstede’s work is not undisputed – and attempts have been made to develop an alternative to his model. Management consultants Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner once came up with their own seven-dimensional culture model, but it failed to catch on at a larger scale. 

Hofstede’s model starts with the definition of what culture really is. He describes it as ‘the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others’. Hofstede then continues to identify the differences between cultures based on six dimensions. 

The six dimensions of a culture: 

1. Power Distance Index: the degree of accepted inequality and hierarchy in a society

2. Individualism versus Collectivism: the degree to which people want to act more as individuals than as members of a group. In this, the emphasis lies on an autonomous individual or family, clan or community that determines the role of the individual.

3. Masculinity versus Femininity: focuses on the extent to which a society stresses achievement or nurture. Masculinity is seen to be the trait which emphasises ambition, acquisition of wealth, and differentiated gender roles. Femininity is seen to be the trait which stresses caring and nurturing behaviours, sexual equality, environmental awareness, and more fluid gender roles.

4. Uncertainty Avoidance: the dimension that describes the extent to which people in society are not at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty. 

5. Long-Term versus Short-Term Orientation: the former describes the inclination of a society toward searching for virtue, whereas the latter pertains to those societies that are strongly inclined toward the establishment of the absolute truth. 

6. Indulgence versus Restraint: revolves around the degree to which societies can exercise control over their desires and impulses. 

So what does this mean for Belgium?

Looking at a context of a Southern vs. a Northern culture, and taking Hofstede’s model as the backdrop, there are four main differences that we are able to pick out. 

1. With regards to Belgium’s Power Distance Index, Southern countries score high, while the Northern countries score low. In Belgium (Northern Europe’s most Southern country) and the other Southern countries, it largely accepts hierarchy and inequality easier than their Northern counterparts. In the North there is more of an emphasis on equality and an (equal) distribution of power.

This cultural difference may be attested to its past: the Roman Empire was divided along an east-west axis, with dual power centres in Constantinople and Rome. From a European perspective, all roads led to Rome, the main power centre which provided one set of uniform rules. 

2. Paradoxically, with regards to individualism, we see the exact opposite happening. Southern countries score low, with more of an emphasis on loyalty to family and authority (think of the church, too). The Northern countries are far more individualistic.

Though particularly the Flemish have a certain individualistic culture – more individualistic than Germany, for example – they are quite comfortably beaten by their other neighbours, the Netherlands, commonly seen as the most individualised society of the entire continent. Seeing as Belgians are used to a larger degree of distance in power, this will result in their individualism being somewhat tempered. “The Belgian” is not used to power being delegated, but expects a directive management style from a company.

3. Masculinity is strongly represented in Southern countries, as is the case for Belgium. Countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands score higher on femininity. 

4. Uncertainty Avoidance is a high-scorer for Southern countries, while Northern countries are seemingly more indulgent. This might also be derived from the notion that the Roman Empire had a clear, uniform set of rules, with very little time for uncertainty. 

‘Rules are rules’ leads to an averse mindset when it comes to unorthodox behaviour and a preference for strict codes and manners to avoid any unclear, uncertainty-causing situations. This leads to Belgians generally adopting an indirect and evasive communication style to avoid confrontation.

The Flemish versus the Walloons 

Even within relatively small countries, many cultural differences still occur within its own borders. For Belgium, this is blatantly visible in the fact that it is split in two: French-speaking Wallonia and the Dutch-speaking Flanders. The most important cultural difference between the two lies in that Walloons tend to be a bit more masculine than the Flemish, according to Hofstede’s research.

The cultural differences, however, generally seem less big than you might expect. Both are culturally predominantly Southern, largely shaped by years of French influence. When comparing the two groups, they have more in common with each other than the Flemish have in common with the Dutch, even though they do have a language in common.

Belgians are not always able to recognise this themselves. “French speakers view themselves as a product of the Age of Enlightenment; of the grande culture Francaise which does not apply to their little Flemish brothers”, Evert van Wijk, author on cultural differences, says. But that sense of superiority of the French speakers seems unwarranted: the Flemish ain’t all that different…

Stay tuned for parts 2, 3 and 4 in this exclusive ToTalent series about Belgium.  

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Jasper Spanjaart

Jasper Spanjaart

Editor-in-Chief and Writer at
Editor-in-Chief and writer for European Total Talent Acquisition platform
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