Why don’t Belgians and Dutchmen understand each other?

Dutch are stingy, always know better, are loud, boorish, arrogant, rude and too explicit. Belgians are polite, sometimes say yes when they mean no, look creative, sprightly, funny and burgundy and often go to restaurants. Belgians and Dutch are neighbors who speak almost the same language (Flemish versus Dutch), but do not understand each other. The cultural differences are great, but are these preconceptions we have of each other true?

When I moved from the Netherlands to Belgium I thought “we share the same language, geographically we live only a few kilometers from the border. The difference can’t be that big”. However gradually I discovered how big the differences are.

What am I doing wrong?

Soon I noticed the differences especially in social situations. “People often reacted strangely to me and then I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. You start to wonder what you did wrong and what else you are doing ‘wrong’.” As an entrepreneur, in the Netherlands you are used to being quick and to the point when talking. “In Belgium, a different approach is expected. The social aspect is important. First you talk at length with each other. Sometimes you even get the bottles of wine on the table or go out to a restaurant.”

Differences between Dutchmen and Belgians

  • Language: The Dutch language is subject to considerable changes due to the influence of English, for example. This is precisely not the case with Flemish. In the Netherlands, even sentence structure and vocabulary changes, while Flemish people are very careful with their language.     
  • Coffee: Never deprive a Dutchman of his chance to drink coffee. Where the Dutch take afternoon coffee with a cookie, the Belgians like to drink a glass of wine or cava.     
  • Time: Where the Dutchman says “soon” and means in 10 minutes time for the Belgians is a relative concept and soon means a time frame of several hours.
  • Minimum words: Belgians constantly use diminutives such as cup of coffee, date, drink which sometimes comes across as sweet but also sometimes childish. The Dutch do this significantly less, however, the diminutive trend is starting to blow over from Flemish to Dutch.
  • Women’s emancipation: Belgians are further along when it comes to women’s emancipation in the labor market. Many more women work full-time and the Belgian government generously funds the facilities for this, such as childcare. In the Netherlands, women more often work part-time, but the Dutch are more emancipated when it comes to interpersonal relationships. 
  • Boss: Managers in the Netherlands often consult with their employees before making a decision. The relationship between employer and employee is more informal than in Belgium. Belgian bosses are more distant and often make decisions without consultation.
  • Education: In Belgium, the emphasis is on the transfer of knowledge. This is accompanied by strong discipline. Dutch education focuses more on teaching learning and research attitudes and skills. Learning to act independently is important, as in Belgium it is still somewhat more about listening and “being good,” although there is a shift in this.
  • Poldering: It is a Dutch invention, but Belgium also has a polder culture. The big difference is that the Dutch polder beforehand and the Belgians afterwards, when the conflict has erupted.
  • Communication: Belgians often don’t say something until they are sure. The Dutch are quicker to give their opinion and, on the contrary, come to a decision or conclusion together in a conversation. Communication in the Netherlands is participating, profiling yourself. In Belgium, it is mainly about expressing your knowledge and otherwise keeping your mouth shut.
  • Friendships: The Dutch are easier and more open when it comes to making contacts and new friendships. Belgians are more closed-minded. Friendships are often old and new friendships are made through others. Family also plays a bigger role in Belgium than in the Netherlands.
  • Self-assurance: The Dutch are often seen as more assertive and self-assured. By Belgians, this is not infrequently perceived as boorish or arrogant. Verbal communication is important in Dutch culture, while in Belgium people communicate more on intuition and non-verbally.
  • Business: Dutch people separate personal and business quite easily. If necessary, Dutch people even do business with the competitor. This is quite unthinkable for Belgians: much more value is placed on good relationships and personal contact.

Stereotypes and prejudices

Belgians have to get most used to the quick opinions of the Dutch in the Netherlands. “And also to the Belgian jokes. People see you as Belgian.” However it is easier for Belgians to integrate in the Netherlands than the other way around. “In Belgium, you are not quickly assimilated into the community. Friendships often go through via and Belgians are not quick to open up to people they don’t know.”

For Belgians, the most heartfelt perception is that the Dutch are stingier,. “That is not true. They do talk more about money and are more price-conscious. Flemings are annoyed by this, but do not handle their money better. Moreover, the Dutch spend more on charity.”

Another big difference is the way Belgians and Dutch deal with family. “In Belgium, life takes place around the church tower, that’s where everything comes together, that’s also where everything revolves around the family. In the Netherlands it is more individualistic, people look for their own social environment.”

Rapprochement and similarities

Despite the differences, there is also rapprochement between the neighboring countries. Flemings have become more confident and look up to the Netherlands less than before. In addition, the Dutch are becoming more modest: “You see this now especially in soccer and field hockey. The Netherlands is doing less well, and Belgium is doing better and better.”

Young people in cities are more open to each other: “Belgian young people are less negative toward the Netherlands than older people in Belgium. Also, young people tend to mix more with each other.” Many characteristics are also shifting: “Belgian youth are becoming more articulate and direct, while Dutch youth seem to be ‘braver than ever.'”

Differences are expected to become less and less pronounced in the future. Not all prejudices hold today. Although the differences are still large, the gap seems to be slowly becoming less deep. A healthy mix of nationalities, diversity, inclusion is what is needed to be successful as an organization. But whether Belgium and the Netherlands will ever truly converge? Time will tell …