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Working in Belgium, culture shock or not?

Koen Dorlandt, born and raised in the Netherlands, worked in Belgium as PepsiCo´s Manager for Juice Supply in Europe. After spending almost four years in Belgium, Koen has learned to adapt to cultural and linguistic differences between Belgium and the Netherlands. In this interview Koen would like to share his experiences with others who are considering moving to Belgium or another foreign country for a job opportunity.

Why Belgium?

The reason I was in Belgium is purely driven by opportunities, as there was a good opportunity for a job with PepsiCo in Zeebrugge. Of course we considered what it all meant, moving to Belgium. We spent some time looking around, seeing what kind of houses were available, what kind of people were living in the area and what the job was really like. But I am very happy that I came here because my family and I enjoyed ourselves.

What are the main differences?

I think one of the differences between Belgium and the Netherlands is that Belgians are generally very friendly in public; if you encounter them in the street they have a chat with you. People are very open to talking with each other while you still see in the Netherlands that people tend to be more reserved. But on the other hand, the Belgians will be less likely to invite each other to visit their home for a coffee, meal, or to barbecue as neighbors, whilst in the Netherlands this is how most people get together. People will go somewhere to eat rather than eating in their own homes. At least, that is the impression we have after almost four years and it is certainly different than in the Netherlands. In Belgium, people are generally calmer and less rushed and I believe this is because in Belgium not everything is automated down to the last dot. In the Netherlands we are so accustomed to everything going quickly and efficiently and if there is ever a time when we have to wait people tend to get agitated. Life is quieter and calmer in Belgium and people enjoy life more because of this.

Any differences within Belgium?

It's easier to work in the Flemish part of Belgium because they speak Dutch, meaning there is no language barrier and everyone understands each other. Wallonia is obviously different because they speak French there and are less likely to speak Dutch. This sometimes creates competition between Belgians and the Dutch, and people can make jokes about these differences. That can also create a stereotype, as you quickly become 'the Dutchy’ arriving in Belgium and you have to keep in mind that people have a certain image in their heads of this stereotype.

What is it like in the office?

In Belgium, some companies are based on hierarchy, where the boss is superior and where executives are not used to being talked back to or contradicted. In the Netherlands we are very used to having everyone vent their opinion on anything in the open, and this is also accepted by our superiors. It is also possible to speak to your boss informally, or make a note that his tie is crooked, and we can make jokes about this. In Belgium you can certainly see the clear hierarchy and people also behave differently. Certainly as a ‘Dutchy’ you have to keep in mind that you cannot state your opinion whenever you like, but that you have to deal with this in a more sensitive manner.

In shock or not?

Happily, I didn’t experience a culture shock. I like living and working there. You just have to adapt a bit. My tips for working abroad: 1. Be properly informed and guided by a local if you go abroad, and take account of differences, in for example tax and pensions. 2. Be aware of differences in cultural characteristics and respect these. 3. Find a place to live that is nearby your work, to avoid the (Belgian) traffic.

Coming to Belgium: Official information and services of the Belgian government - Coming2Belgium – Working abroad and staying in touch: Vlamingen in de wereld – Union des Belges francophones à l'étranger -


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