City Guide: Brussels
The diplomatic center of Europe is shaking off its musty image.Brussels, which has a reputation for being boring and gray, is often dismissed as merely a stop along the way to somewhere better. But travelers who have spent time in Brussels—and those who live and work here—know better. The thousand-year-old capital of Belgium is no longer Europe’s wallflower: It has blossomed into an international city that seamlessly blends business, politics and culture
Home of the European Commission (executive branch of the EU), NATO, a multilingual population consisting of 50 percent foreigners, and more than 2,000 international agencies and firms, Brussels is known as the crossroads of Europe for a reason. Even Forbes magazine’s 2009 list of “Best Countries for Business” ranked Belgium 12th out of 127 countries—further proof that Brussels is no longer just a pit stop for travelers.
“Brussels is an ideal place for business,” says Kim Staveloz, head of the Brussels Enterprise Agency (bea.irisnet.be), which is charged with welcoming foreign investors and business into the region. “It’s a city of highly educated and multilingual leaders who are open to new cultures and willing to make contact.”
Whether you’re stopping by for a week or establishing a permanent presence in Europe, Staveloz suggests a base in Brussels—and American companies are heeding the call. According to the agency, American businesses are Belgium’s largest foreign investor with business services, pharmaceutical, chemical, and software sectors representing the largest concentration of U.S. companies.
Brussels is officially bilingual in French and Flemish, but English is widely spoken. Even so, it’s never a bad idea to learn a few basic words (please, thank you) in any local language, says American-born Anne Randerson, the founder and managing director of Cross Cultural Horizons (crossculturalhorizons.com), a cultural integration consulting firm headquartered in Brussels. She also advises a slice of humble pie.
“Many of us [Americans] were raised with an entrepreneurial spirit and resoluteness to achieve our goals,” explains Randerson. “What we perceive as confidence, which is positive, can come across as arrogance and impatience to Europeans, which is generally negative. It’s important to recognize these kinds of cultural differences.”
Randerson has lived all over the world and has made a career of integrating American businesspeople into their foreign surroundings, most notably in Japan and Belgium. She says the direct American style of doing business varies from the more passive style found in Brussels, and this can present a challenge.
“Things take a little longer here. It is a relationship-driven culture, rather than an individualist mentality,” she explains. “[Americans] are used to instant results, including decisions, but a long-term rather than short-term approach is necessary here.”
Eric Werbrouck, the area manager for Berlitz Schools of Language and Cross Cultural Training in Brussels, agrees that relationship-building is important, but he cautions that the word relationship does not mean getting truly personal. Unlike in the States, where going to a holiday party at the boss’s home is common, personal relationships with colleagues take longer to nurture in Brussels.
“People do not go to each other’s houses,” he says. “Personal life and work life are kept separate. But once a relationship is established, say over a period of years, one might then be invited.”
Entertaining clients at lunch or dinner is not unusual, however, and conversation is not limited to business matters. Art, literature, politics and sports also have their place at the table, as does a glass of wine or beer at lunch. “This would not be the case with American companies,” stresses Randerson.
Belgian law grants a minimum of 20 vacation days per year—unheard of for Americans, who find the coveted work/life balance more difficult to manage. But when they are at work, Belgians take things seriously: The idea of Casual Friday would be downright laughable in Brussels. “Unless you know for certain that an environment is casual,” says Werbrouck, “you will never make a mistake by wearing business attire.”
While Belgians do take time to get to know you, they don’t take time as seriously as Americans. “Fifteen minutes late for a meeting is acceptable,” says Werbrouck. “It’s called the academic quarter [hour] and comes from our university days, when professors would leave the door open for 15 minutes after class started before locking students out. I guess this transferred over to offices, too.”
But overall, Americans and Belgians are more alike than not, says Randerson, and Brussels is an easy place to navigate and integrate. “Brussels is more multi-lingual and multicultural than any other city I’ve lived and done business in,” he enthuses. “There’s no place like it.”
“Brussels is unique,” agrees Werbrouck. “Because of our multi- cultural environment, we are extremely flexible.” Just pack a little patience (and a well-pressed suit), and you’ll be fine.
Taking time off
It takes a little digging, but once you get below the gritty surface, Brussels’ personality shines through. The Grand-Place is a must-see, with its golden guild houses and impressive town hall, but the surrounding tourist shops do not reflect real life in the capital.