The Belgians are very quickly stereotyped by people all over Europe, who make an incredible amount of jokes and satirical films about its peculiar political system, different languages, and gastronomy. The funny thing is that Belgian people play right along, and feed into those stereotypes. As they are the subject of many jokes, they have developed a unique, self-deprecating sense of humor.
As with any stereotype, those regarding Belgian people exist for a reason. However, to fully immerse themselves in the Belgian culture, foreigners must understand that Belgium goes far beyond its clichés.
To help you tell fact from fiction about this small country, we will address the main clichés you might find. As you will see, Belgian stereotypes fall into into three main categories: the country itself; its cuisine and the Belgian people.
Belgium - a weird country
Belgium is a small, flat and rainy country.
All true. With an area of only 30,600 km, Belgium is a pretty small country. Its highest point is actually not high at all, at only 694m above sea-level, at the “signal de Botrange”. The fact that only a small part of the country surpasses 200m above sea-level explains why most of people in Flanders can easily use bikes instead of cars to travel around their cities.
The flatness of the country is unlikely to faze foreigners. However, it's rainy weather might. Belgium has a maritime temperate climate with a high amount of rain during all seasons. With an average of 200 days of rain per year, it's difficult to describe Belgium as anything other than a rainy country. However, the rain doesn't stop the country's population and they happily go about their daily business whether there's rain or sunshine.
The Belgian political system is a mess.
Partly true. The Belgian political system is difficult to understand even for those who've lived in the country their whole lives.
Belgium has three deciding authorities: the Federal Government, the 'Three Language Communities' (Dutch, French and German), and the 'Three Regions' (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital). Each region and community has its own government and responsibilities.
The constant fight between Flanders and Wallonia or between the Flemish and French Communities are at the base of the country's current political problems. In short, each one wants more decision-making power and because of their long history of fighting, they've never found any compromise.
Belgians are fond of mussels, beer, french fries and chocolate and eat them at every meal.
Partly true. Belgians have been brewing beer since the Middle Ages, so they've had plenty of time to perfect this craft. And nothing matches the beer better than delicious Belgian fries - served in a paper cone with mayonnaise, of course. They may not have them at every meal but the tradition is deeply anchored in people’s everyday lives.
Chocolate, mussels and waffles are also part of the Belgian cuisine and have gained worldwide fame. These are not eaten at every meal, but are just really appreciated like tortillas in Spain or pastas in Italy.
Belgian people, the subject of all jokes
Despite all the land and food clichés, it's the Belgian population that has to put up with the most stereotypes.
In the mind of foreigners, the typical Belgian is as follows: they often say “une fois”, have a strong and heavy accent (whether speaking French or Flemish), and are passionately in love with fries.
We already showed that Belgian people love fries so that one is closed - but let's admit that anyone who's ever tried Belgian fries loves them too.
But when it comes to Belgian people, the Dutch and the French have a lot to say with regards to language. The Belgian accent and expressions (especially in French) are very different from what is perceived to be the “right Dutch” or “right French”. This results in jokes and mockeries from the Dutch and the French towards the Belgians. However, if a Belgian person is talking to a Swiss, for example, there will be less differences in the French, resulting in a more peaceful co-existence.
Let's face it, what's not to laugh about? Belgium is a small country with two different communities that can't get along, in a political crisis for years and a lot of people make fun of them; so why not have fun with the situation? With this humorous attitude, Belgian people are now also famous for their great, self-deprecating sense of humor, making movies and writing books that help exaggerate any preconceived ideas people have about Belgium.
Another well-known (and possibly exaggerated) fact about Belgium is the rivalry between its French and Flemish communities. The argument goes that that French people are lazy, monolingual, football fans. In contrast, the Flemish are hard-working, bilingual and ambitious. So, cliché? Yes of course! It is obvious that classifying people because of their language is absurd and too simple! The problem is that the current political crisis is not helping to dispel these stereotypes.
For such a small country, Belgium sure has its fair share of stereotypes. The country is a source of great jokes, clichés, movies and of course articles but it is important for those moving to the country to be able to tell fact from fiction when it comes to Belgium's stereotypes. Otherwise, they risk not being able to fully integrate in their new home.
If you're in a hurry, and need to take one main lesson from this article is that Belgians sure love their beers and fries, but most of all, they love sharing their peculiar culture with any foreigner who's willing to learn about them.
Feeling like learning more?
Dikkenek (2006): Franco-belgian production, Dikkenek paints the story of two friends that together perfectly fit all Belgians clichés. Hilarious movie to watch with Belgians to get all subtleties of the numerous jokes.
Nothing to declare (2010): Happy mix of Belgian and French actors, the story tells the story of a French-speaking Belgian customs officer who is forced to team up with a Frenchman during the elimination of the Franco-Belge borders in the 90s. Also super funny, it perfectly show the rivalry and endless jokes between the two countries.
Petit dictionnaire franco-belge/ Belgo-français by Jacques Mercier, famous writer, radio and TV man, he has a long history of writing about the Belgian language. The book lists the differences between Belgian French and French French. Ed. Glénat.
Dictionnaire des Belgicismes, dictionary of Belgian expressions and words. Written by Michel Francard and other authors. Ed. De Boeck.
Belgotron, game launched by two Belgian friends in 2010. It contains two games in one: a quiz and a political game that can allow you to become prime minister. A game to learn or to deepen your knowledge of Belgium.