Long-time resident and new Belgian Gareth Harding shares his thoughts about life in Brussels and Belgium
I have a fridge magnet that states ‘Missouri, it’s not that bad’. I’d argue the same about Belgian service culture.
Of course, everyone has their horror stories about the often gruff, sometimes stroppy and occasionally rude levels of service in Belgium.
Three years after Silke Conrad’s basement was flooded because of council street works, an insurance agent finally came and said: “well it’s all dry now.” A waitress handed Emine Degirmenci a broom to clean up the food dropped under the table by her young kids. Ana Muñoz Padrós recalls how a waiter refused to give her a soup spoon, saying she should drink it directly from the bowl. And among Sophia Chrysopolou’s highlights are a taxi driver who refused to take her to hospital because it was too close - despite not being able to breathe well - and a telecoms company who responded to her request for more information with “we don’t need more clients.”
I’m not going to excuse these acts or claim that Belgian service is the best in the world. But I do believe it’s a lot better than most grumblers think, including my former self. Here are six reasons why.
Firstly, Belgian service may be blunt but at least it’s honest. Shop assistants have advised me to wait until the sales to buy goods because they’re cheaper. Salesclerks have whispered that I’d be better going to a rival electronics store because it has a wider choice of TVs. And I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told by waiters that the daily special is not so special.
Secondly, Belgian service culture rests on the assumption that the customer is not always right. This infuriates those weaned on a culture of customer coddling. But it makes perfect sense to those who believe that ‘service providers’ are there to offer advice, not just take orders. Example: An American friend once asked if she could have some fries with her pasta carbonara at an Italian restaurant in Bruges. When the waiter told her no, my friend looked like she’d swallowed a pizza, with a pineapple on top.
Thirdly, don’t confuse Brussels with Belgium. Big cities tend to be brusquer and brasher than small ones – think New York, London or Paris. So if you’re after friendlier faces and cuddlier customer care, take a trip to Tournai, Leuven or Bouillon.
Fourthly, is Belgian service stroppy or are you? I once went into a bakery and asked for a baguette, without saying hello first. The salesclerk said ‘bonjour’ with a frosty glare. When I said ‘bonjour’ back, a smile spread across his face and he said ‘avec plaisir.’ Likewise, try chatting to taxi drivers rather than tweeting about how surly they are. I invariably have more interesting conversations with cab drivers – especially those with Moroccan roots – than Euro-bubble boffins.
Instead of moaning about Belgian habits, try to understand them. For example, many foreigners find it rude they are ignored when a shopkeeper or waiter is busy serving someone else. But most Belgians have no problem with this, arguing it would be impolite to divert attention away from the customer being served. Other expats find it immensely irritating that stores are not open 24/7, forgetting that what may be convenient for them may not be for shop owners or workers.
Finally, is service culture really so much better elsewhere? I spend a lot of time in the United States, where the customer is supposed to be king. Well try telling that to the monosyllabic cabbies, grumpy postal clerks or aggressive customs officials I encounter. Or even some waiters, who greet you like a long-lost relative, ask if you’re ready to order before you’ve read the menu, fill your glass of water after every sip and bring your bill before you’ve finished eating. The service is undoubtedly quicker than Belgium and the waiters’ smiles are bigger than their tips. But frankly I’d prefer less attention than more when eating. And given the choice between insincere warmth and sincere standoffishness, I’ll take the latter any day of the week.
There’s no doubt Belgian service culture could be better. It would be splendid if bpost would actually ring people’s doorbells when delivering packages, instead of putting a note in letterboxes telling customers to collect them from the post office. When mistakes are made, an occasional apology would be nice. Instead of a kneejerk ‘c’est pas possible’ a tad more ‘let’s see what we can do’ would be welcome. ‘I’ll be with you as soon as possible’ is more comforting for a customer than pretending you don’t exist. And not having to pay for drinking or passing water in restaurants and cinemas would be mighty pleasant.
But in general, any country where service providers greet you with a chirpy ‘good day,’ give you unpretentious service and honest guidance in a language that is often not their own before sending you off with a cheery ‘have a nice day’ is good enough for me.