Culture Clash

Heather McKinlay considers some of the cultural differences between the Belgians and the British:

A while ago I attended a business conference. One of the speakers was a cultural consultant, presenting on international trade and the difficulties likely to be encountered in Brexit negotiations. During his talk I found my thoughts much more focussed on football, rather than cross-border commerce. Dutch by birth, the presenter revealed that he was married to a Belgian and had lived in Belgium for many years.

In an attempt to shed some light on our difficult relationship with the Belgian owner and CEO, I contacted him and he agreed to facilitate a session for us. This was attended by a small group of fans, including representatives from CARD, the Belgium 20 and members of the Trust Board.

He described culture as “collective programming of the human mind” – it is ingrained from early childhood and plays a major role in how you see the world, how you expect others to behave and how you behave. It is often only when you are a “fish out of water” - when you find yourself in a different cultural environment - that you realise how important it is to you and how much it has shaped you.

There is usually some underlying truth in stereotypes. Conformity with national culture is like a bell curve, with the majority in the middle, but some outliers at each extreme. In the consultant’s view, Duchâtelet (despite being eccentric) and Meire do fit pretty closely into the Belgian cultural norm.

Crucially, Britain and Belgium differ significantly on three out of four main cultural dimensions:

  • Hierarchy: Belgium culturally has strong respect for power, authority and status, whereas in the UK we are inclined to see everyone as equal. For us, respect has to be earned not just given because of status – it is not an entitlement.
  • Process v Goals: Belgians, and particularly the Flemish, are more process and consensus-driven, whereas the UK is more goal-driven. For us, competing and winning is good.
  • Anxiety Avoidance: Belgium culturally struggles to adapt to change and cope with uncertainty. Rules provide structure, while high emotion leads to high stress levels. In the UK, we are more inclined to “just do it”, to limit the number of rules and to embrace innovation, resulting in lower stress levels.

Belgium has most in common culturally with France, Italy (north), Malta, Poland and Spain. The UK is closest to USA, Canada, Australia, Ireland and South Africa.

The UK cultural instinct is to talk about concrete experiences, whereas the Belgians prefer abstract concepts. The Belgians generally love to micro-manage. In Belgian society, change tends to be revolutionary, not evolutionary. Belgian workers will go on strike at the drop of a hat to force negotiations, whereas in the UK strike is the last resort.

There are different layers to culture from outer (easier to change) to inner (more intrinsic):

  1. Symbolic expressions – dress, buildings, language
  2. Role models, heroes and anti-heroes
  3. Repeating behaviour/ rituals, such as greeting style, timing, structure, employment norms
  4. Values

Football would fit under rituals – so quite ingrained – as would be the values we hold dear as Charlton fans.

I wish I had known all this back in early 2014 – or that our owner had made the effort to understand some of these differences when purchasing a club in London and installing a countrywoman as CEO. Instead, Duchâtelet has been quoted as saying how close Belgian and English culture are. Wrong again.  We will endeavour to use our new insights in our relationship with the club but we fear that this Anglo-Belgian relationship might have been culturally doomed from the start.