Culture / Travel

The tables are turned

Before leaving the United States, we met with Professor Gary Weaver of American University, to discuss intercultural communication. Such a smart move on the part of the German Marshall Fund to give us this preview and context. Culture is something that is shared: a value, belief or worldview. It’s something we may possess without knowing and it’s something we may have but can’t control. In the United States, the dominant culture derives from northern Europe.  That is, the beliefs that the very first immigrants to the US, largely religious separatists, carried over to these shores: a Calvinist work ethic, an individual lens related to the locus of responsibility for success, and an inherent distrust of a strong central authority. It’s way too easy to overgeneralize and stereotype this, so just think of it as you would a horoscope: interesting and context-setting… perhaps.


With the context of the pioneer/frontier/cowboy in mind, it was interesting to think about how American I am. While I’m a strong believer in systems change and policy solutions for social problems, I am very independent, self motivated and believe that my future is controlled by my actions. So American. I am less driven by where I came from or my heritage.


Fast forward 10 hours and we are landing in Brussels. An airport that feels very American… except… some of the signs emphasize cooperation and collective responsibility. The taxis that take us from the airport are Mercedes wagons and the drivers are unionized.  We take a walk around Brussels. Here is the European Commission. There is Parliament. Here is where once a month, the Luxembourg Square turns into one big happy hour. Take away the signage in other languages and you could have fooled me into believing we were in D.C. But then turn the corner and the city unfolds… here is the palace, there is the museum district, the town hall, the old guild halls. There are magnificent buildings that speak to the proud and long history here. We stop and get waffles (wafels or gaufres). Someone in our group proclaims they taste like hot, delicious chocolate covered donuts. I take a bite. Yep, that nails it.



The group heads to the top of the musical instrument museum, MIM. The view up at the top is panoramic. I can faintly make out the Atomium. I can see construction cranes everywhere. This is a good sign. We order drinks. We order food. I start to see a cultural difference. Someone ordered orange juice, our waiter insists. No, we say. We didn’t. He insists that we are wrong and he is right. Someone takes one for the team and says it’s theirs. This happens again on a different item. The tables are turned here and the servers are clearly the boss of the eaters. This is different. What does it mean? I remember that Professor Weaver mentioned that it’s unusual to tip extra in Brussels at dinner because the service charge is already included. And then he made a sideways remark about how you could add 10 percent to indicate exceptional service, but it would be highly unlikely to happen. There’s no incentive for well-paid waitstaff who make middle class wages to go the extra mile. Interesting. Maybe that’s what I experienced. In any event, it was clear that different rules apply here and there is much to learn.

Oh, and no chocolate or frites yet. Stay tuned. Antwerp tomorrow.


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