Dutch vs. Belgians: 7 important life lessons [die jullie mij leerden]

A few months ago I looked at my screen with growing amazement. The reason? One of my own articles on Frankwatching. The language difference between Flanders and the Netherlands is apparently a theme on which many have an opinion. What I learned from that, I will share in a new article.

Well, I write articles more often. So often, in fact, that I am in it Frankwatching Annual Review was ranked 7th among the most read authors of 2020. But never lured before an article of my hand so many responses.

From the comments of my readers I actually learned 7 life lessons that the Dutch in Belgium (and Belgians in the Netherlands) can come in handy.

Lesson 1. Vomit is rented out in Belgium

Henk van Anker shared an interesting fact about the flat, or what is called a student room in the Netherlands:

Did you know that “kot” is a real Belgian word? The French-speaking Belgians also use this for a student room, while that is really not a French word. Funny how this trickled down from Dutch to (Belgian) French.

Marieke also has something to say about this subject:

When I was once looking for a room in Flanders during my student days, I came across a note in a cafe between the pinned up notes with small advertisements: ‘Vomit for rent’… hilarity all around !! (gàts)

What I wonder: will it have been clear to Flemish readers of that letter what was meant? The official plural of ‘kot’ is namely ‘koten’. And also in Flanders the word ‘vomit’ simply means vomit. (My Flemish girlfriend recently showed that when we got rid of a little too many Belgian beers during a two-person corona house party.)

Lesson 2. Never deprive a Dutch person of the opportunity to drink coffee

Reader Petra wrote the following:

Also a difference: we had a reception at the opening of our store in Belgium (from 14:00). We wanted to prepare the coffee, but our partner said: no, we do wine (cava). All Belgian customers thought that was fine, but the Dutch who came first wanted coffee. So I made a coffee first.

Wonderful, that difference between the sober, Calvinist Dutch and the Burgundian Belgians! ‘Straight to the drink? What a wild extravagance! ‘ Petra’s Dutch customers will have thought. I wouldn’t be surprised if they expected a silly cookie with it. One biscuit, no more. After all, serving several cookies could be seen as a sign of indomitable gluttony.

The only thing with which the Dutch go wild is serving coffee. If necessary, ask for an oil barrel full of coffee at a Dutch birthday party and it will be rolled into the room without question. The Dutch like to drink coffee, let’s stop there.

Lesson 3. The Dutch person attaches importance to the weight of his house

When I talk about a 3-tonne building in Belgium, Belgians look at me with compassion. They think I mean a 3,000 kilo building. The Belgians are not familiar with the concept of ton as a synonym for 100,000 euros.

Reader Marco wrote the above in the comments.

His comment sounds recognizable. I remember one of the first times that my Flemish girlfriend was with my Dutch parents. At one point we talked about house prices. My girlfriend asked us after a few minutes: “Why is the weight of a house so important in the Netherlands?”

Funny of course. Of course we fooled my girlfriend for minutes. “Because the ground is so wet in the Netherlands,” I told her with a straight face. To which my mother added: ‘That is why houses in the Netherlands can only have a certain weight. Otherwise they will sink into the ground. ‘

Lesson 4. ‘Later’ is not the same distance in every country

Jonathan taught me that it is wise not to just say ‘see you later’ to an acquaintance from the other country:

In the Netherlands we say ‘see you soon / later’. We mean that we will see or speak to each other again in, say, 10 minutes. In Belgium they say ‘to sebiet’; at ‘see you soon / later’ they will only expect you in a few hours.

Still a difficult thing, time. I gave in my previous article all the cross-border difference in meaning between ‘morning’ and ‘afternoon’. Now I can’t even say ‘see you later’ to a Fleming without having to worry about it first! Phew …

Lesson 5. Flemish people use the word they hate the most every day

Ever since I started working for Belgian (mainly Flemish) clients a few years ago, I notice every day – another word that I occasionally encounter in Flanders and almost never in the Netherlands – the fascinating, fun and sometimes funny language nuances.

Christiaan W. Lustig mentions the word ‘daily’ in this response. I hear this word almost every day here in Belgium. This is remarkable, because apparently many Flemish people have a considerable aversion to the word ‘daily’. Just Google it ugliest word every day and you get a long list of ugliest-word elections in which ‘daily’ has emerged as one of the winners.

So, Flemish people, can we finally stop using that word? Merci.

Lesson 6. Dirty words are not dirty everywhere

Marga van der Tol shared a personal anecdote with us:

In my youth we had a caravan in Belgium, in Turnhout to be precise. The first thing that struck me was how many meanings are given to the word “subtractor” in Flanders. We in the Netherlands think a jerk is a bit dirty, but in Flanders you can flush the toilet with it, wipe the floor with it, and it has many more meanings.

Well, Marga, what sounds dirty to a Dutchman, can be quite ordinary for a Fleming. But I can also cite an example the other way around. When I tell a Fleming that his dog can poop in the park, he thinks I want to encourage his poodle to have sex!

Lesson 7. Prepare yourself for disappointment when applying for a job in Belgium

As a result of my previous article, I received an email from a language fanatic named Eric with some surprising language differences. One of the words he mentioned was ‘withhold’.

Eric wrote:

In Belgium and the Netherlands, “retained” means the opposite. The Flemish meaning of this word is very strange, if you think about it. And I am Flemish, you have to remember!

To understand Eric’s comment, I had to study job application terminology. What seems? When a Flemish company says to an applicant: ‘You are not held back’, it means that he has the job not got!

I agree with Eric: this sounds completely counterintuitive. Now I have to say that the Dutch never use the word ‘retained’, but if we used it, ‘not retained’ would mean that you did get the job.

I can imagine a dialogue between a Dutch person who has had a job interview at a Flemish company.

Dutchman: ‘You can tell me honestly: was I hired?’

Flemish company: “Sir, we will tell you immediately: you have not been stopped.”

Dutchman: ‘Fantastic! Thank you very much!’

Flemish company (confused): “Uh, you’re welcome?”

Share your experiences

Are you a Belgian who ended up in the country of your northern neighbors? Or are you a Dutch person who lives among Belgians? Whatever your background, I am very curious about your experiences in the field of Belgian-Dutch language and cultural differences. Share your experiences below. In this way the Frankwatching readers also learn something from it. And who knows… I might use your comment as input for a future article about Belgians and Dutch!


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