It's taken me almost four years, but I've finally “cottoned on” to something about Flemish behavior that is subtly different from that of Americans. Of course everyone knows that American society prizes individuality to an almost pathological degree. At its best, this cultural bias celebrates individual talent and independence; at its worst, it tends towards selfishness and egocentrism.
On the other hand, it might seem obvious that, here in Flanders, individuality is rather less celebrated. But it took me a long time to understand how this cultural difference plays out in ordinary social interactions. What this means is that, when dealing with others, the group dynamic and group identity are much more important than individual wishes or needs.
I'm accustomed to putting my own wishes and needs first, and I'm not shy about voicing my opinions when in a group. I don't expect everyone to agree with me or to go along with me, but I'm also used to everyone else doing the same. My husband finds this behavior off-putting, and will rarely put forth an opinion unless and until he senses that it will be well received by the others.
Members of a group, when making plans or decisions, will carefully consider what will be best for the majority rather than taking stock of everyone's individual desires and hashing it out from there—which is the method I'm used to. In practice, this means that a group will tend to go with what's tried and true, or what's the easiest plan for all involved. And then it's expected that everyone will go along with the plan.
I'm learning that it's not always wise or welcome to blurt out what I want or what I think when in a group. It's not easy to hold my tongue, but I now realize that doing what comes naturally can come across as bossy, selfish or arrogant. Flemish people might seem easy-going and accommodating, but that doesn't mean they like it when someone tries to dominate the group. They expect everyone to help reach a mutual consensus.
Once we rented a vacation house for the weekend with a group of my husband's friends. It seemed like a fun idea—and it was fun. However, I found the experience to be exhausting. As a natural introvert, I was uncomfortable spending all my time in the company of the entire group. There was no opportunity to “go off and do your own thing.” Nor was there an opportunity to do something other than what the group as a whole decided to do.
There are times when I would much rather sit by myself and read a book instead of having to interact with a large group. Here in Flanders, either you join the group or you risk being seen as antisocial. My husband says it's acceptable to sit quietly, whereas I feel pressure (as an American) to make conversation. Where I come from, you have to be “on” in social situations. But you're also allowed to go off and be by yourself if you prefer.
Once, when I went back to California for a friend's wedding, a group of my closest friends rented a beach cottage for a bachelorette weekend. At one point my then-boyfriend called and asked what we were doing. I told him that we'd all brought projects to work on and were happily “doing our own thing” (while enjoying each other's company). He found that exceedingly odd. In his words, “Why go away for the weekend if you're not going to do things together?”
And yet, we Americans saw nothing contradictory in our desire to get together and engage in separate activities. We also did things together as a group that weekend. But it never occurred to us that spending the weekend together meant that we would do everything together. If some of the group wanted to go for a walk, it was acceptable for others in the group to opt out.
I doubt I will ever fully relinquish my tendency to speak my mind and do what I want. But the longer I live here, the more I appreciate the Flemish practice of building consensus and fostering group cohesion. It seems to strengthen group identity among family, friends and colleagues in a way that is different from what I experienced in America. Still, I wonder if people here ever wish they could assert their individuality a little more...
(A version of this post appeared on the website of Fans of Flanders, an English-language TV program about expat life in Dutch-speaking Belgium.)