Brussels Bits – Survival Strategies or How to Talk to Influential People

An influential person is, according to the Thesaurus, “a person whose actions and opinions strongly influence the course of events”. Despite the romanticism of the definition, the sort of influential people I have been most confronted with are those sitting behind a desk and withholding from me something I really need: an ID card, a membership of some club, a place in school for my kids, a last spot on a flight, a payment delay.

Most people developed a way to talk to these sort of all-mighty individuals over time, watching their own parents or relatives and fine-tuning their example to their own personality and needs. Too bad it turns out there is a special way to address influential people in every language and it has not to do simply with grammar and accent.

One of the main frustrations of expats in Belgium (and Italy) is the complexity of bureaucracy. Long queues, complicated paperwork, obscure rules to follow, non-cooperative secretaries and/or public officials. At the end of the day (or the month) you haven’t even started to see the light at the end of the (administrative) tunnel.


Having spent my whole life between two of the most complicated countries in Europe, I have started to take notes. When it comes to the administration, Italians and Belgians share a certain inefficiency, mixed with a love for paperwork  but the similarities end here.

Italy is the realm of individualism: laws and regulations can (and will) make your life miserable but you can bump at any time on the maverick who’ll change them for you, making the famous exception which is the foundation of Italian life

Belgium knows no mavericks. The key to survival around Brussels is a low profile and some outspoken compassion for the influential person. The following example should make it clearer.

How to deal with a school secretary when you are desperately seeking a place for your child:

You have a long list of schools to call and after the first two or three you start to worry. Apparently, they are all reading a same script. It goes more or less like this:

– Bonjour Madame, my name is XY and I’d like very much to register my child ZY for your school in the next academic year.

Can you call back at another time? We are going through our lists right now/ my pc is broken/ we already have several waiting lists/ I am about to take a maternity leave so please call in one month/ in one week it’s Easter and I can’t answer your call right now.

But? Don’t you have a list already? I read on your website that you were closing applications in two days. Does it mean there is no place left? Who can I contact to have an answer? May I speak to the headmaster?

No, you can’t speak to the headmaster. He’s away/extremely busy/ he doesn’ t have the time to meet parents. We don’t have a closed list because we don’t have it (the tone becomes clearly exasperated) and I can’t answer you before a few weeks. D’accord? Au revoir.

At this point the expat parent wonders what’s wrong with them, or with himself. He/she will sometimes persevere, physically go to the school and act out as the crazy, overstressed foreigner in order to secure a place for his/her child in the Belgian school. Otherwise, he/she will opt for a private, international school. (But, beware: most secretaries are true Belgians even there and so the above script might repeat itself).

What did the well meaning parent do wrong? He was too direct and showed a sense of entitlement to clear answers and efficiency. When you talk to an influential person in (French-speaking) Belgium, you can’t demand anything.

Annoying as it might seem (and be), you should go like:

Bonjour Madame, do I disturb you? I know you are extremely busy and I will be brief, I hope you have 5 spare minutes to listen to me…Do you have them?

Go ahead. My pc is broken. I can’t turn it on. The mailman is late today and I am in chaos.

OMG, I am so sorry for you. It must be horrible to work in such conditions. And with all these stressed out parents probably calling you all the time…

You are so right. It is. Horrible. And, you know, all these foreigners. Nagging. Foreigners. From all over the world.

I am afraid I am one of them. But I swear I won’t waste any of your time. It’s just that i heard so many amazing things on your school that – maybe – you still have a little place for my child?

Difficult. Difficult. We already have a waiting list.

But maybe, If I came…do you think you could help me getting an appointment with the headmaster. I know I am asking a lot but you know how it is…

Maybe. Call me again in a few days, I hope my pc will work then.

and here you thank her so much, for at least a couple of minutes. And you call her the next day and start all over again. At the end, you’ll be friends. Even partners, sharing a mutual compassion and understanding for the miseries of the (working) human condition.

The same format can be applied to the basic interaction with several types of influential people: the municipality officials, the telecom/electricity/TV/ water/ gas company, your landlord, the plumber and in some cases even the pharmacist and the night shop owner. (Strangely enough, in Belgium clients aren’t always right and even shopping can’t be taken for a granted right. More on this in the coming Belgian Bits).

Remember: compassion. And don’t worry if your interlocutor will answer your questions talking of him/herself. It’s part of the long way to becoming friends and to getting what you need.