Getting to Know the Portuguese:

Some Observations about the People

No country’s population can summarily be described or branded by words—regardless how precise or generalized the terminology. Only by engaging and interacting directly with people do you get to know them, observing how they behave in given situations. And so it is with the Portuguese, a people long associated with a sentiment (saudade) and a song (fado). Yet the Portuguese are smart, motivated, progressive, eco-friendly, compassionate people.

Many Portuguese have a better handle on English than we do on their language. In school, they’re required to study English not as a “foreign” language, but as part of their core curriculum. With certain people, I’ve learned that it’s best to engage with them as they prefer – in English – rather than to insist on practicing our Portuguese.

By no means am I an expert – neither sociologist, anthropologist, nor psychologist – but, in some offbeat ways, I have come to understand a handful of habits and willful ways of these western Iberia inhabitants.

While scientific reasoning objects to reaching collective conclusions about a people based on the experiences of one person from another country, perhaps such indigenous “tendencies” might be better ascribed as cultural. We can better understand Portuguese behavior – and react accordingly – if we are aware of cultural norms and traits.

Our initial encounters with Portuguese people took place online: Facebook. I received a message from the son of the woman we purchased our property from in Lousa — a village of about 550 in Castelo Branco that gets confused with Lousã in Coimbra — informing me that it had been raining quite hard for over a week and, now, the wind had pushed open one of the doors on our second floor balcony. Who knows how or why it happened, but the point was to get that door firmly closed asap. We put out an emergency call for help to members of several local Facebook groups we’d joined–using Google Translate, of course. Shortly thereafter, we heard via Messenger that a man and woman from the village had taken a ladder and toolbox to our house. The soaked wet senhor climbed up onto our balcony and succeeded in securing the door. Unfortunately, trying to leave, he discovered that the front door had been locked from the inside. No key was found. So, he went back to the second floor living room and let himself out, securing the errant door behind him before retreating down those slippery ladder steps.

Alex and Olga are among our closest friends in Portugal now.

While friendly and caring, the Portuguese are essentially private people. They’ll make you feel welcome by bringing baskets of fruits and vegetables from their gardens, ironically, they will never intrude. It’s highly unlikely that they’ll even step inside your house, no matter how long you are neighbors. Knocking on the door and conversing outside is one thing … but coming inside is quite another. It’s just not done.

This isn’t the case only with “foreigners”; it’s how the Portuguese treat each other. Of course, they get together for meals and camaraderie, but such festivities usually take place in a café or eating establishment—not in their homes.

Like many of us, Portuguese people are “caught up in the moment” and totally focused on whomever they’re dealing with or speaking to, often keeping us waiting for their attention. Go into any supermarket and you’ll see workers talking to customers (or other workers). They won’t even make eye contact with you until they’re finished with their current interlocutor. Curiously, however, there are some Portuguese who will disregard etiquette and break into line or interrupt a conversation.

Supermarkets bring up food and another interesting aspect of Portuguese customs: their time in restaurants. Unlike the USA (and elsewhere?) where – miraculously! – everything takes the same amount of time to prepare and cook so that everyone at the table is served simultaneously, dishes in Portugal are brought out helter-skelter, independently. You can be finished your meal before your tablemates get theirs. A classic case of eating alone, together. Good thing that wine is so cheap and bread plentiful!

Food and meals are taken quite seriously in Portugal—at least as regards their times allotted. Lunch time, especially, is revered. No matter what they are doing, it stops between 13h and 15h (1:00-3:00) or 13h30 and 15h30 (1:30-3:30). After all, we need a half-hour to get where we’re eating and another 30 minutes to return. Those 60 minutes sandwiched in between are necessary to be served and eat with gusto (gosto). To savor and digest the food slowly, with beer or some wine.

Our expectations don’t always jive with the Portuguese’s when it comes to work being contracted. They will perform their jobs meticulously … but if it’s not in the job description or contract, the Portuguese don’t believe it’s necessarily their responsibility.

Example? We had the electric wiring throughout our house upgraded, which necessitated the installation of a new circuit box, as called for in our contract. After days banging and chiseling out the old cement surrounding our antiquated panel to accommodate the space required for the (larger) new one, the circuit box was installed. But all the plaster and dust settling everywhere following the wall surgery? Not their problem. Nor was the awkward frame of new, off-white plaster which stood out like the proverbial sore thumb needing rendering and painting to match the beige wall. Another time, Portuguese workers installing new windows and doors in our house (accidentally) cut the door bell wires. Our problem to fix it, not theirs. They’re installers, not electricians.

Of course, many Portuguese tradesmen and contractors clean up after themselves and go the extra mile in their work. Point is, don’t take it for granted or expect it to be done. We’ve learned that old ounce of prevention is more than worth a pound of cure by spelling out our expectations precisely when negotiating contracts and agreements.

Whether forgetful, negligent, or devil-may-care, some Portuguese people take days to answer an email … if they respond at all. Immediacy just isn’t that important. Promptness or priority isn’t often the issue; it’s just that the Portuguese often don’t see any reason or need for responding. To their credit, sometimes we foreigners don’t know when enough is enough: I send a digital greeting card to family or friends. They reply, thanking me for the card and thinking of them. I reply with a thumbs-up or smile emoticon. They feel obliged to respond in kind. And, so it goes …

On the road, the Portuguese may be daredevil (or slowpoke) drivers, but they actually stop at pedestrian crossings, yielding way to people. It’s a lesson in civility (and safety) that many of us should take more seriously.

Like Covid, the Coruna virus.

It says something special and relevant about the people of Portugal that the country has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates. So far, Portugal has administered at least 19,476,353 doses of COVID vaccines. Assuming every person needs two doses, that’s enough to have vaccinated about 94.8% of the country’s population–with booster shots not far behind. People wear masks and follow directives issued by the state’s national health department. Not only do they care about themselves, they’re concerned about others.

Often considered the “Canadians of Europe,” there’s one thing capable of angering the Portuguese: They don’t appreciate being compared to the Spanish.

And, why should they?

All nationalities have quirks and idiosyncrasies that set them apart; that’s part of the charm of the people and the place. After the initial culture shock, you’re sure to find the Portuguese welcoming and wonderful people!

Bruce is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine.

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