Portugal cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
The Portuguese are very open as far as receiving foreigners is concerned. Someone who comes from a developed country is considered to be someone with good intentions. A good way to start a conversation is to talk about where you are from, (Portuguese are curious), and what you are doing in Portugal (visiting, studying, working). To have the full score, and have immediate access to longer conversations, compliments on the beauty of the country/city, and questions about the Portuguese culture, are a plus (Portuguese are proud of their culture and history). Note: Even in a first day on a new office, don’t rush in without taking some time to talk (and probably repeat this conversation) with several people. It won’t be wasted time.
Jokes are welcomed, if well intended, concerning almost all the subjects, but don’t talk about how Spain is bigger and better than Portugal (Spain is a whole subject in Portugal).
In general, if you talk with an honest smile on your face, and have the will and openness to learn something about their culture, the Portuguese will be satisfied, and will very easily open to you.
Good subjects to bring up when speaking to people from Lisbon include their hometown, family, work, and the weather. They will likely be offended if you say that you have trouble understanding their accent because you are used to the Canadian-Portuguese accent (if this happens to be the case). This subject should be avoided as it is similar to the issue of comparing French from France and French from Quebec. The Portuguese, however, have a wonderful sense of humour!
Portuguese are generally warm where communication is concerned, but don’t expect everyone to be the same. People stand at a « western style » half metre of distance (length of arm). Visual contact is good, but not always necessary. Portuguese aren’t used to staring at someone when they don’t know the person. When meeting someone, a handshake is expected, and may come with the other person’s second hand holding your « shaking arm ». It’s not uncommon, after a while, to receive a small tap on the back after a handshake, or a hug, in some occasions, and after some time when a relationship is more established.
It’s very common for men to kiss women on the cheek (one or, more commonly, two kisses), and is expected, if you are visiting someone’s house, or friend’s friend. At work and professionally, it’s possible that, in the beginning, a handshake for women is more appropriate. Portuguese will very quickly pass to the « hug » phase.
A smile is always important in Portugal. But have a nice, honest one. « Yellow » or exaggerated smiles won’t endear you to the Portuguese, even you have a very good deal to sell.
Energetic gesturing is very common in Portugal, but the common « don’ts » for western gesturing apply (like the third finger). A pointed index is commonly used to make tough statements, but is not regarded as offensive.
The tone of voice is normally low and calm, but can easily climb as more emotional intensive moments come. It’s normal for the Portuguese to have vivid discussions, with higher tone. Don’t take it personally.
Generally, Portuguese respect those around them. They keep a reasonable distance from people with whom they are speaking. They kiss one another on the cheek when they first meet and upon subsequent meetings. Eye contact is important and not looking in someone’s eyes would suggest that you are not listening or not interested in the conversation. They use gestures a great deal, but do not necessarily touch one another until they get to know each other. Their facial expressions are normal and they speak loudly and very fast, which may take you by surprise. They are usually open and direct. They are not shy, and like to make people feel at ease.
Display of emotion
Displays of affection and emotions are acceptable in public, but there are some restrictions. Physical or oral punishment (even slight) of a child, even by the parents, is not seen has acceptable. Gays should understand that people outside Lisbon are not used to seeing public gay couple affection. Heterosexual couples kissing (especially if young) are regarded as something « cute », and are well accepted. In this aspect, Portugal is still a conservative society, but with developing trends.
Discussions between husband and wife are not seen in public. Though domestic violence still exists, it is with no more intensity than other western countries.
Don’t be surprised to see a street fight in some more heated discussions for instance.
Yes, public displays of affection are acceptable and quite common. They are very warm people and some will show anger in public, although I never witnessed any such displays.
Dress, punctuality & formality
As a foreigner, not following the rules won’t be regarded as offensive (probably as funny, but not offensive), but there are some important ones to follow.
Work in Portugal is still very formal - completely different from Canada. If you are a man, you probably will have to were a suit, shirt and a tie everyday, and if you are a woman, discrete « professional looking » clothes. Wearing a suit is still regarded as sign of prestige, and usually indicates that you studied in university, and got an "important" job. At a certain level or position, good taste (as relative as it is...) will make the difference between top executives, and other lower white collar workers.
For some reason, in Portugal, someone who has a university degree adds a « Dr. » (read doctor), or « Dra. » (for women), before the name. So, when addressing someone outside the company, or supervisor, if you know they are graduated (have a university degree), refer to them as Dr. + family name. If they are more progressive, they will probably tell you to drop the Dr. and call them by their first name. When you don’t know if they are graduated, which is quite common and can be very difficult even for Portuguese, you will probably have to guess, according to the appearance and position in the company of the person you are meeting. Specialty degrees carry specialty prefixes: Sr.Arq., (« mr. architect Silva »), for architects, Sr. Eng., for engineers, Sr. Dr. for medical doctors, Sr. Prof. for professors, etc.
Otherwise, you can always refer to them as Mr. or Mrs. + family name, which is regarded as acceptable (don’t call Dr. to someone who clearly doesn’t have a university degree—example—policeman, as that can be considered an insult).
Between colleagues it’s normal to call someone by their first name. Language is normally formal with your superiors, and more loosely familiar with colleagues. Cursing is not common in offices, even with colleagues you have known for a long time.
Delays in meetings, rendez-vous, etc, are widely common in Portugal, but this is changing, so be aware—not everyone will be late! On the opposite side, punctuality for work is regarded as important (very important in some cases), though it’s commonly accepted that you won’t leave your office at the end of the official working day. Portuguese tend to work (non paid) overtime, on a daily basis.
Portuguese are generally productive, and are willing to work overtime, (including weekends) to get an important job done. But expect to find several small pauses on a day job, for grabbing a coffee, or a five-minute conversation with colleagues over "general subjects". Also, long lunch breaks are common, especially business lunches.
Regarding dress, the Portuguese follow fashion trends closely, so you should be well dressed. You should address your supervisors as "Mr." or "Mrs." followed by their last name. This is totally normal and people often use the formal form of "you" (the equivalent of vous in French), even among colleagues. It is rare that someone will ask others to call them by their first name.
In Portugal, a typical day begins at 9:00 a.m., lunch being between 12:00 and 2:00 p.m. The Portuguese work until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. and it is worth noting that they are most productive in the afternoon. Portuguese are punctual.
My time in Lisbon led me to believe that it is not a priority to respect deadlines. As for absenteeism, people rarely take time off from work.
Preferred managerial qualities
Although the university degree is regarded as a major step for recognition, there are cases, where the "experienced" leader is still respected. Recognised competence and results, and ability to decide and resolve problems, and being hard-working are the main characteristic looked in a leader. Admiration is what leaders are expected to get from their employees.
Leaders are expected to be understanding and to be interested in one’s work. There is a common feeling that it is as important to be efficient and productive, as it is to be kind, respectful, and interested by your employees ideas and feelings, though they expect you to draw the line in that relation.
It is not abnormal if the leader keeps his distance from employees, in terms of personal/ professional relations. Depending on your origin, some pre-conceived notions may surface among your employees. Generally, being from Canada, you would already have a plus, as people would think you are very "advanced".
To know what your staff thinks of you is not easy. The best indication is the kind of motivation they show to you. Probably, if they start getting late to work, or start getting out on time (and not working late), it’s probably because they think they can do that because you are a foreigner. Normally, Portuguese find it challenging to work with a foreign boss, and adapt very well.
A good way to "survey" the respect for you, is to monitor what they say to fellow colleagues from another departments. If they really respect you and admire you, they will talk about "the cool foreign boss I have, who doesn’t make me use a tie every day" (for example).
The most highly regarded qualities in a local superior/manager would be experience and a willingness to accept new ideas. I also believe that he/she should have a good sense of leadership, but emphasize employee participation in an environment where they feel welcome to share their ideas. I also think that it is an advantage if the superior/manager has a background in or has taken courses in basic management (and thus the technical basics).
I really do not think that there is much difference between a local and non-local manager/supervisor, provided he/she respects people’s opinions and differences. Regarding the way staff perceive their supervisor, I would say that if employees are always quiet around their boss, it is likely because they are afraid to express themselves around him/her. This is likely a sign that the supervisor is not taking into consideration employees’ comments and probably does not accept new ideas. Unfortunately, most employees do not like to let their employer know what is wrong since they are afraid that he/she might be offended or would reject their ideas.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decision-making mechanisms are still very centralized in Portugal, and there is a whole hierarchy and procedure to follow before you are able to make a decision.
Ideas can be expressed freely, but be careful when those ideas collide with someone else’s competences, or are an implicit critic of someone’s work. The person concerned may feel they’ve been passed over, and never forgive you. You are supposed to present your idea to your supervisor, who will then pass it to his, and so on, until it reaches the top. Idea stealing is not very common, although there is the risk that your supervisor can stop it from going further.
Generally, I would say that decisions should certainly be made in consultation with employees, but managers have the last word. Nevertheless, managers need to keep in mind that if they make a decision that is totally contrary to the wishes of the employees, the employees will be critical and lose respect for them. All employees should have the opportunity to express their ideas and managers should incorporate employees’ comments and ideas into the decision making process. I think that it is essential for employees to consult their immediate supervisors for responses or feedback on their work. If they don’t, employees do not know what is expected of them or what are their strong points or what needs improvement.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Portuguese men aren’t generally sexist, and have full respect for women. In the professional field, there are several cases of women in leadership positions, but if you are a woman, expect to have to work more to get yourself respected as a good leader.
Being an easy-going catholic country, religion is not a subject, and its importance in the way society is regulated is very limited. You shouldn’t have any problems with whichever is your religion; people may find it curious that you are different (but normally they are respectful). Anyway, avoid religious themes and discussions at work.
Portuguese society is still very class driven, and distinctions, though they many not be entirely clear, still exist. The rich still have better access to better jobs, and family surname can be regarded as a major plus. If you came from a family of successful businessman, your name will open doors to you.
Because of its history, Portugal is used to different races and ethnic origins. But in smaller villages, where there isn’t much diversity, different ethnicities can be regarded as curious, but generally respected. Like anywhere else, you can find racism in Portugal in a small portion of the population. Professionally, you shouldn’t have any problems.
It shocked me to find out that in Portugal men have a lot of trouble taking orders from a woman and facing a female superior. Many Portuguese men feel that they are superior to women. They still think that a women’s place is in the home, raising children, doing the cooking and cleaning, etc. Many of them have a hard time accepting that women might aspire to having a career and obtain high-level positions.
Men often do not follow a female superior’s instructions and do what they want, without necessarily asking for help. Frequently, the end result is different from the objectives of the initial project.
I noticed that people are still very attached to religion. For example, they still view marriage as something sacred and permanent. They still have all kinds of processions for saints, timeout for prayers, pray with the rosary, read the Bible, etc. I do not think that religion has an influence in the workplace.
I noticed that there are two classes in Lisbon: the rich and the poor. There is no middle class and the lower class is always being criticized by the rich and vice versa.
Without necessarily wanting it, people of the same class often find themselves working as part of the same group and generally share the same kinds of ideas without necessarily worrying too much about the other economic class (they do not think about the other classes’ needs).
I cannot comment on this point.
Portuguese are warm, and sentimental, and big deals can be made or lost just because the buyer likes you or doesn’t. Also, establishing a personal relationship gives the Portuguese the sense of security and an assurance that he won’t be mislead or cheated, because "you are his friend". Friendship is very much valued in Portugal.
To establish that connection you should first be sincere, otherwise it’s pointless, and can even be harmful for business. On the other hand, don’t push it—it will come naturally, as Portuguese are always opened to new friends.
To establish this relation, start by light discussions at the coffee pause and then evolve to the lunch time (approximately 1 hour and a half or two hours...), where deeper conversation takes place. Expect to have to open up some of your personal life to gain their confidence faster. After that, you should have your first office friend.
It is extremely important to establish excellent personal relations with colleagues or clients before doing business with them as this is a way to show that you can be trusted. It is also very important for the Portuguese to feel that others are honest and responsible "businessmen." They also want to know that they can count on you. I think that there are many ways of establishing good relations such as inviting people for dinner, for example. This is a good way to get to know one another outside of the workplace and later you can also bring people home and invite them to meet your family. Try to get to know what kinds of sports people like and then invite them out to a game of hockey, baseball, or golf for example.
Privileges and favouritism
In general, people will be expecting special treatment. But this is changing. It’s still common for people from within a company to "recommend" someone they know to work for the company. Normally, they won’t recommend it if they don’t trust this person’s abilities and capacities.
My advice: you should always assess the person they are recommending, and if you have two almost similar candidates, take the recommended one, if you trust the person who recommended the candidate to you. If you do that, your office friend would be always grateful and willing to do the same for you. It’s all a question of trust.
Yes, it is possible that employees or colleagues might expect to receive privileges or special considerations, but under no circumstances would I recommend that you do so. You need to respect the principle of equality.
Conflicts in the workplace
You should act according to your personal feeling and personality, but understand that confronting him in public is very hard, and can be fatal to any working relationship with your colleague. The best way is in private. If it proves ineffective, you should talk to someone higher up who knows your colleague, to resolve the dispute.
To know if one of your colleagues has an "issue" with you, you just have to look for any changes in his behaviour. If he isn’t as kind and warm has he used to be, it’s because something’s wrong (this can be seen by simple observation). Also, he may start picking on you, even if he knows he has no reason.
The best way to deal with a work-related problem with colleagues is to do so directly and privately. If you confront them in public, they will feel threatened and will not likely find the words to express themselves. And why get everyone involved when the problem lies between only two people? I think that one way to tell if employees have a problem with you or if you have offended them is to see if they tend to avoid conversations and meetings with you or if they are abrupt when speaking with you. That is when I think that you must rectify the problem right away before the argument takes on a life of its own.
Motivating local colleagues
It depends on the kind of colleague you have. An older, less educated person with a family will be motivated to keep his job. But if you have a young yuppie, recently graduated, ambitious, expect his reasons to be a growing career, recognition and good salary.
Portuguese are normally very devoted to their companies, and when working for professional satisfaction, are also working for company success. They give a part of themselves to the company. People may cry when their company is bankrupted and closed (if they have been well taken care while employees), and will do a lot to avoid that.
I think that good working conditions, a good salary, and good management motivate people to perform well on the job. Ideally, good managers are people who are trustworthy and support the decisions of others, are constantly encouraging them, always leave their door open, appreciate their employees for what they do, and value each one.
Recommended books, films & foods
Portuguese culture, besides being old (Portugal is around 900 years old), is much richer than a lot of people could imagine. Due to our history of travels and explorations in the 1500’s, (Brazil, India, Japan, China, Canada, Africa, etc.), Portuguese culture is therefore spread around the world. Where you are now, you won’t have to travel a lot to see and feel a little bit of Portuguese culture.
Anyway, good modern books include Antonio Lobo Xavier (translated to French and English), Fernando Pessoa (poet), and Jose Saramgo (Nobel Prize). For a good insight into the Portuguese « soul », and its relation to the sea, read an annotated English version of the epic Lusiadas, by Luis Vaz de Camoes. For a deeper insight into the class organization of society, there is Eça de Queirós.
You can find good TV documentaries made about Portugal that will give you a good impression of what Portugal is all about. There is a weekly show on Montreal Television about the Portuguese immigrants, but it’s quite out-of-date. Look for the National Geographic’s issues on Portuguese history.
For the food, just go to Toronto, Montreal, NYC, London, Goa, Tokyo, Paris, Brazil, etc, and find your nearest Portuguese restaurant. Try the roasted chicken, as foreigners tend to like it.
First of all, I recommend that you get in touch with the Embassy of Portugal in Canada. The staff there will be able to recommend you the most recent books on the market. The Embassy also has films that can be borrowed. I know of television shows such as "Lamiré" (shown daily from 5:00–5:30 p.m.) and "Hora H" (on Sundays at 10:30 a.m.). As for food, Portuguese love fish and seafood. They also like very spicy food, wine, port, and cheese a lot.
For the cultural activities, consult the city guides (extensive and with good explanation), and look for the tourist offices. Read the daily newspaper, and you learn a lot about Portuguese culture.
To get aid and support on the cultural level, just visit one of the "trendy" cafes or museums (easily identifiable), and ask the people around. People will be keen on helping you when they notice you’re a foreigner.
One way to learn more about the culture and people is by visiting museums, reading local newspapers, going downtown, and, of course, by talking to people.
The national heroes are historical figures who contributed to Portugal’s great empire in the 1500’s: Vasco da Gama, Pedro Alvares Cabral, and Infante D. Henrique.
Other than that, some fado singers, like Amalia Rodrigues or Carlos do Carmo.
But above all, the Football Players—Eusebio, Figo, Rui Costa, Vitor Baia, and other new ones, who play in big European clubs.
First I would mention Vasco da Gama—the Portuguese sailor who was a member of the highly regarded Sagres nautical school and the first European to have opened the way to India by going around Africa. There was also Aristides de Souza Mendes, born in 1885 in Cabanas de Viriato, who worked as the Portuguese Counsellor in Bordeau during the Second World War and who disobeyed his own government by giving visas to people who were fleeing the Nazi regime.
Shared historical events with Canada
A lot. There are strong historical ties between the two countries, starting by the name Canada. There are some historians that contend that the name itself, Canada, came from the Portuguese expression « Cá Nada », which meant « Here, nothing », and is attributed to the first Portuguese sailors who arrived in Newfoundland (Terra Nova), and were disappointed on the weather (very cold), and the lack of obvious resources. Fiction or legend? Nobody knows.
Another episode is that the first delivery by Canada Post was made by a Portuguese postman. There is a stamp by Canada Post recording this.
Besides this, the Portuguese immigrants in Canada (around 500 000), have been helping to shape Canada for more than 50 years, and gave a Portuguese hint to this diverse and rich society.
Not to my knowledge.
In Portugal, Canadians are seen as the world’s most developed people, and as being different from the Americans. Portuguese tend to trust more in Canadians. There is a sense Canadians are honest and intelligent, and make everything right.
Often Canadians think that Portuguese are strange because they speak quickly and loudly, and people may be afraid to approach them. You shouldn’t be afraid—they are very kind. As well, Canadians may think that the Portuguese really worry about their work. In fact, they have another way of working and they are not always running around (often for no good reason) like we do. They take life one day at a time—with good reason!
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in 1977, the youngest of six children. He was raised in a town called Porto. He is graduated in Economic Sciences from the University of Porto and later moved to Romania to continue his studies for one semester as a part of a European Student Exchange Program. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter moved to Canada to work in Finance.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Canada and is the second of a family of four children. She grew up in the city of Gatineau. In 1999, she received a degree in Business Administration from the Collège Larocque-Lafortune in Ottawa. Her work first took her abroad in 1998 when she worked at the Canadian Pavilion at Expo '98 in Lisbon. Now back in Canada, she works in the field of Canadian heritage. She is married and is the mother of one child.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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