Welcome topics of conversation
You can assume that any business contact will speak reasonable English. If they don’t they will tell you. French is the usual third language now (or even fourth after Spanish). When speaking English or French,unless your interlocutor is totally fluent, take care to speak clearly and slowly. Don’t use slang or idiomatic expressions, just as in any other non-English speaking country.
The Portuguese understand Spanish but not vice versa, because Portuguese pronunciation is especially difficult, even though the written languages are similar. However, if you use Spanish they will usually reply either in Spanish or in Portuguese with an attempt at Spanish pronunciation (which makes it easier to understand).
Apart from the fiendish problem of titles (see above), the mode of conversation is reasonably informal but still more formal than in the US or UK, at least at first. It is better to start too formally and then drop to casual, as there can be sector, generational and regional variations.
Touching – arm, hand – during a conversation is acceptable but not necessary.
The Portuguese are generally reserved and pacific and do not like confrontation or verbal directness. It may take a few circumlocutions to get to the point and you will have often to read between the lines. Nevertheless, do insist (politely) if you’re not sure what is going on.
My own experience is that this avoidance of confrontation is quite a subtle business and can mean that North European or American directness, however polite, can be taken as offensive. In the end, like most of these “rules” in the end you just have to be yourself, or you’ll end up going crazy trying to adapt – as long as you are being polite, not shouting or being aggressive, say what you need to say in your way. They’ll always forgive a foreigner, as long as he or she is polite. The important thing to remember here is even if you tell them clearly what you think you probably won’t get the same in return.
Conversation – general
Most Portuguese are tolerant, difficult to offend and used to dealing with people from other cultures, so don’t worry too much about the details. These are hints not unbreakable rules.
Avoid personal comments or compliments early on. The best gambit is to compliment the country, food, city, climate, wine, football (soccer).
Don’t discuss people’s positions, careers, salaries (this one – never!) unless it comes up.
The Portuguese appreciate humor and it is useful to break the ice, although going straight into anecdotes and backslapping is not a good idea. Political humor is well liked.
Expletives and strong slang are more acceptable in the North of Portugal (around Oporto) than in the South/Lisbon, although thorough immersion in American/British cinema and TV means that they’re used to the odd s*** etc, as long it’s not in Portuguese.
The family is important here, so feel free to talk about your family and home. This is very child friendly society and so it is normal to talk about your children, bring them for a visit into the office and so on.
Topics to avoid
Religion and all the usual controversial subjects.
People’s personal finances, salary, etc. Money is not a usual topic of conversation.
Individual work related matters (but the general business/sector situation is fine)
Sports other than soccer, unless they express an interest. In sport, Portugal is a soccer monoculture, which can be a bit frustrating for those of us who actually find other sports more interesting.
Welcome topics of conversation
Soccer & (if they play) Golf
Food and wine (as long as they’re Portuguese!)
Politics, with care. Don’t assume someone’s political leanings because of his or her position or job. For example, there are Socialists and even some Communists (really!) among serious and successful business people. If you come from the US, remember that socialism here is pretty watered down and a highly respectable part of the culture. The present “Socialist” government has been practicing greater economic toughness and discipline than any previous government of any party. Even communists are more or less tolerated and not viewed as potential terrorists. In general, there is a much broader range of political views here than in the US, although the extreme right, neo-con, creationist, fundamentalist or evangelical Christian viewpoint is not really represented.