Portugal: Public Behaviour


Acceptable public conduct

In general the Portuguese are relaxed about etiquette and public behavior, so don’t get too worried about the “rules”. If your intention is obviously polite and well behaved, the details won’t matter.

Be warned, statistically speaking, the Portuguese are among the worst drivers in Europe. However, they are not as fast or crazy as the Italians nor aggressive or rude like the Spanish and French. Signing (i.e. intersections, priorities, danger etc) is European, which is very visually different from the US. Most cars are manual (stick shift) but rental companies usually have a stock of automatics especially for North American drivers.

You always shake hands with someone on meeting, however many times you’ve met them before. Women often kiss on meeting (with men and women), usually one kiss on each cheek. It is very difficult, even for the Portuguese, to know when to do this instead of the handshake. When you don’t know, the easiest is to extend your hand and kiss only if the woman offers her cheek.

For a good and familiar business contact a gentle hug on first greeting or departure is acceptable.

Handshakes should not be too firm.

Physical contact is acceptable and a grip of the arm or a hand on the shoulder is common. It is not unusual for someone to hold their hand on your upper arm as you walk down a street – this is a gesture of warmth and trust.

People stand closer in conversation than in North America or Northern Europe and maintain more (but not more intense) eye contact.

There are only a few particular behaviors to avoid, different from other European cultures:

Never stretch in public.

Do not eat with your fingers unless everyone else does – which is rare.

Use knife and fork, even for apparently obvious fork food. The US (and some Eastern European) style cut–place knife–switch to fork is not good manners.

Do not lick your fingers, however delicious or sticky that last bit of sauce was.

The table napkin should be laid on your lap, not inserted under your chin (unless your host does, for a particularly messy dish).

Never write anything in red ink, not even small notes, checks, etc. Only school teachers correcting work are “allowed” to write in red – otherwise it’s seen as offensive.

Avoid turning your back towards someone in the group you’re with (for example a person next to you at a dinner table). If you have to do so, apologize first.

Until very recently, smoking was fairly widespread so while the non-smoking regulations are now observed there are lapses and people are fairly non-militant about this. Still, you have the right to complain and ask people not to smoke indoors (unless it is a smoking bar/restaurant – see below).

If you are a smoker, you are not alone: there are some smoking restaurants and bars (basically they can choose to be smoking or non-smoking, although most now choose the latter). Bigger places can have smoking zones if they have special ventilation/extraction systems. In people’s houses, it is not shocking to ask if you can smoke, although you may be politely asked to smoke outside in the yard, on the veranda or whatever. You can’t smoke in offices but you’ll usually find one or two people having a cigarette out on the fire escape or in front of the entrance.

In Portugal, as in most Latin countries, there is a very extensive language of hand and finger signs, which you don’t need to know. The usual ones are standard and the offensive ones are obvious.

As you hand over an object to someone it is common to say “please”.

Generally, while politeness is highly valued, the words “please”, “thank you” and “sorry” are used less liberally in the language than, say, by the British but the rules are not rigid about this. (Does anyone use “sorry” more than us Brits?)

When sitting in a more formal meeting or public place, you shouldn’t sprawl, put feet on furniture and so on but maintain a good posture. It’s fine to cross your legs.

This is still a mildly sexist culture but men are used to women in positions of authority and there are plenty of women in jobs which some Northern European cultures believe are masculine (engineering, IT, finance). The sexism tends to be seen more in the division of responsibilities in the home and family, than in the workplace. While you are unlikely to come across much overtly sexist behavior, do not be totally surprised if it arises. You are, of course, free to comment, politely.

Unfortunately, Portugal is still, by European standards, pretty retrograde in relation to alternative sexualities. Subtle and not so subtle homophobia is quite common. Hardly any public figures in business, politics, entertainment or sport have come out and it is extremely rare for someone to mention a gay partner. In business, most gays pretend to be straight. Pathetic but true.