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Guide to Cultural Traits for Expats in Portugal

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: September 2015

Culturally speaking, the Portuguese are southern Europeans, sharing many characteristics with the Spanish and several with the Italians and Greeks. For example, they are passionate, vocal, tactile and energetic. On the other hand, the Portuguese are more reserved and less overtly emotional than their neighbours, and less likely to be confrontational. They are also less physically demonstrative.

When meeting a Portuguese person for the first time, the most widely used greeting is to shake hands. Female friends will kiss each other on each cheek and men will shake hands or hug or kisses on the cheek if they are close. Men and women may also kiss, depending on how well they know each other.

The Portuguese are a warm and friendly people who will do their best to make you feel welcome. Many are keen to find out your opinion of their country and may ask you about this. In Portugal, lateness is regarded as normal rather than exceptional. The Portuguese even have a special word, desenrascanço, for the act of cobbling things together in the last minute and somehow getting them to work.

The traditional Portuguese culture that has been going on for centuries is very much alive. This is especially true in rural areas, which are some of the most unspoilt in Western Europe. Many areas have their own styles of song and dance. These are a considerable source of local pride all the way down to village level, and most village squares have a terreiro, a flat area of ground for dancing.

The most popular type of music is the fado, a traditional folk song usually accompanied by a mandolin or local 12-string guitar. A good fado piece exhibits saudade – the wistful, bittersweet yearning that is part of the Portuguese character. Portugal’s part in the Age of Discovery and its relationship with the sea are important elements in a fado. Famous fado singers (fadistas) are treated as national heroes. Fado and many other Portuguese musical styles have been influenced by the music and rhythms of North and sub-Saharan Africa and Brazil.

The country is overwhelmingly Catholic, though religious freedoms are guaranteed. Festivals, most of which have a religious basis, are widely celebrated and important occasions to bring people together. They  range all the way from annual village festas to feiras (a combination of a market and a festival) to the much larger carnivals and other events in the cities. Two of the most important festivals are Liberty Day on 25 April and All Saints Day on 1 November, and they are most sumptuously celebrated in the city of Braga. Most of these events take place in summer.

Football is the national sport; it arouses great passions and attracts huge crowds. Like in Spain, bullfighting is popular, but in Portugal the bull is not killed but rather put out to pasture. With a most agreeable climate and many miles of fine coastline, beach-going is another important leisure activity. The Algarve is the most celebrated area, but many locals prefer less crowded spots such as the Silver Coast to the north of Lisbon.

The cornerstone of Portuguese life is family. In Portugal this does not just mean the nuclear family, but includes cousins and other extended family members as well. Extended families frequently keep in close contact and socialise with each other, hosting barbecues in each other’s gardens in the summer and having large dinners at other times of the year.

Cuisine is an important expression of local culture. A great number of meals are based around fish, with less meat eaten than in other cuisines. Well-known dishes include cozido, a stew of various meats and vegetables, peri peri chicken (made famous by the Nando’s restaurant chain), bacalhau (salted cod, cooked in many different ways) and caldeirada (fish and shellfish stewed with vegetables.)

Portugal remains a traditional society, and this is reinforced by church and family structures. Society is still hierarchical and authoritarian. It is always important to pay respect to seniors , and people look to the person at the top to make decisions, often without need for a consensus.




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