Destinations, Lisbon, Portugal

June 28, 2023


Portugal is a wonderful land with breathtaking sceneries, kind and open-minded people and a very long history. Every year more than 10 million people choose Portugal as their destination for travelling attracted by the rich culture and incredible nature.

We asked a local MeetnGreeter Wim about cultural differences and peculiarities of the Portuguese people. Here is his view onto the Portuguese culture and advice on what to do and not to do to behave like a local when you are in Portugal.

Wim is an honoured MeetnGreeter in Lisbon, Portugal. Dutch by birth, he moved to Lisbon in 2004 as he says “to follow his heart’s desire”. What were his first impressions? What did he realize later about another culture? What cultural faux pas exist in Portugal? Here are his answers to all these questions, philosophy behind it and much more.

“The main “faux pas” in Portugal is to speak about “faux pas”

“Trying to blend in is not so difficult in Portugal at first sight. All it requires is cultural flexibility and a desire to be part of the group you meet, in other words to love unconditionally. It doesn’t take extensive studies to see how people dress, walk, talk, behave in a social environment. All it takes is respect and unconditional love for all sentient beings.

Faux pas is an expression based in separateness thinking. In thinking “us” and “them”. There is no such thing in reality. We are all the same, all souls having a human experience, all connected through the desire to “live the good life”, to restore balance, harmony, and beauty. First within ourselves and then in the world around us.

Adopt. Adapt.

Ideally your parents and the society you grew up in taught you this and now it is in your blood, it permeates your being. In Portugal it is called education, in contrast to training which is what is happening in schools, universities, training centres etc. In Portuguese “bem educado” means not “well-educated” but “well-raised”, maybe even “thoroughbred”. It still has importance in Portugal and is considered far more important than formal education which is called “training” here.

In Portugal there is a common expression “training is for monkeys, education is for humans, education is what matters”. It means that training, skills are not that important, they can be acquired later on in life; virtues are what matters, the way you see yourself and the way you behave whilst interacting with others. Education is a life-long endeavour which starts the moment you are born and continues till your last breath.

Faux pas – don’ts in Portugal

In my opinion, the following is the best example of a faux pas from real life.

A lady from the North of Europe visited a meditation centre in Lisbon. She shared her experiences and thoughts with me every morning 4 days in a row:

Day 1. “I could teach so many things here in Portugal”. (Her face like a mask, rigid)

Day 2. “I could teach the Portuguese a few things”.

Day 3. “Maybe I could learn something If I stayed here”. (Face softened up a bit)

Day 4. (in tears; her face soft, warm, endearing) “I wished I could stay, I am learning so much here”.

Other no-gos in Portugal are

1) Not respecting the way locals dress

Dressing as if you are on holidays or ready to clean the garden is an absolute faux pas in Portugal. In Lisbon, other bigger cities and religious or public buildings it is common sense to dress modestly with a sense of quality and delicacy. Flip-flops are in general not the right thing for a walk in a park or a public space. Slippers and sandals will instantly label you as a tourist. A light shawl over the head or at least shoulders when entering religious buildings is common and highly appreciated.

2) Assuming that everybody should speak English with you or at least understand English.

Remember the days when Portuguese was the Lingua Franca in the civilised world?

3) For the females: going topless on any beach.

It is hardly ever talked about though frowned upon. It’s OK for men due to some mysterious twitch of fate or the overall outdated male dominance, though it is a faux pas for women.

4) Raising your voice in public.

Gentleness in manners and speech is still common and appreciated.

And a counter-intuitive one:

5) Giving tips in bars and restaurants.

To some extent giving tips is considered an insult. The salary covers the best possible service. Though many in the business will disagree with the last statement.

6) Highlighting differences.

There was an Indian lady from London who, when stepping into the car at the airport in Portugal, put it so eloquently saying: “You guys are driving on the wrong side of the road”.

Coming from a country where people call the left side the right side and the right side the wrong side we can but have compassion for them, but don’t be surprised if some might find it “not amusing”.

7) Stressing your perceived superiority.

That same lady looked at the national palace in Sintra, a city not far from Lisbon, and said: “We call that a family home”.

So I took her to the National Palace in Mafra and told her that the cleaning lady of the driver of the gardener who worked for the carpenter of the local mayor lived there. For a brief moment she looked puzzled; then realised that even non-native English people can take the Mickey out of foreigners.

8) Assuming that everybody / every country has your spending capacity.

Some tourists say “Oh, that is so very cheap, in my country… “, which implies looking down on the locals.

Assuming that your culture is the only right way of doing things. “You can put plugs in the wall in only one way in our country and they all have a switch and a fuse…” implies assuming technical superiority.

9) Trying to teach the Portuguese about love.

Oh, seriously? It is comparable to a land animal trying to teach a fish how to swim. Just check where the word Love is used for and where and how the word “Amor” is used. A world of difference, impossible to translate because culture doesn’t follow the dictates of a dictionary and needs to be felt and experienced.

How to avoid “faux pas” in Portugal (or in any country, deep down and in essence)?

First of all, communicate and connect with the best possible attitude. See the ongoing life-force or humaneness of all humans.

It means in practical life:

  • Learn a few words of courtesy of the country you are visiting. Use them, try to pronounce them properly.
  • Try to blend in with your voice, your dress code, the way you spent money, the way you walk.
  • Observe, don’t impose or compare.
  • Don’t assume that “my country, my culture, my language” is how things are supposed to be globally.
  • Don’t assume superiority or inferiority.

Portugal has somehow managed to maintain a certain level of dignity, innocence and safety that is long lost in the rest of Europe. It practically demonstrates itself in keeping society a safe and gentle place which implies:

  • Don’t shout or raise your voice; never in public, nor in private.
  • Beach is beach, city is city. Dress as if you are going to meet important people. Dress dignified according to your means and the social setting.
  • Go beyond the physical: old, young, ugly, beautiful, etc. These are just physical appearances and inside are souls that want to be loved, appreciated and seen.
  • Follow the rules. Cross the street at pedestrian crossing, not at random, etc.
  • Keep the place clean, light, functioning, as it was before you came in.

Portugal has a lot to offer for all those seeking love, peace, happiness. It’s as close to India, the Motherland, as you can get inside of Europe”.

We thank Wim for this truly insightful story about the Portuguese culture and lifestyle, its mode of life and thinking, about what to do and not to do in Portugal.

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4 responses to “Adopt, Adapt - Cultural Faux Pas in Portugal Through the Eyes of an Expat”

  1. Bruno Amado says:

    First there is no popular expression “training is for monkeys, education is for humans, education is what matters”.
    Although is true we do value education a bit above practice because we usually “desenrascar”. ;)

    About the tips, you fail to understand the portuguese psychology, we have a bit of superiority/inferiority complex, so when you go to tip someone the usual answer will be a protest, “there is no need” they will say but that is just part of the ritual, you have to insist and justify why you are giving the tip. “the food was delicious, the service was good,…” doesn’t really matter how you justify it as long its plausible. Portuguese dont like to be the target of charity…
    and waiters do receive lower salary because they receive a big part of their income in tips.

    Apart from this the rest of your article has good info on the portuguese.

    1. Katya Klishchuk Katya Klishchuk says:

      Hi Bruno, thank you for sharing your take on the article!

  2. rex potter says:

    Not much of interest in this article except for the man from Portugal who mentioned about the tip. Just common sense to me.

  3. Amber says:

    I am Portuguese and I loved your post. Now regarding tips, they are not mandatory and waiters love it because the salaries of Portuguese workers are very low. We live in Southern Europe, Portugal is a “small Brazil” and it will take ages and a very different mindset in order for Portugal to achieve social equality. This is one of the very few European countries that prefers to employ foreigners over its nationals. It shouldn’t be this way but Portuguese prefer what is foreign with the exception of football ( another similarity to Brazil). So do enjoy our country while it is still peaceful. :)

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