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Cultural Commandments for Portugal

Cultural_Commandments_for_Portugal_bGuidelines for successful communication across cultures

Under King Alfonso Henriques, Portugal won independence from the Kingdom of León – these days part of the Spanish autonomous community of Castile and León – in 1139, and its present-day borders have existed since 1297 (notwithstanding a 60-year period of Spanish rule from 1580 to 1640). The division made sense: the Portuguese fishermen, sailors, foresters and fruit growers were too unlike the migratory shepherds on the Castilian plateau to share any lasting future with them.

Portugal is an Atlantic country; Spain is principally Mediterranean. The Portuguese, with their backs to Spain, face the ocean and the Western Hemisphere. Looking out at the Atlantic from Vasco da Gama’s statue on the seashore of his home town of Sines, you get a sense of why the Portuguese sailed forth beyond the horizon. Cut off from Europe by Spanish land, they instead made use of easy sea routes to the British Isles, the African coast, Madeira, the Canary Islands, the Azores and ultimately the Americas. The Atlantic provided Portugal with an unhindered link to England, a long-standing ally against Spain and (later) Napoleon’s France; and it likewise facilitated overseas exploration at a time when colonisation was opening up empires for England, France, Spain and Holland. A 500-mile strip of sea coast destined Portugal to join these great maritime powers and acquire an enormous empire of its own.

The following tips are offered for doing business in Portugal:

REMEMBER TO CLEARLY DISTINGUISH THE PORTUGUESE FROM SPANIARDS If the Portuguese were not very different from the Spaniards, Portugal would not exist.  The Iberian Peninsula seems geographically formed for unity, and there are Spaniards who still subconsciously view it as belonging to Spain; however the Portuguese have their own style, which you may find a little more reserved and more formal than their neighbours’.


AVOID BEING BRUSQUE Although vertical hierarchy is the norm in Portugal, it has been observed that managers there tend to avoid direct conflict with staff members, instead employing subtle, non-confrontational communication techniques that include a benign manner of address and a willingness to consider the personal problems of their subordinates.


REMEMBER THE COUNTRY’S INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK The Portuguese have excellent language skills, especially in English. There are historical reasons for this: Churchill called Portugal the UK’s ‘oldest ally’. Although they are not touchy about national honour, Portugal’s imperial past is very important to them, as is having an international outlook – never ‘talk down’ under the assumption that you are more cosmopolitan. Gentle advice is nonetheless appreciated.

HONE UP ON YOUR NEGOTIATION SKILLS  Centuries of trading have made the Portuguese extremely skilled at negotiation – for example, they got themselves very good terms for entry into the European Common Market. Their style is to be cheerful and communicative at the start, establishing a rapport. The Portuguese are, after all, ‘multi-active’ people and great ice-breakers. You may be shown quick trust at business meetings, and this should be reciprocated, but be aware that suspicions may persist beneath the surface. Negotiation in Portugal is quick, perceptive and opportunistic. Exercise maximum flexibility.


BE WELL-PREPARED For the Portuguese, unlike Latins in general, planning is important – putting things in writing matters. This is not only a legacy of borrowing from the Napoleonic model, but a reflection of the view, held in startling contrast to the Spaniards, that well-expressed documents help protect against uncertainty and ambiguity.


ESTABLISH CLOSENESS AND SHOW COMPASSION AT ALL TIMES As among other Latin cultures, it helps to show closeness and compassion. However, bear in mind that the Portuguese do not tend to be as extrovert or demonstrative as other Southern Europeans with strangers.


LISTEN AT LENGTH If you are from a Northern culture, it is possible that you will find discussions and conversations to be rather long-winded and circuitous. Try to show patience and learn to listen at length, especially to personal problems.


SHOW GENEROUS HOSPITALITY Generous by nature, the Portuguese will tend to entertain lavishly in
between meetings. Friendship is important for business, and this tends to be established by socialising together.


ACCEPT SOME BUREAUCRACY As already mentioned, the Portuguese borrowed from the Napoleonic model, and this included a robust bureaucratic tradition which may incite frustration among those from less ‘administrative’ cultures. It is better not to resist – you are not going to change the system.


KNOW WHAT SAUDADE MEANS Saudade is a distinctively Portuguese concept that could be described as a feeling of nostalgic longing for something (or someone) that one was fond of and which is now lost. It has a fatalistic tinge and an unexpressed but hinted at knowledge that the object of longing might never return. Saudade can be a longing not only for the past but also for an unattainable future. There is not enough space here to fully describe such a complex emotion; but if you find yourself in Lisbon late at night, go and listen to some fado singing in a small bar  – then you will get a real sense of what Saudade means.


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