Practical guide to Portuguese business culture
Sections of this guide
General business culture
Behaving in public
Only 30 years ago, Portugal still had a poor backward agrarian economy propped up by wealth stripped from its colonies. While the changes since have been dramatic, Portugal has not yet fully taken on board the requirements for competitiveness in a modern market economy.
There are many aspects of Portuguese business culture which are generally regarded (including by the Portuguese themselves) as anti-competitive, for example:
An analysis of Portuguese business culture as viewed by foreigners working here can be found in a much quoted report "Can Portuguese management compete?" by the author of this section, available free on request at: www.adcapita.com (See under "Resources"). It is important to be prepared for frustration and the possibility of being ripped off. However, while there certainly is some corruption and a lot of petty dishonesty, the underlying current is generally fair and honest. The key is patience and a willingness to unobtrusively educate your business partners into your way of doing things. The carrot is generally more effective than the stick but an occasional "whack" is useful. On the other hand, take care to adapt to the good side of Portuguese or, more generally, Latin culture.
Overall, the biggest strength here is a willingness to be flexible and to learn. There is respect and admiration for more advanced methods and economies. Provided that these values can be instilled sensitively, you will find that there is considerable creativity and drive to resolve problems and adaptation to circumstances.
The most important environmental factors are the bureaucracy and extremely slow and ineffective justice system. Any interaction with the State takes much longer than it should. Contracts really are just pieces of paper because the courts are so slow (five to ten years is typical in company law disputes), although they are not generally corrupt.
Employment laws are very tough and there is a culture of state involvement in business and collectivist policies.
Status is important. The use of academic titles (See How to address people), the trimmings of executive remuneration and other symbols are powerful. For example, car brand and model are astonishingly significant perks here - often more than the salary itself. Job title and rank are less significant although it is important to know who really takes the decision in a deal but that is true in all cultures and business situations.
The obverse of status is deference. Bosses tend to be dictators and their staff buck-passers. There is exaggerated deference to superiors, academic titles and, be prepared, foreigners. (The Portuguese are extraordinarily and charmingly self-critical. Almost everything foreign is viewed as being better. They are extremely welcoming to foreigners: it is the most xenophilious culture I know). The biggest downside is a profound unwillingness properly to challenge authority and the status quo.
Teamwork is weak, exactly because people don't like challenging authority. They also tend first to analyse their personal interest in an action or deal. Understanding hidden agendas is an important skill.
At the same time, individuals avoid taking responsibility. Neither blame nor credit is taken. Even high up in organisations, when things go wrong it's always the fault of a colleague, a competitor, the government, the economy, or just "the way things are" with a helpless shrug. People do not seek empowerment and it can be difficult to find someone who will take personal responsibility for the carrying out of a course of action, a deal or an event.
The workplace can be somewhat formal with even close colleagues using titles and last names. There is great variability in this aspect, however.
If responsibility avoidance is the biggest problem, then the non-fulfilment of commitments is the most serious corollary. Never assume that a commitment - however clearly made - will be fulfilled without constant vigilance and cajolery.
You will find great personal warmth here. It is expressed undemonstratively but sincerely - if some tells you to "have a nice day", they actually mean it. Developing good personal relationships is very important in business and will often be at least as significant a factor as the product or service offering itself.
Because planning is poor and deadlines viewed with a very "relaxed" eye, Portuguese business people are expert at dealing with the last minute crisis. There is always someone around who will fix it or find a creative way through. Of course, the solution may well be a kludge but a solution will be found.
Psychologically and sociologically the Portuguese are very well adjusted, with a flexible balance between home and work, family and business. They are pacific and dislike confrontation. It is a remarkably non-violent society. Dispute is typically resolved through discourse, negotiation or avoidance.
As mentioned above, the Portuguese are willing to learn new approaches and be flexible in the way they do things.
Copyright © 2005 Clive Viegas Bennett
Strategy and tactics
Copyright © 2005 Clive Viegas Bennett
In general the Portuguese are relaxed about etiquette and public behaviour, 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 amongst the worst drivers in Europe. They are not as fast as the Italians but much less competent. 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 and departing, however many times you've met them before. Women often kiss on meeting (with men and women), usually one 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 behaviours to avoid, different from other European cultures:
Smoking is fairly widespread but ask before lighting-up to make sure, as more and more offices - and some individuals - are non-smoking.
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" and "thank you" are used less liberally in the language than, say, by the British but the rules are not rigid about this.
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 moderately sexist culture but men are used to women in positions of authority, so while you are unlikely to come across much overtly sexist behaviour, do not be totally surprised if they arise. You are, of course, free to comment on them, politely.
Copyright © 2005 Clive Viegas Bennett
It is usual for people to have very long names. Usually the first in the list is the first name, the rest (as many as five or six, although not usually all set out on business cards etc) are family names. The exception is that some women's names are compound, usually with Maria as the first part (e.g. Maria Luisa, Maria Teresa), in which case it is common to drop the "Maria" and just use the second half (Luisa, Teresa, etc).
The rest of the family names are built up from various generations alternating through the Mother's and Father's sides. The very last name is usually the last name for purposes of addressing a person but it is common for the last two to be used - it's a matter of listening to how they are referred to by others but you won't offend by just using the last name as family name. Note that this is slightly different from the similar Spanish system of names.
Titles in Portugal are a minefield which can take years to traverse.
The simplest is not to try to understand and to use the English "Mr lastname" and "Ms lastname". Do not use first names unless invited.
Don't be fazed if they call you Mr/Ms/Mrs firstname or slip in a Dr or whatever, even if you're not an MD or PhD. They may well use Mrs, without any intended indication of marital status, as there is none in the Portuguese and many have not been taught at school that the "Ms" title was invented 50 years ago and in use for at least 30.
In many companies close and long term colleagues can still refer to each other quite formally.
If you really want to use Portuguese titles, you have to be careful to avoid giving offence. Otherwise, all you need to know is that the Dr title refers to someone with a normal degree (slightly more than Batchelor's) and not a PhD or MD. I explain the Byzantine details in the next section for the curious.
People will not be offended if you have difficulty pronouncing their name but will be very pleased if you ask them to explain how to pronounce it correctly.
The system of Portuguese titles
Having a Degree entitles you to use "Dr" (or Dra = "Doutora" for a woman), unless it's in engineering in which case the title is Engº or Engª ("Engenheiro", "Engenheira") or in architecture in which case it's Arqº or Arqª ("Arquitecto", "Arquitecta")
Having a Masters Degree theoretically entitles you to the title "Mestre" but this is only used in formal or written situations in the academic world. People with doctorates (PhD but not MD) are titled as Professor ("Professor Doutor"), so don't assume a Professor holds a professorial chair or is even a university teacher.
When addressing someone by last name use "Senhor (or Doutor etc if applicable) last name" for a man and "Senhora Dona first name" for a woman without a degree etc or "Doutora (etc) last name" "Senhor first name" is used but is often for "inferior" ranks or foreigners whose surnames they can't manage. The Brazilian usage "Dona first name" is incorrect in Portugal but is slipping in though the Brazilian soaps on TV.
Just to add further confusion Senhor (etc) first name last name is also not uncommon, as is addressing people very informally (even close friends) just by last name.
Unfortunately, being titled "Dr" etc is a business and social advantage and will get you meetings and respect you might not otherwise get. Like it or not, if you're going to work here for a while and have a degree, get them to use the title. The trouble is, you should never introduce yourself as "Dr.Smith" (or whatever), unless you're a PhD/MD and speaking in English to someone who understands the US/UK system, as this is very bad form. Instead, slip in a casual reference to your university or degree somewhere in a conversation and it will probably be picked up, although foreign names seem to confuse the system sometimes and you'll still be a Senhor or Senhora Dona. The last resort is to get an assistant or secretary to refer to you in Portuguese as "Dr Smith" to a third party. Yes, it is a pain.
I won't explain the various degrees of formality/informality in address here (e.g.second and third person usage), as that requires more Portuguese, several pages of explanation and an anthropological mindset.
Copyright © 2005 Clive Viegas Bennett
General linguistic culture
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. When speaking English or French, unless your interlocutor is totally fluent, take care to speak clearly and slowly and not to use slang or idiomatic expressions, just as in any other non-English speaking country. Don't forget that humorous asides and jokes often don't work cross culturally and are difficult to understand.
If you live here for more than a couple of years, it will be viewed as somewhat insulting - or an indication of intellectual inability on your part - if you do not learn the language.
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 How to address people), the mode of conversation is reasonably informal but still more formal than in the 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.
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 humour and it can be useful to break the ice, although going straight into anecdotes and backslapping is not a good idea. Political humour 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 cinema means that they're used to the odd s*** etc, as long is it's not in Portuguese.
The family is important here, so feel free to talk about your family and home.
Topics to avoid
Welcome topics of conversation
Breakfast meetings are generally viewed as a barbaric invention but they will be accepted in companies used to working with North American partners.
Dinner is for entertainment, celebration or the family rather than for business discussion. You should not target dinner for negotiating a deal. If you're over from abroad, Portuguese hospitality means that your contacts will almost certainly invite you out to dinner and expect for you just to enjoy yourselves rather than work for your meal. Dinner is usually at about 8pm and is unlikely to finish before 11pm.
Lunch is the key business event: I would estimate that most deals are made at lunch. Don't even think of a sandwich lunch over the meeting table! While some international companies do this, it is not appreciated by the Portuguese, who like to eat real, cooked food.
Lunch is usually at 1pm. Allow plenty of time for lunch (1 hour is a snack, an hour-and-a-half is normal, two or more hours is for important business).
The idea for lunch is to get to know your business partner as a person. Unless it is unavoidable you should only talk business at the end of the meal when the coffee arrives. If you need to pack in more business conversation, suggest meeting at the office for half an hour or so before going on to lunch (rather than afterwards). Conversation during the meal can be very wide ranging and personal.
Wine is often drunk - virtually always at dinner - although more and more business people drink water at lunch for a longer "serious" meal. Drinking spirits (e.g. whisky) with the food is thought to be very strange but beer is fine.
Food and wines
Portuguese food is good and generally simply cooked. On coastal areas such as Lisbon, the fish is excellent, fresh and very varied. Take care with the salted codfish ("Bacalhau"). This can be cooked in literally hundreds of ways, many delicious, but the simplest and most traditional method gives you a lump of boiled or steamed very strong tasting salty fish. Otherwise they have good beef, pork, chicken, kid and lamb.
It is fairly difficult to get vegetarian food, other than a bit of lettuce and grated carrot and special diets such as Kosher or Halal, are almost impossible.
There are some outstanding wines, especially red. Ask your host or the waiter for advice. The well known white and rosé Portuguese wine brands you see at home in the supermarket are virtually never drunk by the Portuguese. Of course Port wine is world-beating. Dry white port can be drunk as an aperitif and red (including vintage) as a digestif but the Portuguese themselves tend to prefer whisky or brandy.
There are few restrictions on smoking in restaurants, including cigars.
Coffee here is excellent - I believe the best in Europe. The standard coffee is small black espresso type and if you just ask for a coffee, that is what you'll get. However, any restaurant or café will happily produce just about any other type (there's a bewildering long list of names), if you just explain how you want it.
Other cuisines are represented but generally only in the cities and very rarely with the quality you would expect in, say, New York or London. The assumption is that Portugal has its own gastronomic culture and so you come to eat Portuguese food.
Having said that the ubiquitous US fast food chains extend around the country, so if you're desperate for a Big Mac, KFC or pizza, don't panic.
Home and family
The Portuguese seldom have dinner parties at home and do not routinely take business guests into their homes. If you are invited home to meet the family, take this as a major compliment and sign of respect.
As mentioned in the gifts section, you should try to get a gift for any children - even a token like some chocolates or candies. You are likely to meet the children and even fairly young children may dine with the adults. Physical demonstrations of affection and appropriate touching of children are normal, even from perfect strangers.
Inviting and paying
It is normal to invite a business contact for a meal. Dinner is more social or intimate than lunch. If you do invite your Portuguese contacts out, ask them to choose the restaurant, although you can specify any preferences (typically Portuguese, seafood, with a view, downtown, whatever). Most hotel restaurants (with one or two notable exceptions), are rather blandly international and so are not recommended if you want to cement cultural ties.
The Portuguese will usually try to pay for a foreign guest's meal as part of the culture of hospitality. If you wish to pay, just make it clear you're inviting and get the waiter to bring you the bill. Take care with this as the waiter will usually assume that the Portuguese "host" will want the bill. When you want the bill call his or her attention with the usual "writing in the air" sign.
If you want something, it is perfectly OK to signal to a waiter yourself and ask for whatever is missing.
Service charges are not included in the bill. You should tip but don't exaggerate - 10% is pretty generous. If you need the bill for expenses, make sure you ask for a proper receipt ("factura"), as otherwise you may just be given the till receipt.
Most restaurants take credit cards but check for the signs on going in and beware that American Express and Diners are not nearly so widely accepted as VISA.
Colleagues (i.e. where you're at the same hierarchical level and not on a formal supplier/customer relationship), will often split the bill and "go Dutch". (In Portuguese "fazer uma vaquinha" - literally "making a little cow". A prize goes to anyone who can tell me why).
You may be invited to go on to a bar or club afterwards. If you're male, tactfully check what kind of club, as you might not want to go to a place with "hostesses".
If you're invited to a Fado restaurant, where the traditional fado music is performed, beware that, while ethnically fascinating, they're not good for extensive conversation as it is profoundly rude to talk while the singing is going on.
Copyright © 2005 Clive Viegas Bennett
Generally, dress is moderately but not rigidly formal.
It is common, even in fairly formal organisations (except, say, banking and the law), and at a senior level, for men to wear sports jacket with trousers and tie. However, there are subtleties about the "right" kind of jacket, shirt and tie which are too complicated to bother about, so I still always go for the standard suit.
If you need to express status, long sleeved shirts/blouses are important, especially for men. Normally, only foreign men wear short sleeved shirts with a tie.
Women (and often men, for that matter), are clothes brand conscious and will usually dress "well" but not necessarily power dress. Again, go for conservative = safe. Conservative can include trousers for women if as part of a suit or "chic" outfit.
Casual dress (i.e. no tie for men and however you define the equivalent for women), is still not widespread in business at management level, even in many hi-tech/software etc industries, although there are exceptions and some companies have dress down Fridays.
It is fine to take off your jacket in a meeting if you are hot ("Do you mind if I...", is a good idea) but don't roll up your sleeves unless they do.
Socially, follow the normal rules except that people are dress conscious and so clothes (even jeans and T-shirt) should always be coordinated and clean. "Scruffy" is not a part of normal, over-21 dress vocabulary in public.
Particular points: if invited to a meal, men should wear a tie - you can always take it off; theatre (ballet, opera, and classical music concerts), are moderately formal and so a tie is safe but black tie/tuxedo (and equivalents for women) are rarely worn.
Copyright © 2005 Clive Viegas Bennett
It is common to give a gift to a prospective business partner or customer and you will offend if you reject a gift offered to you or, say, make it clear it will be distributed to staff. These gifts are intended to be a personal gesture and mark of respect and not a bribe.
Gifts received should be unwrapped and shown on receipt.
Gifts from your own country or region are especially appreciated.
Quite expensive gifts - a good fountain pen or a piece of porcelain, for example - can be acceptable if that is really appropriate in the business situation and to the status of the person involved.
Suppliers will usually distribute gifts, sometimes quite lavish ones, to customers at Christmas time (this is an almost entirely Christian/non-religious culture).
Spirits (especially whisky) are acceptable but, usually, avoid wine because the Portuguese believe their wine is better than anyone else's (it is pretty good).
Personal dress items such as a tie, scarf or scent are appreciated (although choosing the right scent for women can be very difficult).
If you know your contact has children, then gifts for them rather than (or as well as) your contact are often very successful, as long as you get the age range about right. There is less likely to be the same depth of sensitivity about the kind of present as in, say, the UK.
Your own company branded gifts can be useful but you need to assess whether they will actually be used and their perceived value (e.g. a bunch of cheap pens may not be very effective as a presentation gift). People here do not generally "flag wave" for their company or country as much as in other cultures.
Appropriate coffee table books are often given and received.
You may not be given a gift in return on the same occasion.
Business contacts are not often invited home but if you are, take some flowers or chocolates, not wine. Gifts for any children are very welcome, especially as you are likely to be introduced to them.
Thanking for a gift is usually done verbally but a written note, while not necessary, is always appreciated.
Copyright © 2005 Clive Viegas Bennett
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