We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Portugal

Portuguese people feel a sincere happiness when helping tourists so don’t feel ashamed to ask for help. If you make an effort to speak some Portuguese with the people there, it can go a long way. A large percentage of the younger population speak English and many Portuguese understand basic Spanish. Although Portuguese people will understand some basic Spanish vocabulary, try to use it only in emergencies, since it is generally seen as disrespectful if you are a non-Spanish native yourself. If used be prepared to be hear something like “In Portugal people speak Portuguese, not Spanish” or they will simply reply that they don’t understand you even if they do.

Most probably they will not say anything and will still help you, but they will not like it inside. This is due to historical rivalry between Spain and Portugal. It is best to speak in English or your native language with the resource of hand signs or at the very least starting a conversation with Portuguese, then switching to English can be a successful technique to obtain this type of help. Although not strict, when visiting churches or other religious monuments, try to wear appropriate clothes. That means that shoulders and knees should be covered.

Smoking in public enclosed places (taxis and transport, shops and malls, cafés and hotels, etc.) is not allowed and is subject to a fine, unless in places showing the appropriate blue sign. It is not unusual for women to sunbathe topless in the beaches of Portugal, and there are several naturist beaches too. Thong bikinis are acceptable throughout the country’s beaches. There are no serious political or social issues to be avoided, although see Reintegration below.

Portugal Culture photo

Photo by pedrosimoes7

Although a Catholic country (almost 90% of Portuguese consider themselves to be Catholic) only as much as 19% practice this faith (known as Lapsed Catholic). As a result when discussing religion with a Portuguese don’t expect much knowledge about church practices or support towards some of their beliefs and opinions (e.g. Use of condoms, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, etc). In Portugal religion is not seen as a valid argument when discussing politics. As such abortion in Portugal was legalized in 2007 and same sex marriage in 2010. Portugal in general is a gay friendly country, but don’t expect the same openness in rural and small places that you get in the bigger cities like Lisbon or Porto. Public display of affection between gay couples can be seen as a curiosity and in some cases as inappropriate depending on the place and the kind of display.

Gays and lesbians in Lisbon are respected as the city itself has a big gay scene with lots of bars, night clubs, restaurants, cafes, saunas and beaches. Most of the “gay-friendly” places are located in the quarters of Bairro Alto, Chiado and Princípe Real. Don’t be surprised if you came across women/girls holding hands or holding arms with each other, this is considered normal and a sign of friendship; it doesn’t mean they are lesbians. Since September 2007, the age of consent laws in Portugal states 14 years old, regardless of sexual behaviour, gender and/or sexual orientation. Althought the age of consent is stipulated at 14, the legality of a sexual act with a minor between 14 and 16 is open to legal interpretation since the law states that is illegal to perform a sexual act with an adolescent between 14 and 16 years old “by taking advantage of their inexperience”.

Some cities in Portugal still stage bullfighting events. In Portugal it is illegal, contrary to what happens in Spain, to kill the bull during the bullfight. However, it is totally wrong to assume that all Portuguese people support or even faintly like bullfights. Many Portuguese are indifferent to bullfighting or are offended by acts of cruelty. You might also end up offending someone if you make generalizations or insist that bullfighting is part of today’s Portuguese culture. The Municipality of Barrancos (border town with Spain) actively defy the law and law enforcement agents and kill the bull in the arena. Contrary to what many think Portuguese language does not descend from Spanish.

Tread lightly on the Reintegrationism issue. Galician language is closely related to Portuguese. Both descend from a Romance language of the Middle Ages now referred to as Galician-Portuguese not Spanish. The independence of Portugal since the late Middle Ages has favored the divergence of the Galician language (developed under Spanish influence and now spoken in the Spanish province of Galicia) and Portuguese (developed as a free language). Never the less the two languages maintain an 85% mutual intelligibility. Most Portuguese people are indifferent to the Reintegrationism movement that defends the unity of today Galician and Portuguese as a single language, but for the Galicians and some Spanish and Portuguese this is a hot political topic.

Although Portugal will not translate or dub or even put subtitles when Galician is being spoken, the language cannot be officially recognized as Portuguese due to the Spanish government obstacle. Both Portugal (specially the north of the country) and Galicia, share a close cultural similarity, hence the joint participation for UNESCO Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, that was approved by UNESCO in 2001. They also entered to get the recognition of Cultural Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, that did not meet the criteria of the judges from UNESCO.

There have been many political debate in Galicia about this issues, specially to get Portuguese tv channels broadcasts and Portuguese as an obligatory discipline in schools. Despite the close historical and cultural heritage, that is cherished by Portuguese and Galician people, we can state that today’s Galicians are proud Spanish people or are in many cases more likely to want the independence from Spain rather than to merge with Portugal, even though many active Reintegrationism groups defend a merge . This is a political debate with many different implications and you will have people from both countries to have every kind of different opinions about it, so if you don’t want to offend someone you should avoid this issue.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Portugal, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Portugal food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Portugal and No miss drinks in Portugal.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Portugal? Please comment below.