Moving abroad is an exciting venture filled with both opportunities and challenges as you learn how to live in a new culture with new norms. Of course, this also includes learning the social etiquette of your new home country. From socializing and interacting with locals to navigating the workplace and more, there is certainly a lot to discover.
So, if you happen to be relocating to Portugal, this article outlines everything you need to know to help you settle into your new home in no time, including:
- Portuguese culture and society
- Gender roles in Portugal
- Meeting and greeting people
- Conversation and communication
- Clothing and dress code
- Dining etiquette in Portugal
- Socializing in Portugal
- Relationships in Portugal
- Celebrations in Portugal
- Portuguese business culture
- Shopping and services
- Regional variations
- Tips on culture and etiquette in Portugal
Portuguese culture and society
While Portuguese people are generally quite conservative, they are also friendly and relaxed, which means that you should be welcomed with open arms. Catholicism continues to influence many aspects of their culture, and while the country has no official religion, roughly 90% of the population is Christian. Other religions practiced there include Protestant denominations and Judaism.
The official language, of course, is Portuguese, and around 96% of the population speaks this. Other common languages include English, Spanish, French, Mirandese, and Portuguese Sign Language (Língua Gestual Portuguesa).
According to a study on national pride in 2017, 69% of the population feels very proud of their national identity. Generally speaking, the Portuguese are tolerant of other groups, and the large gap between the rich and the lower class began to close during the 1970s.
That said, social inequality remains an issue due to class-related barriers to higher education and the country’s high unemployment rates. People of color and the Roma people are particularly marginalized in society, which is largely due to the country’s history of colonization and dictatorship.
However, Portugal has been taking steps to resolve this issue. For instance, the country is a member of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) and has passed several non-discrimination laws in recent years. The government has also implemented the National Plan to Combat Racism and Discrimination 2021-2025 to address and prevent racism in different areas including education, justice, health, housing, and employment.
Gender roles in Portugal
Portugal scores 62.8 (out of a possible 100) on the Gender Equality Index, ranking it in 15th place in the European Union. Until the government reform in the 1970s, society expected women to manage the household and raise children, while men were the breadwinners. However, this all changed with the new constitution of 1976.
Nowadays, 91.7% of laws promote gender equality, with the new constitution granting women equal rights to men, such as the right to vote and the right to work in any profession. Moreover, in 2021, approximately 40% of parliament members were women. Portugal also has a high rate of full-time female employment when compared to other countries in Europe. However, this is partly due to the fact that low salaries created the need for both partners to work.
Despite these advances, gender roles still exist to a degree in Portugal. For instance, in 2022, women were more likely to be responsible for household chores compared to men (78% versus 18%). Moreover, in rural areas in particular, the father is often the primary breadwinner for many families while the mother is expected to care for the home and children.
Of course, this can vary by region and class, with upper-class families and those living in more urban settings taking a more balanced approach. Generally speaking, foreign women receive the same treatment as Portuguese women which is something to keep in mind.
Meeting and greeting people
Like anywhere in the world, it is important to be aware of how to meet and greet the locals. And you might be surprised to learn that the Portuguese are quite conservative and polite in their communication style, regarding modesty and respect above all else.
The most common form of greeting is a handshake, accompanied by a verbal greeting such as olá (hello) or bom dia (good day). This applies to men, women, and children in formal situations when they are addressing someone they don’t know.
During introductions, men are introduced to women, however, if both people are of the same gender, the youngest will be introduced to the oldest. If a man is sitting, he should stand up while being introduced to someone. However, this does not apply to women. When a man greets a woman, he must also wait for her to offer her hand for a handshake.
In formal situations or those involving people you do not know well, it is appropriate to call them Senhor (mister) or Senhora (miss), or by their professional title and first or last name. Meanwhile, in a business setting, the person with the higher rank in the organization decides how they want to greet and address the other person.
Kissing on the cheek
When greeting friends and family, men hug and pat one another on the back, while women kiss both cheeks; starting with the right. When addressing friends, teenagers, or children, it is also acceptable to call them by their first name.
During informal gatherings with family, children greet adults by offering them a kiss on the cheek. Meanwhile, in group settings, you are expected to greet everyone upon arrival and say goodbye to each person when you leave.
Notably, unlike some of their European neighbors, the Portuguese have a relaxed attitude when it comes to punctuality, and it is acceptable to make last-minute changes to plans. This is good news if you prefer a laid-back way of life. That said, if you are planning to visit someone, you should always let them know by calling in advance. If you are visiting a close friend, on the other hand, it is fine to simply knock on their door. Just make sure you avoid visiting people close to mealtimes.
Conversation and communication
Common topics of conversation in Portugal include soccer (the Portuguese might not be as familiar with other sports besides this), food and wine, family and children, culture, music, and travel. Taboo topics to avoid, meanwhile, include religion, politics, the Portuguese Colonial War, personal finances, and racism.
Notably, etiquette in Portugal dictates that it is inappropriate to ask someone how much they paid for something. Similarly, it is not okay to ask about someone’s salary – even among close friends.
During work meetings, you can expect a lot of small talk before getting down to business. In professional settings, it is also important to put all agreements and commitments in writing. This can be in the form of a letter or email.
When writing formal letters or emails, it is appropriate to address the recipient as Prezado Senhor (dear sir) or Prezada Senhora (dear madam). However, if you are writing to a friend, you can address them with the term Querido (dear for a male friend) or Querida (dear for a female friend). One thing to note is that you should avoid using red ink when writing anything, as this is seen as offensive.
Unlike some of their European neighbors, the Portuguese are not overly animated when it comes to body gestures. That said, they do have certain gestures to convey different messages such as waving at someone with your palm down to beckon them. Pointing at someone is also considered to be impolite.
It is also common for friends and family members to touch each other on the arm or pat each other on the back when speaking. During a conversation, people tend to stand less than a foot away from each other, and backing away from the person who is speaking to you is actually considered to be rude.
Clothing and dress code
For the most part, the Portuguese dress modestly. Because they tend to associate clothing with social status, they take great care in looking well-polished, even when dressing casually. As a result, they may spend a little more on expensive clothing to make sure they look their best.
Interestingly, there is little difference between work attire and everyday clothing. Women usually wear dresses, skirts, suits or pantsuits, while men wear a jacket and tie. Casual clothes tend to be on the dressier side. Therefore, ripped jeans, clothing covered with logos, or overly revealing garments may be frowned upon. Women might also wear heels for special occasions such as weddings or formal parties. And it’s important to be aware that some places, such as cathedrals, enforce a conservative dress code.
Dining etiquette in Portugal
Family-style dining is common in restaurants in Portugal. It is customary for the host to serve themself first. Dishes are then passed to the left around the entire table. Once everyone is served, the host will usually say bom apetite or bom proveito before they can all start eating. It is important to note that meals may take longer to eat in Portugal than what you are used to. For example, an almoco de familia, (a traditional family lunch) can sometimes take up to five hours. These are common on Sundays.
There are several rules to follow when it comes to dining in Portugal. For instance, before you start eating, you should put your napkin on your lap. The knife is held in the right hand, while the fork is held in the left hand, and it is not common to switch hands.
To call your waiter over, you can raise your hand and say desculpe! which means ‘excuse me’. You can also use your utensils to signal to them. To let the waiter know that you would like more food, you can place your fork diagonally from the left, and your knife straight down to form a triangle. And if you want to take a break from eating, simply place your utensils next to your plate, rather than on top of it.
When you are finished eating, you can let your waiter know by placing your knife and fork down across the right side of your plate, at the 5:25 position. You can then fold your napkin and put it back on the table. It is also considered polite to leave some food on your plate when you are done eating.
In general, the person who invited the others will pay the bill. However, it is more common among the younger generation to split the bill. Because having dinner – even with coworkers – is considered to be a social event, you should avoid discussing work or business, unless the host brings it up.
Toasting in Portugal is similar to in other parts of the world, and when the host raises their glass for a toast, you should also raise yours.
Socializing in Portugal
As mentioned, the Portuguese consider mealtimes to be social events. Other social activities include watching or playing sports; especially soccer, but also surfing, field hockey, and basketball. They also enjoy taking walks or having picnics. People tend to meet their friends at restaurants, cafes, small parks, beaches, and music festivals.
Drinking alcohol is acceptable at mealtimes and during celebratory occasions in Portugal. In fact, a study in 2023 found that 20% of the population drinks alcohol on a daily basis. According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Portuguese consume 10.4 liters of alcohol per person each year. This amounts to around two bottles of wine each week. However, this doesn’t mean that the Portuguese binge drink or get drunk frequently. Therefore, if you plan to drink, it is best to limit yourself to one or two drinks.
Relationships in Portugal
Dating etiquette in Portugal is similar to other countries in Europe. People tend to meet at work or school, and online dating has also become more popular, especially among young adults. However, public displays of affection such as prolonged kissing are not common, and some may even consider this to be disrespectful. Of course, this does not include hand-holding, hugging, or a brief peck.
The family unit
Family ties are very important to the Portuguese. In fact, it is very common for up to three generations to live in the same house. Young adults usually remain in their family home until they are married. And when they do get married and move out, it is common to live nearby. Extended family members also tend to live in the same area.
Portuguese families tend to be small with couples having just one or two children. Parents are generally very involved in their children’s lives, too. Godparents are also considered to be important extended family members, and parents typically choose them for their children when they are infants.
Given its conservative nature, it is perhaps surprising that Portugal has one of the lowest marriage rates in Europe; with around 3.4 marriages per 1,000 inhabitants. Furthermore, research from the Portuguese National Institute of Statistics (INE) shows that this number is declining. For instance, there were 33,272 marriages in 2019; representing a decrease of 3.9% from 2018. In more than half of the marriages in Portugal (61.1%), the spouses lived together before tying the knot, too, which suggests that people no longer wait until they get married to leave their family home.
Civil partnerships and same-sex marriage are also becoming more accepted as time passes. In fact, INE data shows that there were 2,515 same-sex marriages between 2013 and 2018. Portugal also ranked in the top 10 LGBTQ-friendly countries in 2021. That said, there is still some stigma around same-sex relationships, especially in rural areas. Couples holding hands or kissing in public may also experience harassment.
Celebrations in Portugal
Similar to other nations, the Portuguese celebrate birthdays, weddings, and religious milestones such as baptisms and first communions. These are usually family celebrations and involve giving gifts and cards. Religious festivals and holidays also take place across the country each year. During this time, friends and family members gather to enjoy eating together and celebrating the occasion.
Feliz aniversário means ‘happy birthday’ in Portuguese, and they certainly know how to celebrate in the country. As mentioned, many celebrations revolve around food, and for a birthday, it is typical for adults to go out to dinner. Your friends will usually sing Parabéns a Você (a happy birthday song) and after the meal, someone will bring out the cake. This is sometimes served with wine and coffee. Like in other countries, it is also customary to make a birthday wish. However, the Portuguese are unique in that they do this while biting a candle under the table. There are variations of this tradition such as breaking the candle or simply biting or breaking it without going under the table. The birthday boy or girl must also pay for everyone’s meal, and the friends usually bring gifts.
Children’s birthday parties are similar to those in other parts of the world. Parents typically organize them and invite family and friends. Parties may take place at the child’s home, a local restaurant, or other places like parks and museums. The parents provide the food and drink for the invited children and guests, and they bring presents in return.
Similar to other countries, people in Portugal give gifts at events such as birthdays, weddings, and Christmas. Naturally, the gift and the amount you spend on it will depend on the occasion and your relationship with the person. You should also bring a small gift, such as chocolates or flowers, whenever someone invites you to their house for dinner. Notably, even if your host says not to bring a gift, it is polite to bring one anyway.
Small gifts are also acceptable, and even expected, in business settings. Indeed, customers and business partners often exchange these and don’t consider it to be bribery. Gifts might include things like whiskey, spirits, coffee table books, or scarves. However, flowers are not appropriate in a business setting. And speaking of flowers, make sure you never give someone 13 as this is considered to be unlucky. You should also avoid giving red flowers, lilies, or chrysanthemums as these have negative associations.
When receiving a gift, you should unwrap and open it immediately, and say thank you. Notably, rejecting any gift is seen as offensive. Writing a thank you card is also optional.
Portuguese business culture
Some of the aforementioned etiquette rules in Portugal don’t apply in the business world. For example, during introductions, seniority determines who is introduced to who, regardless of gender or age. The lower-ranking employee is also introduced to the higher-ranking member. Employees are also introduced to visitors or customers.
As mentioned, the Portuguese don’t take punctuality too seriously. In fact, it is common to be between five and fifteen minutes late. That said, it is seen as rude to arrive more than thirty minutes late.
Although they are still formal, the purpose of business meetings is to have a space for discussion, rather than decision-making. Because of this, coming to a solution or decision might take several meetings. During this time, you might also get to know your colleagues on a personal level.
Notably, it is proper etiquette in Portugal to have all correspondence translated into Portuguese, even though many professionals also speak English.
Shopping and services
Portugal has improved in the customer service sphere in recent years, especially in retail and public services. If you need to return a defective item at a retail store, you have 15 days to get a full refund, no questions asked. Some stores have also increased this to 30 days.
However, there are some companies that believe the customer is not always right, and instead, believe that their employees should come first. They may feel that there are some customers worth serving (i.e. those who bring profits) and some not worth serving (i.e. those who don’t). This sometimes creates an atmosphere where customer service is not a priority, and customers feel dissatisfied.
In 2005, Portugal introduced the Livro de Reclamações (the Book of Complaints). If you have an issue with a business and you can’t resolve it, you are able to file a complaint against this company online. In 2022, electronic communications, postal services, and utility companies received the most complaints. You can view a list of places with the highest customer satisfaction in 2022 here.
Interestingly, what was previously just etiquette rules have recently become laws in Portugal. For example, when entering a business or public service building, there are queueing laws to abide by. The law also states that people older than 65 with a disability, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and people with babies or small children go to the front of the line. This applies to supermarkets, restaurants, banks, pharmacies, and any other establishment that serves the public. Moreover, if you meet the criteria and a business refuses to give you priority, you can call the police and the business may face a fine.
Generally speaking, restaurants and other businesses don’t expect or require you to tip. That said, tips are always welcome. There is one exception, however, and that is areas and places that are frequently visited by tourists. In this case, tipping is expected because tourists tend to do so. If you choose to tip, at restaurants, 10% to 15% of the total bill is an acceptable amount. Sometimes, restaurants include the tip in the bill, especially in tourist areas. For taxi services, tipping between 10% and 15% is acceptable.
When it comes to social etiquette in Portugal, there are some regional variations. For example, in parts of Lisbon, friends greet each other with only one kiss on the cheek, instead of two. Moreover, in big cities, strangers don’t greet each other when passing by, whereas they do in small villages.
In addition, while the Portuguese are not sticklers about arriving on time, people from the North tend to be more punctual than those from the South. And finally, tipping is more common in Lisbon and Porto, where service workers expect to get one.
Tips on culture and etiquette in Portugal
- Refer to others by their titles; for example, doctor, Senhor, Senhora – unless they give you permission to use just their first name
- Never speak Spanish to a Portuguese person. While the two languages have similarities, they are not the same language and it is considered bad etiquette in Portugal.
- Don’t call at mealtimes. This means you shouldn’t call before 09:00, between 12:00 and 14:00, and between 20:00 and 21:00.
- Avoid stretching in public as the Portuguese consider this impolite.
- Don’t spit on the ground or litter as the Portuguese consider this disrespectful.