A quick guide to the Portuguese manners

A quick guide to the Portuguese manners

Let’s be honest: no-one is able to learn more than 5 or 6 expressions and understand all the non-verbal cues of a foreign language in just a couple of days. It’s probably a safer bet sticking to basics and getting to know just the right gestures to engage with people on your travel destination, and make a meaningful reciprocal connection.

Let’s see… the basics of the basics: greetings!

In Portugal we use “good morning/afternoon/night” in basically any situation, so it’s safe for you to greet someone like this anywhere.

  • Bom dia – Good morning (until lunch time)
  • Boa tarde – Good afternoon (until sunset)
  • Boa noite – Good night (after sunset)

Occasionally, if you think it’s appropriate to be more informal, you can say the predictable “Hello”, which in Portuguese is “Olá”.

Second part of greetings: the gestures. In Portugal the simple handshake should be OK for everyone, but in some contexts, we exchange two pecks on the cheek (usually between women or between a woman and a man, between men it’s just a handshake.)

And of course, thanks!

It is very easy to say “thank” you in Portuguese:

  • Men say “Obrigado”
  • Women say “Obrigada”

The only thing to have in mind when thanking someone is that gender matters: The word is in fact a Past Participle that should agree with the subject, in this case: you the grateful speaker. When someone does you a favor, you feel grateful and obliged to that person. So, the word Obrigado/a actually means “I’m indebted to you”.

Second step: what do I do with my hands?

You’ll probably find two types of Portuguese people: the ones who use hand gestures constantly and the ones who don´t use them at all.

Here are some things you might need to know so you don’t get confused when you happen to see them.

If you have a meal with someone, there are two gestures you can encounter:

  • If a person pinches their ear lobe with the thumb and index fingers, that means the food is delicious.
  • If someone puts a hand over their stomach, it means they’re full. Especially used as a response to the host offering more food or desert, and they really can’t manage any more.

If you’re in the middle of a meeting or conference:

  • Forming a T with the hands means that you should wait a little.
  • If someone points to their wrist, even if they aren’t wearing a watch, they are telling you that “it’s time” or that you’re running late, depending on the situation.
  • The typical OK sign may be offensive in some countries, but is pretty common in Portugal, you can use it without any problem.
  • Using the index finger to point at someone is considered very impolite. But pointing at objects or directions is usually fine.

Third step: how should I do it?

  • In the Portuguese culture, every meal is an opportunity to catch up. Be it a business lunch or dinner with friends, we may take this chance to informally discuss some important matter or simply talk about life in general. Talking over a meal is a sign that you are comfortable and close to the rest of the group.
  • Speaking of meals, when you’re someone’s guest, make an effort to not leave food on the plate once you’re done. Your host may assume you didn’t like the food.
  •  During a toast, everyone raises their glasses and says ‘Saúde!’ (‘To your health!’).
  • Moving on from food, if you use any car services like cab, Uber or similar, we tend to sit on the backseat of the car. If you want to sit up front, asking the driver if that’s OK with him/her is a nice thing to do.
  • If someone offers you a gift, etiquette requires you to open it in front of the person that gave it to you. In the same way, if you present an offer, expect that they’ll open it in front of you. It’s considered good manners to show interest and thank the giver, as the gift is being unwrapped.
  • It is common to ask people to go for a beer after work or a drink after dinner. Don’t fret if someone invites you, it’s usually just a friendly invite.
  • Avoid comparing Portugal to Spain or assuming similarities between the two countries. Despite our geographical proximity, our cultures are quite distinct and we don’t really appreciate being lumped together.