What a Month in Portugal Taught Me about Home


In the autumn of last year I spent a month in Portugal visiting my wife’s sister and her husband. We traveled from Lisbon to Porto to the Algarve to a bunch of little towns with fabulous old tourist trap castles. We loved it.

And travel broadens the mind.

Here’s what we learned about the Portuguese culture: motherfuckers will just lie to your face. Also, they couldn’t stand to be told what they couldn’t do, or to be criticized.

I talked about this with my brother-in-law and a few other expats at some length. The upshot:

  • The Portuguese people are extremely friendly, helpful, and polite.
  • They’re also very passive aggressive.
  • The desire to avoid conflict is so strong that people will straight up lie to your face: “We aren’t allowed/That doesn’t work that way/We ran out/” and so on. Anything to smooth things over.
  • They don’t even lie convincingly. Why bother, since no one will call them on it?
  • The person who “creates” conflict by pointing out another person’s misdeed is in the wrong.

For example, your friend asks you to meet for coffee at 11 am. You’re there on time, but they show up an hour late. The expectation is that you say nothing about having your time wasted, or being made to wait. If you complain, they get offended.

For example, a piece of tech you bought does not do what you were told it could do, so you return to the store. The person at the counter tells you no no, that’s impossible. You’re sure they’re wrong, but the other counter staff backs them up. As you’re leaving the tech-savvy employee who sold it to you in the first place spots you and you strike up a conversation. You repeat your problem to him and he takes you in the back room and tells you that you were right, here’s how that works. The staff at the counter, they just don’t know how to deal with it. You suggest going over to the staff to explain so they’ll get it right for the next customer. The tech-savvy employee shakes his head. Oh, no. No, we can’t do that.

For example, a co-worker breaks the rules of the office. You tell them to stop because they’re making work difficult. They become offended and insist they can do what they like. You lose your temper. Who does management pull aside and demand a written apology from? Not the co-worker.

On our first full day in Lisbon, my sister-in-law arranged for a tour of the city in a tuk-tuk. Our guide was a friendly, outgoing guy who never stopped smiling–until he parked his vehicle in a no-parking space, and a cop told him to move it. Hey, it’s not like the spot wasn’t clearly marked, but after he complied he was livid for five very long minutes, just furious at being told he couldn’t do something he wanted to do.

That’s the secondary effect of a culture where criticism or conflict is frowned upon: people do what they like because they don’t expect to be taken to task. Corruption in Portugal is worse than in any Western European state except Spain. The sidewalks of downtown Lisbon have metal posts to prevent drivers from hopping the curb.

And of course problems can’t be fixed because you can’t tell people they’re doing it wrong.

When I returned to the US, I was glad to be back. Not that Portugal wasn’t great; it was. It’s a beautiful country with a ton of history and great wine. I got to see family, visit new places, eat new (mostly mediocre) foods, and spend a ton of time with my son.

Still, it was good to be home where, when wait staff lied to me, they actually put some effort into it.

A year later, it suddenly occurred to me that the US is very like the Portuguese in one area: the way white Americans handle race. For years, I’ve been watching the way white people freak the fuck out when someone points out their racism but I hadn’t noticed the parallels until recently: The way people act as though criticism is the start of the offensive behavior and the reluctance of many to offer criticism. The anger that anyone would dare. The way people lie about it to themselves and everyone around them. And, when you add in the typically American way many white folks have tried to make discussions of race a matter of partisan political positioning, you get people doing all kinds of outright racist bullshit because they consider all criticism illegitimate.

It sucks and I don’t have a good solution except to not be Portuguese about the issue. Speak clearly and honestly. Use techniques that reduce racism. Be kind to yourself and the people who need you. Accept that changing culture is the work of generations and it won’t be easy.