Sunday, August 21, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Etiquette and the foreign stranger

It is never easy to move to a new place. Given that there is a whole world that one has to not simply construct, but for oneself, one should consider oneself lucky if the locals are warm, welcoming and hospitable. In a single word, if they are ‘nice’.

There should be no doubt that the Lisbãocars are ‘nice’. The Portuguese are a good-natured people, kind and helpful, but they leave much to be desired when it comes to being welcoming and hospitable. This realization is especially stunning when you grow up in those nostalgic Goan circles and hear of how the Portuguese embraced Goans on the streets after the sad news of 1961; or of how some Portuguese continue to embrace you as ‘one of us’ when they know you are Goan (this last anecdote is in fact true, heart-warmingly so). All of this embracing does not necessarily translate however, into their welcoming you into their home, their family, or their circle of friends. They will smile at you in the street, chat with you there, help you even, but that is where it will end.

This is the experience of a number of foreigners who come to this paradisaical gem of a country expecting an open ‘Mediterranean’ society and face the same bewildering response. Portuguese colleagues who have lived abroad explain the situation with a most pained expression. They tell us that the Portuguese person takes time to get to know you; they take time to open up to you. But when they do, they assure us, you can be assured of solid, almost familial relationships that will hold you up forever.

This may be true, but in the meantime the good folk definitely make it difficult for you to get to know them. There is this other curious feature a foreigner notices; one that elicits embarrassed titters from Portuguese friends when recounted. Assume you are the foreigner, new in town, invited to this party by an acquaintance. ‘This is it’, you think to yourself, ‘this is my lucky break, I will meet people, get to know them, and my social isolation among other foreigners will end.’ But then it is not as simple as that, for when you go to the party, either with this acquaintance, or with the promise of meeting up at the party, you realize that you are not being introduced to anyone!

Ask the friendly foreign-returned Portuguese and they will assure you that it is nothing personal, but another Portuguese tradition. The Portuguese apparently do not engage in the ritual of introducing a stranger to the group to facilitate conversation and entry into the group. How is one to explain this situation? Perhaps by realizing that other technique to getting around in Portuguese society; you should be a part of the circle. If you are then you don’t need to be introduced, if you are not, then well you don’t belong here in the first place!

This logic can be quite punishing it turns out. One hears stories of how when two people get together in a relationship, whether within marriage or outside of it, one continues to have 'my friends' and 'your friends', with the two circles of friends not quite meeting. Oftentime there can be a situation where one lets go of one's own friend circle and sticks to the circle of one's partner. The tragedy is, according to telling of one persons experience, that if and when one separates from the partner, one realizes that one has also lost a whole new social circuit and has to start over from scratch!

A good number of Portuguese are quite happy to blame two institutions for this sort of cagey behavior, the trauma of life under the Estado Novo, and the Catholic Church. While not denying this possibility, this may be a bit of an overstatement. The quirks highlighted are also essential to the kind of hierarchical society that this column has earlier observed Portuguese society to be. In which case, the Estado Novo and the Catholic Church, while adding their own contributions to Portuguese society, were also fundamentally creations of and sustained by the same society that is today marked by the social norms that makes a foreigner’s smooth entry into Portuguese society a Herculean challenge!

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo, 21 August 2011)

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