There was a crisp knock-knock on our apartment door the other day and since our old building’s intercom has been broken for some time, we don’t have the benefit of communicating with people from the lobby intercom system nor buzzing them up. So who is coming up to the 4th floor to get our attention?
When I opened our apartment door there was our bubbling mailman, Nuno, with a big smile and an official letter in hand. “Looks like you’ll be staying!” he exclaimed, holding an envelope and noting that the letter was from IMT, Portugal’s department of motor vehicles. We barely know the man, having interacted with him on a couple of other occasions and learned his name. But this was a moment to celebrate, after more than 6 months, Ron got his Portugal driver’s license!
In America that exchange with the postman we barely know might have been a little creepy. But in Portugal, it’s yet another precious and rich interaction with a citizen of the country we now call home.
Not a day goes by that Ron and I don’t exchange knowing glances – often verbalizing, “Aren’t these people lovely?!”. Usually the interaction has us on the receiving end of a kindness extended and a generosity of spirit – that transcends any transaction.
Relationships, Social Connections and Community
If you’ve visited or now live in Portugal, chances are you know what I’m talking about. Oh yes, there can be those moments where we bump up against an unhappy person with a brusque attitude. But those times are minuscule in comparison to the open-arms reception we usually receive among the Portuguese.
There are countless Facebook pages that focus on the experiences of American expats/immigrants living or making the transition to live in Portugal. And in the chat threads Americans frequently recount heartfelt interactions with Portuguese. I remember one person, an American expat, reporting their experience of waiting in line to check-out at the grocery store. The elderly man in front of them was chatting with the cashier well beyond the time it took for him to bag and pay. Once he did shuffle off, the cashier turned her attention to the person reporting the experience and apologized for the extra time it took, saying the senior citizen was recently widowed and alone and needed a little friendly conversation. The commenter was touched by the thoughtfulness in this outreach. Others in the thread wholeheartedly agreed. The subtext of such experiences is that they’re in stark contrast to the “keep it moving” hustle and bustle of American culture.
A Great Big Hug versus Rugged Individualism
While it's challenging to definitively compare the relationship-based infrastructure of Portugal to the United States, there are certain factors that may contribute to the perception of Portugal having a more warm and fuzzy feel.
For example, Portugal, like many Mediterranean countries (and Portugal is considered a Mediterranean country), has a long history of close-knit communities and social connections. Traditional Portuguese culture places a strong emphasis on interpersonal relationships and extended family ties.
Of course, Americans can be friendly and welcoming, but digging into sociological roots, there’s a greater emphasis on personal space and independence among Americans. Individualism is considered a strong value in American society. (Remember the term “rugged individualism” applied to the American frontier experience – relying on self-sufficiency to survive?)
The size of the two countries is also theorized to contribute to the difference in social cohesion and connection. Portugal has more than 10 million people living in a compact area about the size of the state of Indiana. The U.S. on the other hand, has about 330 million people spread over a vast space (107 times bigger than Portugal) resulting in a more diverse and geographically far-flung society.
Given this, America’s sheer size and uneven population density can make it challenging to maintain a tightly knitted relationship-based infrastructure. In addition, the U.S. with its long history of suburban sprawl and car-centric infrastructure, begets more individualistic and less relationship-oriented communities. Itty-bitty Portugal, so it goes, with its higher population density lends itself to nurturing closer social connections and more localized relationships.
Of course, these kind of generalizations about entire populations can be misleading because peoples’ behaviors and attitudes vary greatly within any country. However, if you have had personal experiences that have shaped your perspectives about this, I (and a whole bunch of other readers) would love to hear them. I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section or connect with me via email.
Becca Williams is settling into small town living in Lagos, a seaside town on Portugal’s southern coast. Contact her at AlgarveBecca@gmail.com
Becca Williams is originally from America but is now settling into small town living in Lagos, a seaside town on Portugal’s southern coast. Contact her at AlgarveBecca@gmail.com