I am from NYC. I grew up in the city. I curse like I am the step-mother of a Disney princess. It is in the blood of every New Yorker (and everyone who is bridge & tunnel) but doesn’t in Lisbon.
The Lisboetas or Alfacinhas as they call themselves (a bit more on that later) do not curse in public, at parties, or in front of their avó. It’s just not done. When you get into a situation where a curse would occur – such as a slip and fall on the godforsaken stone streets of Lisbon – Lisboetas just say “Ir com os porcos” (Go with the pigs). Entonces, they brush off the scratch, have a bica and make their way to the nearest hospital.
The reason for these niceties in life that has so eluded us New Yorkers, is that people in Lisbon do not want to get into a confrontation or offend people. This probably goes back to the dictatorship where any public speech was closely recorded by neighborhood monitors. The walls had ears, so it was better to be cordial all the time…just in case.
I recently got into a verbal argument at the local Duplix (a print shop which I am never going to again). I came off looking like an idiot, but I want to share the back and forth so you get an idea of how to deal – not to deal with disagreements here.
I needed to print out some documents for the SEF and I had gone to Duplix many times in the past and gotten my items printed nicely. They speak English and were usually pretty nice. They had just moved stores (one block) to a big fancy new office…
Antonio – (walking in from the rain): Ola.
Duplix Guy – Can I help you?
Antonio – Fala Ingles?
Duplix Guy – a little bit (he speaks perfect English, most Portuguese people under 45 hacer.)
Antonio – Great, I need a copy of xyz like I did last week and the week before.
Duplix Guy – We have rebranded ourselves to deal with the real clients which are small busineses. We don’t do copies any more.
Antonio (looking at the copier behind the Desk) – But you have a copier right there, I have done this 20-times. I also run a small business, but my printer is broken. It’s late and raining and I need this for my 9am appointment tomorrow at the SEF.
Duplix Guy – We don’t copy things anymore. We only copy stuff for our small biz clients. Do you speak Portuguese?
Antonio – Not that well, is English okay?
Duplix Guy– Let me ask my manager. Your request has been sent to management and they said it’s not possible, wait they said it’s possible. I am getting mixed messages. Give me a minute.
Tia de Cascais next to me (in English) – You don’t seem like you run a business.
(she looks at me behind a fake or real longchamp bag)
Duplix Guy – We have a sign here that says we don’t make copies. (points at a newly printed sign created by Duplix.
Antonio – Dude, I have done this before. Can I just pay you 5 euros for a copy. It’s the SEF and matter of “life or death” if you know what I mean.
Duplix Guy – Do you have a USB maybe we can use that?
Antonio – Fuck! a USB I only have the copies.
Tia de Cascais – YOU CANNOT SAY THAT!
Antonio – What did I say??
Duplix Guy – Yes, that is offensive.
Antonio – I jus said a personal curse, I’m not cursing at you.
Tia de Cascais – You don’t look like a business man
Antonio – Ms. Please mind your business. I am just trying to fix something.
Tia de Cascais – (In portuguese) See, these rude Angolans come here. Who do they think they are?
Antonio – (I think she said I was Angolan.. but I am not… not sure how to respond) So, there’s no way to get copies?
Tia de Cascais – (in english) You don’t look like a business man.
Duplix Guy – no.
Antonio – Fine. Fuck this place! (walk out)
So let us look at how I messed up constantly during this interaction.
I didn’t start with niceties.
I went directly to what I needed. This is a no-no in Lisbon and in Portugal in general. It’s better to make small talk on a line when you need stuff done. You should be like “Wow the weather is crazy?” or “I have been here before and I come from the US and this place was amazing. I need some help.” or “Here is my life story and it has no relationship with the issue I am having now but I wanted to tell you so that you, Lisboeta, will understand that I am a real person”.
I assumed that the past dictates the present.
This is not the case in Portugal. Things that worked yesterday may not work today…better yet, they will change suddenly without notice. For example, if you drive and make a left on a street, pay attention to the signs around June or any feast month or Portuguese holiday – the sign will change. I guarantee it.
About talking to other people in line.
They are miserable (because they’re on a line) and if you look even remotely foreign, they will have already boxed you in with personal prejudices. In the eyes of many, I am “African” who doesn’t look like a businessman.
DON’T CURSE you idiot (that was to me).
Even if you do it under your breath, Portuguese people may think you’re cursing at them or at their place of business. Remember what you’re doing. Remember that you are cursing. A curse is a spell, right? You are sending negative energies their way and there are better ways of expressing your displeasure.
How I Should Have Handled The Situation…
I should have told the tdc: “Muitos anos a virar frangos”. That means “I have many years turning chickens”. Roughly translated it means you have spent many years gaining knowledge. This is said in a joking manner but may give you some respect.
To the kid from Duplix I should have said: “Estou feito ao bife!” (it’s done to the beef) & “preciso de ajuda” (I need help). This would have gotten to his nice spot and he would have to help a foreigner trek through the pitfalls of getting copies.
So to sum things up, this is Portugal. Niceties sucks sometimes, but as a newcomer, you may be used to a certain way of things like cursing or just being too upfront. Mi consejo, when in Lisbon – do as the Lisboetas do. It will make your life significantly easier.