Differences & Similarities in the Portuguese Speaking World


By Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine

Portuguese is one of the most important rising languages on Earth.  It is spoken by more than 240 million people spanning the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia.  Most believe that Portuguese is a uniform language and culture.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Portugal’s colonial expansion has yielded a widely diverse and rich Portuguese speaking culture with many different aspects. If you wish to conduct business in this area you must be well versed in this diversity in order to avoid cultural misunderstandings.

The mother country of the Portuguese speaking world is, of course, Portugal. Due to its position on the Atlantic Ocean, this country helped launch Europe’s seafaring age and in so doing spread its language to the far corners of the globe. In South America, Brazil was founded.  In Africa, the countries of Angola and Mozambique were established.  In Asia, Portugal administered control over the Chinese city and territory of Macau.  In all of these places, some form of Portuguese is still spoken to this day.  Nevertheless, the culture of each country has become an amalgamation of Portuguese and native influences.  Consequently, their ways of communicating, though somewhat similar, display significant differences.

Communication style is somewhat varied in the Portuguese speaking world.  For example, it is not at all uncommon for a Portuguese or Brazilian person to interrupt their counterpart when speaking. This is commonplace and even expected.  However, this is not the case in Angola.  Angolans, much like Americans, wait for their turn to speak.  Otherwise, the interlocutor will be insulted.  The important point is to be prepared for changes in communication etiquette and adjust accordingly.

Nonverbal communication also varies among the various Portuguese speaking countries.  Eye contact differs from country to country but it must be taken into consideration to avoid rudeness.  In Portugal, eye contact must be maintained. Not doing so implies that you are not listening and is considered disrespectful. Brazilians are also known for employing direct eye contact for the same reason, however in Angola it is disrespectful to look an older person in the eyes. Furthermore, do not be surprised if an Angolan woman does not make eye contact.  It is customary in her culture to avoid it.

Another major difference in Portuguese speaking communication is physical interaction.  In general, the Portuguese speaking world is more interactive physically than its English speaking counterpart but even this varies depending on the country.  In American culture, touching the other person while speaking is not acceptable.  In Portugal, it is not uncommon for someone to touch you on the arm while talking once the person gets to know you.  Brazilians will also do this and probably sooner than their Portuguese counterpart since formality is more relaxed in Brazil.  In Mozambique, physical interaction is so close it is even common for men to walk hand in hand.  This is an African custom local to that country and a sign of friendship.  It has no bearing on sexual orientation.  On a similar note, members of the opposite sex should not make physical contact in Mozambique and Angola because it is taken as a sign of interest.  In Portugal and Brazil, this is not the case as men and women can make slight physical contact without any misunderstanding of intention.

Communication in the Portuguese speaking world can be both direct and indirect depending on the country.  For example, in Portugal and Brazil, the reply of “yes” or “no” means exactly what it says like in American English.  Nevertheless, in Angola and Mozambique, “yes” sometimes actually means “no.”  This phenomenon is due to the African custom of eschewing negativity.  Quite simply, they do not wish to harm the relationship so they avoid anything negative.  This situation can be quite frustrating for a Westerner but really all that is necessary is to observe the person’s body language for the correct meaning.

Despite the wide diversity of the Portuguese speaking community, it is important to note that there is a great desire among them for cultural unity.  In 1996, the Community of Portuguese Language Countries was formed.  This organization promotes cooperation, friendship, and mutual development among all countries that speak Portuguese. Therefore, when doing business with one country, keep in mind that the bonds to the other Portuguese speaking countries are very close.

With the growing success of the Portuguese speaking countries, especially in the areas of oil and gas, businesspeople are going to have more and more contact with them.  Therefore, learning a few phrases to show your appreciation for the culture, hiring a professional interpreter, and understanding the differences and similarities between cultures is the formula for building successful business relationships in any part of the world.

As a graduate of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston, Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine, Founder, CEO, and President of MasterWord Services, Inc., started her company with a vision of seamlessly connecting people across any language, any time, and any culture.  Mila can be reached by email at [email protected], by phone at 281-589-0810, or visit her website at www.masterword.com.


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