- -  Day # 90  + +

EU > Portugal > Coimbra

What to say

Coimbra, PT (View on map)

`Speaking is silver, silence is gold`. Many northern countries embrace this saying, but it does not work very well in Portugal. People like to socialise, talk to each other and spend time with each other and silence is not invited to the scene. Today, I am trying to find out how people start and end their conversations, and what words and gestures they use inbetween.

Joao (26):

``Como tem passado?` or `Tas fixe` are common ways of asking how a friend is doing`
Jo?o (26, photo) is teaching me that Ol? and Oi are used as informal greetings, while the formal greetings relate to the time of the day. Bom dia before lunch, Boa tarde between lunch and dinner or sunset (whichever is first), and Boa noite for anything after that.

Art of conversation
For people who know each other, the initial greeting will be followed by a polite inquiry after how the other person is doing. Como vai? or Como est??, possibly followed by the title and name of the person if you wish to pay respect to his social status. The more casual alternatives range from Como tem passado?: `how have you been`, or Tas fixe: are you cool?`

People who do not have the intention to build a social relation between them, will usually leave the entire question behind. Shop keepers will not ask you how you are doing, like they do in several Anglo-Saxon countries. On the other hand, in Portugal it would be impolite not to answer the question. Or to answer it negatively, if you do not know the other person very well.

Among friends, you the range of answers is a quite wider. The most positive answer would be cinco estrelas, meaning `five stars`. More conservative answers include T?sse bem: `feeling good`. Estau bem, obrigado/a, e tu? is the most formal reply, meaning: `I am fine, thank you, and yourself.`

Body language
Portugal would not be Portugal if the words did not go with some increased physical proximity. Shaking hands is the common way to greet for men, while women kiss twice and men/women meetings are also likely to involve kisses. The procedure applies to the informal friendships but extends to the office floor if it involves colleagues. Kissing and shaking hands are the usual beginning of the day.

If one of your friends introduces you to another friend, there will be kisses if either side is a woman. Men shake hands and married women may also escape the kissing parade. They may offer their hand instead of their cheek as an indication of her marital status. Professional or formal meetings may be exempt from kisses.

Once the conversation starts running, people will frequently touch each other. And themselves, during the many movements that illustrate their words. Typical parts of the body that are touched include the shoulders of the upper arms. Gender does not greatly influence the amount of intimacy, although women may take a little more distance if they feel that there conversation partner is too fanatic about touching them.

An animated conversation between two people who have a discussion in the streets may look like a sort of dance. As they engage in discussion, they may step aside to stand next to their conversation partner or opposite to him/her. The various lateral movements make people walk around in circles while they speak. In spite of the fanatic touching and moving, people do not hug a lot. `Hugging is kept for family, very close friends or pets. It`s mostly Brazilians who hug, not us Portuguese`, says Sonia (27).

Titles Titles are common in Portugal. Everyone who finishes university study has the right to be called by their title. Many people use that option. It will not show on their passports, but pretty much on every other reference to their person: the name on their front door, credit or business card, letter head and even in the way they would like to see themselves addressed.

While Senhor or Senhora is sufficient for `ordinary people`, there are specific titles for Doctors, Professors, Architects and many more. Since the formal form to address a somebody is always in the third person, the title comes back every time the name of the person is mentioned.

Suitable setting
Football stands out as the most common thing to talk about. Cars and food are also favourite for small talk. Politics is a less probable subject of conversation, and a big share of an average conversation is used to complain. The weather may be bad, the traffic slow, the marriage a little less exciting than expected or the salary insufficient for a very tempting purchase or holiday.

Silence is not a very welcome part of the conversation. It will often be talked away by a proposal to have (another) drink, some food, or to engage in another activity that will generate some material to incite further talks. Sa?de, `cheers` or Um brinde a n?s! will in that case accompany the beginning of each new glass of drink, while the glasses are supposed to touch before people take a sip.

Ending the conversation
In the unhappy situation that a conversation comes to an end, Adeus is the most likely greeting for people who do not know each other, or who treat each other formally. Shop keepers may repeat the same greeting that started the conversation, and wish you a good morning, afternoon or evening. Friends issue an unofficial Xau which serves as a friendly goodbye, sometimes followed by waving `goodbye`. They may even add a Muita Merda `lots of shit` if they know you have a difficult task or project ahead - compare it to the English `break a leg`.

Enlarge photo | Link to this article