Punctuality and Portuguese Culture

Hello everyone,

I hope we are all doing well.

I have been living in Portugal for 2 months and both in Porto and Lisbon I had some not so nice experiences with how people are so lenient with time that it is said to be acceptable to be late for 15 to 20 minutes.

So what happened today shocked me on another level. A cleaning team was supposed to come to my apartment at 2:00 pm, so I left the place at 1:55 pm sharp. I thought 2 hours would be enough for them to clean the place, so I came back at 4:00 pm sharp only to be shocked that they did not come at all.

So I texted them and their explanation is that they only said they would come “after 2:00 pm” so “not 2:00 pm sharp.” I was speechless and very frustrated at the fact that they did not even give me a time range (11 pm is also AFTER 2 pm).

I had very similar experiences in Porto as well. So I wonder if it really is part of the Portuguese culture to be not so specific about time and to be totally lenient. To be fully honest, coming from a place where punctuality and sticking to the schedule are like the foundation of business, I am having a hard time trying not to take things personal and not to feel that my time and schedule were not given enough respect.

Anyone had similar experiences? And how did you guys deal with this?

Yours,
Davin

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Frankly I would not find it difficult to clean my own flat!!
And … after 30 years of regular long visits to Portugal I have always found tradespeople reliable and helpful.

I appreciate your reply but you don’t seem to be addressing the topic.

I’m not asking whether or not I should clean my own house as it’s my personal choice to pay for services. I’m also not saying Portuguese people are not reliable because I know many of them are.

The topic is whether it is part of the culture to be extra lenient with time and schedule and if you guys had similar experiences and how you dealt with them.

I don’t live in Portugal, the only experience I have is with multiple trail running events (that run over several days) I’ve attended. It would often be the case that things would run a little late. Not hours but like 10 to 30 minutes or so. The organization jokingly refers to this as ‘our Portuguese timetable’. So it does seem to be considered part of the culture. On the plus side, they are also very flexible!

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After living in Portugal for eight years we have come to accept that punctuality is not a priority for the Portuguese. Today, for example, we were assured that a telephone engineer would arrive between 2 and 3:30 to repair our broken line. He eventually turned up at 4:45. We have experienced countless examples like this. Just something you get used to. You learn to expect people to be late. The Portuguese are lovely people in many respects, but they have a very relaxed attitude to time.

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Reliable and helpful, I agree. But rarely punctual!

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We have lived here for 4 years. Time management and punctuality in the Portuguese culture have frustrated me to the nth degree. My profession demanded accuracy and punctuality. The U.K. culture allows some leeway but not to the extent I have experienced here. I have come to lower my expectations because I think this attitude to time is common in Southern European countries. I still dislike it because it wastes so much of my time but there are no penalties for those who don’t turn up. There are compensations and I guess I take the unreliable aspects as something I have to live with as I am the guest here and it is me who has to adapt.

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I guess I really need to adjust to the culture here haha. On the bright side it’s acceptable for me to be late for appointments too : )

@maureenlister1 That totally makes sense. I also wonder what the economic cost would be based on sth I heard from people here, “In Portugal, nobody attends appointments on time. It’s totally acceptable to be late for 15 to 20 minutes.”

Assuming in a single day everybody has at least 1 appointment to attend and everybody is late for 15 minutes,
Portugal has a population of 10.28 million,
Assuming half of the population provide services and the other half receive services,

(0.25H x 10.28 million) / 2 = 1,285,000H
That is to say, in a single day,
Portugal wastes 1.285 million hours, or 146 years, of input of production on being late or waiting.

I wonder if this could be a factor behind the economic sluggishness here.

The way people view time differs a lot by culture. After marrying a Portuguese and having many Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian friends, I actually had the opposite problem when I moved to Germany. If you set a meeting time, Germans will arrive 5-10 minutes early. At best, I would arrive at exactly the specified time but would usually arrive 5-10 min late. This led to a lot of confusion and frustration for everyone.

I can confirm that the Portuguese concept of time is very different from American and German concepts of time. If a German hosts a party at 17:00, then the guests will arrive at 17:00. If you are late, you will contact the host as soon as possible and offer many apologies for your tardiness. If a Portuguese hosts a party, it will probably start much later (not unusual to start at 20:00 or 21:00). If you actually arrive at 20:00, then you will find a surprised and probably unprepared host. It is the norm to arrive 30 min or even an hour late, depending on the type of event.

I know it is hard to adjust, but I assure you that this is not a personal insult to you. This is not a sign that people don’t respect your time and schedule. It also does not mean that the Portuguese are bad at business or are lazy or don’t take things seriously. It is simply a difference in cultural expectations. The Portuguese are incredibly hardworking, can be extremely savvy businesspeople, and are known for being very good diplomats. (There are many reasons why the Portuguese economy is sluggish, but cultural perceptions of time is not one of them.)

Chances are the frustration and feelings of being insulted run both ways. To you, the Portuguese don’t respect your time and schedule. To them, you are probably too pushy and “pesado”. The way to deal with it is to learn more about Portuguese culture, particularly their concept of time and business culture, and then adjust your expectations and actions accordingly. Do not expect the Portuguese to become American because, after all, you are living in Portugal.

This is a very common problem! So much so that there are a lot of resources about dealing with cultural differences in business to help people understand the different business approaches to avoid these kind of cultural misunderstandings. I think it would be useful to read about this. Knowing what to expect and how to interpret their behaviour is a good first step.

After that, you can try to slowly let go of the strict time schedule. Try to embrace and even master the new culture. This doesn’t mean you have to completely give up your business culture. You may find it useful to learn how and when to switch from American businessman to Portuguese businessman. If you work in an international business environment, this could be a very valuable skill!

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I have recently read a book entitled The Portuguese A Modern History by Barry Hatton , it gives some very good insights into how the current situation within the Portuguese culture may have arisen It’s a very accessible and worthwhile read.

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@saroca.mitchell

Hey Mitchell,

Thank you for the information which is really helpful. Yes I totally agree with you that this is part of the Portuguese culture and that as a newcomer it’s better that I adjust and even master the culture.

But I’d also like to say that I grew up on 3 continents and lived in many countries and I personally speak 5 languages fluently, so my comments here are not really from an American perspective which I clearly do not represent. I highly value the importance of intercultural understanding in international business and I’ve always taken my cultural experiences as a strength in doing business with people from all over the world which I enjoy so much.

I do think punctuality and fulfilling promises are universal values in the environment of international business, however. These are not just American values, but the universal bottom lines of how people do business in the international environment.

The other point is that no culture is free from negative aspects. Sexism and male superiority have long been an integral part of the Korean culture, but recently they chose to change. When we see an aspect of the culture that may make our country less competitive in its economic production and a thus lower standard of living in the long term, surely we can tell people it’s just our culture so everybody has to be OK with it, or it’s up to us to reflect on ourselves and see if this part of our culture could be improved.

But again, I totally agree with you that if I come live in Portugal, I will need to get used to and even master this part of the culture. It’s adventurous but I’m sure I will enjoy it.

I am always eager to learn and thank you for the communication which I really appreciate.

Yours,
Davin

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Many thanks for your sharing! I plan to go to Portugal this year, this is really helpful :confused:

It is a cultural thing and if you come from a society where punctuality is important, it can be frustrating and difficult to get used to, but you might understand how shocked I was just the other day when a workman turned up 10 mins before the appointed time when in my head I had allowed for another 30 - 60 mins for him to arrive. It’s the first time in the 4 years I have lived here!

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Just yesterday someone commented on an FB post with this quote
“In Spain they say manyana, in Portugal they don’t have that sense of urgency”…made me chuckle tbh :speak_no_evil:

If you’re talking paperwork and bureaucracy then definitely be prepared for things to take their time… With tradesmen and the like it’s hit and miss to be honest. They generally turn up (mais ou menos) on time, not being too late and in my experience often call to say if they’re running late.
Deliveries - I’ve had some turn up a day early, some on time, AND some a day or more late…so yes, in short just accept that it is what it is! (And hey, 90% of the time it’s sunny where I live, so it ain’t all that bad :sunglasses:)

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Hi everyone, very interesting topic. What I am wondering, if I have to go somewhere for a meeting, and I am on time: will this considered awkward, or even impolite?

I am from Germany, so I guess everybody knows what that means in terms of punctuality :smiley:
Looking forward to hear about your experience.