Top 2 differences in American & Portuguese Culture that cause problems.

America - One of the most individualist cultures in the world

There are two BIG cultural differences that frequently cause difficulties for Americans making a life in Portugal. They are pretty fundamental things, where the two countries differ enormously, and are summerised as:-

  • how important is the individual compared to the group - Level of Individualism.

  • how does society cope with the reality that the future cannot be known - Uncertainty Avoidance.

These terms are taken from Geert Hofstede’s work in cross-cultural psychology which is often used to explain cultural differences between countries. It is also criticised for being too narrowly researched, biased towards a white, male view of the world and bordering on stereotyping. However, I still use it with my clients as a way of not only thinking about cultural differences but more importantly, encouraging personal exploration of cultural difference and tolerance of others, to help with the process of relocation and acclimatisation.


The biggest cultural difference that Hofstede found between the two countries is the level of Individualism i.e. how important is the individual compared to the group.  As a society the United States scores extremely highly (91/100) on this measure where as Portugal has a relatively low score (27/100).  This is a massive difference of 64 points. People in an individualist culture are more likely to value their own well-being over the good of the group. Contrast this with a collectivist culture where people might sacrifice their own comfort for the greater good of everyone else.

There are other related differences, for example, most Americans are used to interacting or doing business with people they don’t know well. Generally, they are not shy about approaching others to get information or help. At work employees are expected take the initiative and be self-reliant. Decisions are often based on merit or evidence of what one has done, rather than position in the hierarchy or length of service.

For the Portuguese, it’s more normal to be invested and to value, long-term commitment to the ‘group’, e.g. extended family. They are encouraged to form strong relationships taking responsibility for fellow members of their group. At work, length of service and extent of connection to the in-group are important and significant factors in hiring and promotion decisions.

Some clues to look out for:

People from individualist societies tend to describe themselves in terms of their unique personal characteristics, e.g. "I am kind, sporty and funny." Whereas people from collectivist societies, would be more likely to say something like, "I am a good wife, and devoted mother."

In Portugal, you’ll notice that greetings reflect this and are extensive …, “How are you? Your husband/wife? The children? And your Mother?

A common disappointment reported by my American clients here in Portugal, is that they find it hard to make really good Portuguese friends. In collectivist cultures like Portugal, most relationships were traditionally formed due to factors such as family and geographical area rather than personal choice. The relationships people have are stable, strong, and long lasting. Whilst this is positive, there is less incentive to build relationships with new people, partly because in the past it was more difficult to meet them.  Contrast this with American culture, where for generations people have been geographically very mobile, moving to new places and have needed to befriend strangers.


The second biggest cultural difference that Hofstede found between the two countries is the way in which society deals with Uncertainty Avoidance i.e. how does society cope with the reality that the future cannot be known. Portugal scores a massive 99 out of 100 on this measure where as the United States has a below average score (46/100).  This is a large difference of 53 points.

Should we try to control the future or just let it happen? This ambiguity brings with it anxiety and different cultures have learnt to deal with this anxiety in different ways. 

Portugal has virtually full marks on this measure, it doesn’t like uncertainty and tries to create a structure around it - to manage it. This results in maintaining rigid codes of belief and behaviour and intolerance of unorthodox ideas and ways of being. There is an emotional need for rules (even if the rules never seem to work) people are busy and work hard, precision is important and security is an overriding part of individual motivation.

Some clues from traditional Portuguese society:-

  • Security: rather than taking risks people prefer what they know already and stick to traditions.

  • Lots of rules: they put a lot of value on these, from the formal, written rules to informal ones like how to greet others.

  • Emotions: showing your emotions is seen as a natural way to interact.  

  • Expertise: is highly valued and respected. 

  • Innovation: is viewed suspiciously and often avoided.

N.B. There's lots of evidence to suggest that on the innovation and entrepreneurial front things are really changing in the big cities. Lisbon has been shortlisted for 2018 European Capital of Innovation Award.

The United States has a slightly below average score of 46, on the Uncertainty Avoidance dimension. As a result the context in which Americans find themselves will impact their behaviour more than if their culture scored either high or low. So, generally, Americans have a fair degree of acceptance for new ideas and a willingness to try something new or different. Americans tend to be more tolerant of ideas or opinions from anyone and allow the freedom of expression. At the same time, Americans don't require a lot of rules and are less emotionally expressive than higher-scoring cultures. Clearly, these are generalisations.

One of the most frustrating aspects of life in Portugal, reported by my American clients, is that they find it hard to navigate Portuguese rules, both formal and informal. The most effective solution to this is to find a local, Portuguese speaking, 'guide' who will help you navigate the system.

I run groups and workshops throughout the year looking at culture, culture shock, transitions and acclimatisation, please send me a message if you'd like to be involved or want to know more.

All the best, Alison


Geert Hofstede’s dimensional model of culture.

Compare your your own cultural value preferences with specific countries - I do not benefit financially from this product.

Kito M, Yuki M, Thomson R. Relational Mobility and Close Relationships: a Socioecological Approach to Explain Cross-Cultural Differences. 

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© 2019 by Alison Collis, TransCultural Coaching

Nottingham UK, London & Online

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