Yes means yes

This week yielded an interesting insight into Portuguese culture. Here’s the background:

I teach Pilates in two locations, one to mostly British expats, and the other to mostly Portuguese nationals. My mostly Portuguese class fell on a holiday this Monday, so last week I asked the students if they wanted to have a class or not. Yes, they said. Great, I said, I’ll be there. But on Monday, two of the students who’d wanted a class did not show up.

When they appeared in class yesterday, they were genuinely surprised to learn that indeed there had been a class on Monday. Apparently, they hadn’t really believed me when I said I would teach on the holiday.

My wife confirms that this is a facet of Portuguese culture (though of course it cannot be generalized to all Portuguese). Verbal agreements don’t always mean much, especially when they involve setting dates or activities. Apparently, to make sure that everyone in the class knew that I really, truly meant it when I said I’d teach, I should have sent out an email confirmation.

I grew up in a culture where your word means something. If I say yes, I mean yes. (And of course, this can’t be generalized to all Americans either, or even all Oregonians.) The lack of belief in one’s word explains quite a few past interactions here, now that I think about it — such as the time we agreed to help a neighbor fence in her veranda. At the appointed hour we showed up at her door with screening and tools, and she wasn’t home. The next time she saw us, she made no apology nor even acknowledged her absence. She’d made the agreement, but either didn’t believe we meant it, or didn’t believe the agreement meant anything, or just didn’t care.

I can adapt to this, but it still leaves me scratching my head. How do people function when they don’t believe each other, or don’t keep their word? Isn’t that one of the basic foundations of a community?


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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10 Responses to Yes means yes

  1. Lilaine says:

    That kind of behavior may be spread throughout the whole planet, I’m afraid.
    The lack of belief in one’s word often comes from having been deceived, or stood up, before, and then practice this ”sport” just because ..! The winner, at the end, is always the one who stay faithful to their good behavior.
    Keep on trying, and tant pis pour eux !, as I often say to myself.

  2. Well, being Portuguese, and an Algarvian at that, I can tell you that this characteristic positively absolutely drives me crazy. It has contributed to the loss of some friendships and my reaction to it has been on occasion so strong it led to some enemities as well.

    Not that it bothers me all that much, in truth. If I can’t trust people, how can I like them? What use are they to me? I can’t and they aren’t.

  3. fatima says:

    You are absolutly right. It happens all the time and we have to repeat the word twice so the one who listens really gets that we mean it! It’s a fault we have indeed.

  4. Jbrandao says:

    I hate it when people do that. If you say something, just DO it. If you change your mind later on, at least have the common courtesy to inform me.

    I also hate it when people are consistently late. It’s really really annoying.

  5. JMG says:

    You’ve got a point here, oregon expat. I’m sure there is a sociological explanation – one I don’t know.
    As for scratching your head, consider you left me scratching mine: I know a heck of a lot of people behaving like that, including some friends.

  6. Dusty says:

    People that actually live up to their word, and expect others to do the same are such a rarity that we almost think THEY are the ones with the problem. I can count on one hand the people that meet the “my word is my bond” litmus test. I go to great lengths of privation at times to meet my promises to others, knowing full well that I will not be able to expect the same in return. Is something wrong with us?

    • oregon expat says:

      No, but I think you and I, and others who keep their word, were raised by parents who espoused one overriding principle: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s surprising how few people live by that principle, despite its supposed importance to Western religious traditions.

  7. Algarve Fan says:

    Forget good and bad manners. There are only manners and either you have them or you don’t. In my culture, which is British, people of my generation were taught by their parents and schools to have manners. A failure of manners usually was accompanied by a sharp reminder of one’s social duty. Your word, once given, was sacrosanct. Nowadays, sadly, manners are sneered at as often as not. So, the answer Dusty’s question of whether something is wrong with us is yes and no – yes for those who lack manners and no for those who don’t. Personally, I shall continue to hold open doors for people and to keep my promises as best I can. I have no intention of lowering myself to the standards of the unmannered.

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