The confirming responses from Portuguese readers to “Yes means yes” has me wondering a bit more deeply about this cultural facet. Where does it come from, and was there ever a time when it had some useful purpose? Usually, cultural features exist due to some present or past benefit. The fact that they sometimes persist well beyond the time when the benefits were obvious doesn’t mean they weren’t useful at some point, or that the benefits aren’t still present in a less obvious form.
One aspect of Portuguese culture might be related to this: the slower pace and reduced stress. Of course this can only be measured subjectively, but I was raised in one of the most low-stress and slow-paced areas of the US and to me, Portugal seems positively sleepy. I can only imagine how it must seem to someone from New York or London. Personally I love this aspect of the culture — except when I want to get something done, at which point there is generally a lot of swearing. But when friends or family come to visit from the States, they always comment on how calm and restful the very air of Portugal feels to them.
(Of course, they probably wouldn’t say that if I took them driving in Lisboa during rush hour. I don’t care how many decades I live here, I will never voluntarily enter the Rotunda do Marquês except in the back seat of a taxi.)
It seems to me that much of Portugal’s slower pace comes from the fact that it is not a culture based on hustling business. It’s based on social ties. Without exception, all of our rewarding business and market interactions have come from various social connections. Our car mechanic, our seamstress, the best car wash in town, the best bakery, the excellent electrical contractor — we found all of these through the advice of friends, or in the case of the contractor, the advice of another business owner. We have found exactly none of them via advertising. Career movement is also strongly influenced by social networks. Favors are a form of currency.
When I consider the importance of social connections in Portugal, and how they lead not just to tight family networks but also career and business opportunities, I can see a possible explanation for the “don’t take me at my word” facet of the culture. If we take someone at their word, and they break it, the social ramifications of that can be profound. In many cases, it can result in the rupturing of relationships. But in a culture where those relationships are often the basis of not just business but also upward mobility, perhaps the importance of keeping them intact overrides the personal cost of not being able to believe someone’s word. And if that were the case, then it makes sense that the general culture would gradually deemphasize the importance of one’s word, in order to reduce the cost — to both sides — of breaking it.
Of course, I could be entirely off base on this. But it made for a nice bit of morning philosophizing.