Reflection on the term cultural practice in Lisbon, Portugal

The most striking cultural practice in Portugal is “never be on time”. It is the most common thing to settle a certain time only to spend hours waiting for the Portuguese counterpart to appear.

That is not my opinion. The statement made in these first two sentences is bluntly ignorant. However, it is a good point to start with when thinking about what a “cultural practice” is. That was the original idea of this text: to give an example of a “cultural practice”. However, due to some conceptual weirdness of the term “cultural practice”, the real example will not appear.

Right now I am sitting in a “Pasteleria” (bakery/ café) in Intendente. This is a neighbourhood in Lisbon which is multicultural in a very interesting way. The Kebab shop, Nepalese Cuisine, former red light district and gentrified styler-tourist restaurants are all next to each other. Moreover, many streets are dominated by inhabitants with Chinese, Bangladeshi or Indian origins – and consequently with their way of living.

It seems as if the cultures of countries were geographically detached. They spread with the people who migrate. Eventually the things (objects, habits, ideas etc.) that people bring into a country become part of the things that have been there already. It just depends on how people value such immigrated novelties. Stunning things diffuse over time into the everyday life of a country, in the extreme case they spread all over the world. That happened with so many different things, such as maths, potatoes and cars.

In case something diffuses “just” in one country or region and is given a lot of value, the former novelty might transform into an object of identification. To be proud of a national heritage has more to do with the fact that others do not possess it, and less with its actual origin.

Many people would probably regard a “cultural practice” of a country as something that is widely spread within the country for a major period of time. It’s something absolutely common. Still, there has to be a certain singularity about it, meaning that in other countries it would not be common at all.

This being said, my immediate environment (of multicultural Intendente) would be the worst setting to write a text about “cultural practices in my host country”: What happens here is for sure not common all over Portugal, nor has it been like that for decades. Yet, it is part of my reality.

Reality however, is often disguised by our way of thinking. When trying to talk about “cultural practices in a host country” we are biased in many ways. We have our conscious or unconscious stereotypes of a country and its culture before even being there. Once we arrive we have individual experiences. Some may correspond to the stereotypes, others may not. What we consider as typical for a country depends a lot on the tag other people put on these things before us, at least if we haven’t lived there for years. Our perception works selectively. If on the one hand we notice something that corresponds to a stereotype we might think of it as being representative for a specific culture, some might even name it “cultural practice”. If on the other hand the opposite happens we might think of it as an individual attribute of someone.

Of course one can say that it is possible to search for patterns in behaviour without caring or knowing about stereotypes. This is true. Still, it takes certainly more than a month, if not years, to do so. Claiming that some singular observations are representing something general is nothing more but silly.

Indeed, the real example did not appear. There is none that I could find. Firstly, because our world is too globalized and tracking the origin of things is hard. Secondly, because I have a worm’s perspective on the behaviour of the masses and not the one of a bird. Last but not least, because there is nothing more boring than repeating stereotypes.

Laurent Naville

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