How an analysis of the size of beer can lead to a deeper understanding of culture

Since I was a child I was fascinated by the different cultures in the world, especially by the indigenous peoples and how those different societies work because it completely differs from what I am used to. That was one reason why I decided to take part in the MILSA Program. I wanted to get some more insights about what actually defines a culture. However, before my exchange I was not really aware about how difficult it might become to recognise the differences and to describe them.

At the beginning of my exchange I was overwhelmed with the whole situation. Everything was new and I needed some time to get used to the unfamiliar situation. Of course, I noticed dissimilarities in daily live but it was hard to assign them. Especially, distinguishing them between what actually belongs to the Portuguese culture and what was influenced throughout the internationality of Lisbon. 

Despite that, the first disturbing thing I noticed when I arrived in Lisbon was the “drug sellers” at every single corner. Whether they were in a group or alone, inhabitants or migrants, at day or at night. The one thing they all had in common was the way of approaching you. They would use a loudly whispering voice to let you know what they had to sell when you walk by so that you feel addressed. The only thing you could do is to respond with a polite: “no, thank you” while shaking your head. At the beginning it was an awkward feeling but incrementally you get used to it. Moreover, I was astonished by their consistency, not one single time they missed the opportunity to submit their offer. Shout out my respect to them! But more on that later.

Besides that, there was a further Portuguese habit, which was a more pleasant one for me at least. I sat in a lecture when the Professor went through the participation list as I realised that he actually called the students by their first name without even asking for their permission to do so. It is just a completely usual habit in Portugal. It is only a little cultural practice, but in my opinion it has such a huge impact on the entire atmosphere. I felt comfortable from day one onwards at the university as well as in Lisbon itself because this cultural practice reflects the spirit.

Another example for an obvious difference might be the size of the beer bottles. It is common in Switzerland and as well as in Portugal to drink during social gatherings. However, I did not find any 0.33cl beer bottles of the Portuguese brands “Sagres” and “Superbock” in the assortment of the supermarkets, just 0.25cl or 1l ones. I was just wondering why. It might seem banal and unnecessary in terms of cultural differences, but I think it explains the deeper understanding of a culture and why things are done the way they are. 

I asked myself: Why are there no 0.33cl bottles? Because there is no demand for it. So why does nobody buy them? Personally I think reason number one is the climate. It is so hot and humid in Portugal that you would already feel a little tipsy after a 0.33cl bottle. Therefore, just a 0.25cl bottle. Secondly, you usually drink in group of people with whom you can share a big one liter bottle of beer. Sharing is a way of showing your appreciation and strengthening your affiliation to the group. So that is why there is no need for a 0.33cl bottle. 

This process of reflecting about a topic for example the beer bottle and asking why things are the way they are, helps to understand a culture more deeply. I believe there are two ways of approaching such unfamiliarities. Either you reject those habits or circumstances and advocate “your familiar way” which I personally think only leads to misery and unnecessary aggressions or you accept them as they are and try to figure out the causes of them. That leads to deeper insights and you can easily get used to it. Let us go back to the drug sellers for example: The police actually did not care about them at all because they do not sell real drugs, only placebos to make their profit of the naive tourists which come to Lisbon to escape their daily live. Once I got to know this fact, I looked at the “drug sellers” with different eyes and realized that I do feel sorry for them. Especially considering the circumstances of the current economic difficulties caused by the Covid19 crisis. 

To sum up, I think we are too often tempted to apply prejudices and encounter new situations with resistance without a valid reason. Being aware of these different cultural practices and reflecting on them by asking why things are the way they are has helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the culture. Regardless of cultural aspects, this pause and change of perspective can certainly be a personal enrichment in any life situation.

Paco Buxtorf

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