What Do the Portuguese Think of the Portuguese?

How do the Portuguese view themselves and their country? And how does their self-image compare to the rest of Europe? A look at the data on social attitudes in Portugal.

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social attitudes in Portugal
On Sunday, March 10, 2024, Portugal held national elections for its legislative branch, the Assembleia da República, or parliament. Opinion polls and snapshots of the political mood were everywhere.  All of this took place within the larger context of 2024 being an important historical year for Portugal: April 25th marks the 50th anniversary of the Revolução dos Cravos, the Carnation Revolution, which brought down the Estado Novo authoritarian government installed by António Salazar back in 1933. This makes it a good time to reflect not only on what outsiders like me think of Portugal, but what the Portuguese think of it – and of each other.
I recently came across an infographic showing that a whopping 47% of the Portuguese agree with the statement “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.”  This compares to only 20% of Spaniards next door, and leaves the supposedly haughty French in the dust at 36%. 
That led me to wonder: what do the Portuguese think of their country in general? And do they feel similarly to other Europeans? Having been a social science nerd in another life, I decided to poke around in the data and find out.
Some observations. 
Portugal: A Tale in Seven Figures
[Note: I will be talking here about data from two European opinion surveys, where respondents were drawn from a random sample of the population that was intended to reflect the general opinion of everybody in the country at that time.  However, people’s answers correspond to their views at a single moment in their lives when some twenty-year-old with a clipboard started asking them questions.  At best, a single survey gives us only a rough idea of what is going on in people’s heads.  So, if you knew absolutely nothing about social attitudes in Portugal, you will know slightly more than nothing after reading this article.  You’re welcome.]
[Note 2: If you’re reading this on a mobile device, some of the graphics are truncated and you will not be able to see the full width of the graph. It’s fine on a desktop/laptop. I could fiddle around with this but I figure that the 2 or 3 people who will actually read this post are not on a cell phone.]

The Portuguese Trust Portuguese and Like Portugal

The Portuguese are a fairly trusting bunch. In Figure 1, we see that the country average for how much people trust others is 7.18 in Portugal, where 10 means “most people can be trusted.” Compared to the country with the highest average, Finland at 8.1, Portugal isn’t that far off.  If we consider this question in terms of who the average Portuguese is likely to encounter on a day-to-day basis that would inform their opinions about how trustworthy people are – that is, mostly other Portuguese – then we can use this question as a gauge to help us understand how much the Portuguese trust the Portuguese: pretty well.
Figure 1
"Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?"
0=you can’t be too careful; 10=most people can be trusted. Country averages.
In Figures 2 and 3 below, we can get a sense of what the Portuguese think of Portugal – and by extension, Portuguese culture.  The overall picture is positive.
Looking at how emotionally attached people feel to their countries, in Figure 2 Portugal appears as the country with the fourth-highest average at 8.47, where 10 means “very attached.” The highest country average is Greece at 8.72, which is not too different from Portugal. 
Figure 2
"How emotionally attached are you to your country?"
0=Not At All; 10=Very. Country averages.
In Figure 3, we see that the 93.2% of Portuguese are “very proud” or “somewhat proud” to be Portuguese, making them the second-highest country in the survey.  Consistent with their neighbors in Europe, people in Portugal are prouder of being Portuguese than being European. But that’s understandable.  I don’t feel any special pride at being “North American” either.
Figure 3
“How proud are you to be….”
% Respondents Answering “Very proud” or “Somewhat proud.”
Data source: Pew Research Center, 2017. Weighted data.
However, what the Portuguese think about Portugal or being Portuguese in the abstract is one thing.  Their general level of satisfaction in life is another.  In Figure 4, we see that the country average for Portugal on how happy people say they are falls at the lower end of the spectrum versus other countries surveyed.  It’s no coincidence that salaries are low in Portugal compared to the rest of the European Union, and trust in government institutions, it turns out, is also low.  These are almost certainly contributing factors to happiness.
Figure 4
"Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are? "
0=Not At All; 10=Very. Country averages
Figure 5 shows the country average for Portugal compared to a pool of other countries surveyed on how much people trust their parliament, legal system, politicians, political parties, and the police.  In Portugal, trust in all these institutions is lower, in the legal system and in politicians substantially. 
Figure 5
“How much do you trust….”
0=”No trust at all” 10=”Complete trust” Country averages.
InstitutionPortugalOther Countries
Legal System4.055.46
Political Parties3.073.64
Data source: European Social Survey, 2020. *Data source: European Social Survey, 2018. Weighted data.
But this, too, is understandable.  The reason elections are being held on March 10th is because parliament was dissolved and elections were called to form a new parliament following revelations of a corruption investigation involving Prime Minister António Costa and several members of his cabinet. One of the more noteworthy headlines to come out of the scandal centered on the discovery of 75,800 euros in cash found hidden in the office of one of the Primer Minster’s advisors.  Even Ikea Portugal couldn’t let that one slide.
Operation Influencer Portugal
“Good for storing books. Or 75,800 euros.” Image source: Expresso.

Portugal and Spain Are Not All That Different

Given that the Portuguese have so little trust in their institutions, why do so many more of them think Portuguese culture is superior to other cultures, compared to next door Spain? (Remember from the intro that 47% of the Portuguese agree with the statement “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others” compared to only 20% of Spaniards.) Turns out, a big part of this comes down to demographics.
Before we dive in, let’s start off with a clarification here: to say that you believe your culture is “superior” to others necessarily implies that you think some cultures are “inferior” to your own, so we can make jokes all day about how, for example, the French are a bunch of croissant-eating snobs (Je t’aime, France!) but belief in cultural superiority has a problematic undertone to it.  Academics call it “ethnocentrism” or “cultural chauvism” and associate such beliefs with dislike for groups that are different from one’s own.  So, rather than assume that the smaller number of Spaniards who think Spanish culture is superior to others is just people being excessively modest about a wonderful country, we might instead ask why so many Portuguese are more “ethnocentric” by comparison.  (Meanwhile, I reserve the right to believe that the United States would be better off if parts of California fell into the ocean when the Big Quake finally comes for the west coast.  But I digress.)
Compared to Spain, Portugal has a slightly older, less formally educated population with lower salaries, on average.  These factors are frequently associated with ethnocentric beliefs the world over, at least in part because education begets money and money begets the sorts of intellectual and cultural opportunities that reduce ethnocentrism, such as travel. It’s no surprise, then, that 76.2% of Portuguese holding ethnocentric beliefs have less than the US equivalent of a high school degree, as we see in Figure 6 – but 74.7% of the Spanish with ethnocentric beliefs also do, which is similar.  At the same time, college degrees are pretty rare in these groups: only 8.3% of ethnocentric believers in Portugal, and 8.8% in Spain, have one.
Figure 6
Ethnocentric Believers vs the General Population
Less than a high school degreeCollege degree or higher
% Ethnocentric Portuguese76.2%8.3%
% Ethnocentric Spanish74.7%8.8%
% All Portuguese Age 60 and Over88.8%6.3%
% All Spanish Age 60 and Over81.2%9.9%
% All Portuguese Age 40 and Under39.2%25.7%
% All Spanish Age 40 and Under38.4%29.9%
Data source: Pew Research Center, 2017. Weighted data.
What is a little different between the two countries is that among the oldest age cohorts, those over 60, more Portuguese than Spanish hold less than a high school degree in the population as a whole.  This means that we would expect to find more older Portuguese holding ethnocentric beliefs than in Spain because more of them did not complete high school.
But!  Spain and Portugal have changed tremendously in the last several decades since both ended long dictatorships in the 1970s.  As they have grown wealthier, their people have been able to complete more years of schooling. If we look back at Figure 6, in the general population in Portugal, only 6.3% of those age 60 and above have a college degree or higher, but 25.7% age 40 and below do (these numbers are 9.9% and 29.9% for Spain).  That’s a huge leap in just a few generations.  And even more people have finished high school or have technical degrees, all of which point in the right direction.

Views on Immigrants

And now it’s time for me to come clean.  Curious as I was about Portuguese attitudes concerning other Portuguese, as an immigrant here what I really wanted to know was what this all means for Portuguese views on what it means to be Portuguese. 
Most immigrants to Portugal originally come from Brazil and are Portuguese-speaking. However, immigration across the board has been steadily rising, and the number of immigrants has doubled in the last decade.  One of the fastest growing groups is people from India, the number of whom has quintupled over approximately this period of time
In any country, opinions about immigration are varied and complex.  They often depend upon which ethnic and religious groups are coming into a given country at a given time, and how well citizens believe immigrants have integrated into their culture.  And of course there is a huge economic component to all of this, particularly whether immigrants are seen as a boost or a drag on the economy.  On top of that, people sometimes hold beliefs about immigrants that do not reflect reality, such as that immigrants are always the poorest of the world’s poor (not true) or that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes (not true in the country with the largest immigrant population in the world, the United States).
I don’t want to over-simplify these issues.  But I’m going to, by looking at a single survey question asking about five different signifiers of what makes someone “Portuguese” and then drawing my own conclusions. Such is the power of a blog.
We see in Figure 7 that 82.2% of survey respondents in Portugal rank “respecting Portuguese institutions and laws” as “very important” for being Portuguese, the highest-ranked issue of the five categories.  Slightly more Portuguese over the age of 60 feel this way, and slightly fewer Portuguese ages 40 and under do, but the difference is not great.  On the one hand, this opinion feels like a no-brainer and you might be surprised it’s not at 100%.  On the other, given the low levels of trust in government institutions discussed above, and the flagrant disregard for parking signs you typically see in Portugal, maybe this isn’t really about immigrants. 
Figure 7
"How important do you think each of the following is for being truly Portuguese?"
% Responding "Very Important"
Data source: Pew Research Center, 2017. Weighted data.
The next item, speaking Portuguese, is also ranked as “very important” by a high percentage of Portuguese overall at 77.1%, but here we start to see larger gaps between older and younger Portuguese as to how important this is.  My read?  Well, more Portuguese emigrants leave Portugal for other EU countries than the rest of Europe, and most of those emigrants are in their twenties.  Younger Portuguese are more likely to either know emigrants or have been emigrants themselves, and they understand what it’s like trying to learn a new language and fitting in, so maybe they’re more forgiving. It’s not easy, even for little kids who are supposedly language sponges, as I’ve talked about before.
We start ticking down into lower percentages as we move on to the importance of being born in Portugal, having a Portuguese family background, or being Christian, and the gap between young and old becomes even more pronounced.  As an immigrant, and as someone who had absolutely no idea how poorly she imagined the immigrant experience until she became an immigrant herself, I am heartened by these trends. 
Now, I want to go on record here as saying that I am *not* trying to single out old people as the source of all our problems.  Obviously, influencers and tech bros are the source of all our problems.  And as a middle-aged woman, I am literally invisible to anyone under the age of 30. So, kudos to the younger generations of Portuguese, but the ones that came before you paved the path. Something I’ll be thinking of on the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution.
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