Sunday, 7 August 2011

"Desenrasque" or the Portuguese art of improvisation

Portuguese people are very proud of their ability to improvise under difficult circumstances and rightly so. There's even a special word for it - desenrasque - and in translation this means something along the lines of muddling through/improvising/getting out of a scrape. It's an extremely useful way to deal with the world.

It brings to mind Macgyver - remember the 80s TV series where the main character got out of all kinds of trouble with nothing but chewing gum and a cocktail stick? - well, that's the kind of imaginative problem solving that desenrasque is all about.

Examples would be useful, I suppose. Just off the top of my head I can think of a couple that demonstrate exactly the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that comes naturally to most Portuguese folks:

One time I took my mini - the old-fashioned kind - to a mechanic because the battery was not being charged. It was a problem with the alternator. The car needed a brand new one, which would take six long weeks to be shipped in from the UK. Un-phased the mechanic broke open the old alternator to see its component parts only to find that the part inside that was broken was exactly the same as the part used in a Fiat Punto alternator. Long story short: I paid for a Punto alternator at less than a fifth of the price of one for a mini, which the mechanic proceeded to take apart for parts for my old alternator. Et voilá! One alternator for a Rover mini in perfect working order in less than 45 minutes.

The other example came from an executive of a Portuguese blue chip company who told me his boss was was from Sweden and believed the best companies are run by a mixture of Scandinavian and Portuguese workers. Intrigued I asked him why. "Well," he said, "When a machine breaks down the Portuguese roll up their sleeves and try to fix it whilst the Scandinavians identify the part that has failed, track down its number and order a new part in case the Portuguese solution doesn't last."

That's what I call a can do attitude.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I was just thinking about how us swedes like to live in a known world and hate to improvise. Then I thought about the Portuguese who has the exact opposite mindset. I searched for the term they have for it. And it's uncanny how those strands of thought are all addressed in this article. Are you inside my head?

  3. I'm glad my post resonated with you. Maybe the world needs more Swedish/Portuguese business ventures...

  4. It's easy to forget how wonderfully different we all from one another in such beautifully complementary ways. I am from Puerto Rico, and my people have a similar attitude, though more Americanized. Basically, where my Anglo-American friends will think of who to call to fix a problem, I think can I fix it myself? Where my anglo friends think that certain foods go together and some don't, I wonder how this odd mix will taste together.

    It's not really something I ever thought about on a cultural level like this, but it makes sense. :)

    Muito Obrigado pelo "post" e bom dia!

  5. Thanks for your comment Hector. It's good to know the Portuguese don't have a monopoly on desenrasque. I'm not sure the average Portuguese person is quite so adventurous when it comes to combining food, though.