Tadaaa! Finally, a FAQ-like humourous-o-satire-ish blog about Portuguese daily life, written by native Portuguese. Please do not take me seriously, in my posts, as I intend to do the same to myself. Have fun, send hate-mail, and ask questions. And laugh, damn it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Question #5: What is Desenrascanço?

Desenrascanço is one of the features that Portuguese people are famous for. The Wikipedia page of Desenrascanço, unfortunately was ripped off, but miraculously I managed to recover parts of them, even the picture that illustrated the Desenrascanço. Here it goes:

Desenrascanço (loosely translatable as "disentanglement") is a Portuguese word used, in common language, to express an ability to solve a problem without having the knowledge or the adequate tools to do so, by use of imaginative resources or by applying knowledge to new situations. Achieved when resulting in a hypothetical good-enough solution. When that good solution doesn't occur we got a failure (enrascanço - entanglement). It is taught, more or less, informally in some Portuguese institutions, such as universities, navy or army. Portuguese people, strongly believe it to be one of the their most valued virtues and a living part of their culture. Desenrascanço, in fact, is the opposite of planning, but managing for the problem not becoming completely out of control and without solution.

However, some critics disagree with the association of the concept of desenrascanço with the mainstream Portuguese culture. They argue that desenrascanço is just a minor feature of some portuguese subcultures confined to some non-representative groups and to the end of the 20th century. Critics point out that in the last 30 years the education and culture of the portuguese people improved considerably and that the importance of desenrascanço is declining. Sometimes, the concept is related by some to the discoveries period or to student activities in the 15th century. But sceptics doubt there is any substantial prove of that relation. Critics also argue that there are other sub-cultures in other countries with equivalent concepts and that desenrascanço is not an exclusive of the Portuguese culture.


Desenrascanço has a role in the academic juvenile sub-culture in most educational institutions. In Lisbon it is a losing ground tradition, while Coimbra and Oporto maintain their traditions now followed, in some degree, by the new universities (created less than 30 years ago) in the rest of the country. Sometime earlier, some of these traditions, were also exported to some universities in France, Spain, Brazil, UK (and USA, by influence of the UK).

The older students at universities and politechnical institutes known as doutores (Eng. doctors) teach Desenrascanço to freshmen (Port. Caloiros) in a ritual, well known as Praxe (or Praxis) in Portugal. It is alleged that this skill is taught (informally) in the Portuguese universities since the 14th or 15th century. The freshmen are ordered to do the most impossible things. They must comply or they will be punished. To solve the problems (desenrascar-se) they must be really inventive and/or have a very convincing reason when they cannot do it. Normally, if they cannot or if they are not smart enough, punishment is done. The punishment is supposedly done under the Praxis rules (Port. Código de Praxe) and aleggedly no harm can be done to the student. But they can get dirty, do a lot of exercise, and do embarrassing things in public or nothing for an hour. Freshmen do this ritual because they want to be part of academic groups to have fun, contin
uous parties and lots of helping friends. In the rituals, the doutores must be dressed in black (in 19th century traditional clothes) and freshmen dressed in white (normally a shirt and blue jeans).

Normal academic activities are also seen as a way to teach desenrascanço. For example, when the teacher does not disclose any suggestions to solve a problem, and the student must search for his own. But some of the best teachers disagree with this association since they believe that desenrascanço culture is precisely the oposite of a good universitary education.

«Siemens, a well known German company, has development and engineering offices in Portugal partly due to this Portuguese characteristic, employing hundreds of Portuguese staff. They say "when a German gives up when encountering a difficulty, a Portuguese will work until it is solved." They also argue that is "due to the quality of Portuguese state-run universities and institutes". Desenrascanço is the finding of a solution for a given problem.»

Desenrascanço in the Discoveries Era

In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was very common for other exploring nations to bring a Portuguese national along during the voyages, for two reasons, 1) the Portuguese were skilled by previous knowledge and 2) for handling emergencies well (what is also known among the Portuguese as "desenrascanço"). Of course, serious historians would disagree with the association between a 20th century idea and 17th century events.

Some groups from Portugal believe that they still have this characteristic, that, theoricaly speaking, make them the best people to handle emergencies, and the worst for situations where planning is needed. There is no impartial verification of those claims..


Rui Vilela said...

So and so, you don't know polish culture :)

Insert Name Here said...


Excelente! O desenrascanço puro e duro.

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Sounds kind of what I do when it's 1 day left till I have to turn in a university assignment and I haven't even started doing it :)

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