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Brazzil - Behavior - May 2004

Brazil's Annoying Upper Hand Game

There seems to be a general attitude in Brazil that a fair deal
is a bad deal. The only good deal is when you have the other
guy "by the balls". And it's usually the property owner,
storeowner, or service provider who has the upper hand, and it's
the little guy—the consumer—who has to fight for his rights.

Kenneth Paul


Picture "Levando vantagem" translates literally as "taking advantage", but is used equally where an American might say, "having the upper hand". It seems to me that "taking advantage" is as much a Brazilian tradition as "fair play" is an Anglo tradition.

I don't want to start Brazil bashing. As an American living in Brazil, I've learned that it's a different world, a different culture, and different rules. Us gringos living here need to respect that, and `do as the Romans do.'

So, anyway, what about levando vantagem? It seems that every business negotiation I enter into here, it is a real struggle to maintain a level playing field. In fact, almost always, I feel like I'm at the disadvantage.

In most major purchases it seems that usually I am buying a product or service without real visual proof that it is exactly what I want—I have to make some or all payment in advance—thus giving the "advantage" to the seller.

In fact, it seems so ingrained in almost every transaction—the property owners, store owners, and service providers seem to have "control" of their markets and customers—that I can almost understand why there is so much bureaucracy and the Código Civil (Civil Code) and other laws to help protect the consumer.

It's evident in the most basic—low cost—purchases here. When buying a T-shirt, or a CD—even groceries—the salesman or cashier almost never puts their hand out for your money. They politely tell you the price, and wait for your decision. Why? Because it is totally "buyer beware".

NO exchanges, NO returns, NO refunds. The cashier is waiting politely for your decision because this is your last chance to change your mind. You need to unfold the T-shirt and check the seams, open the CD and play it, check the expiration date on all your canned goods, because once you hand over your money, that's IT.

Fuck you, if you made a bad buy. I will admit that a lot of stores these days are allowing exchanges (within 30 days of the purchase), but don't remove the tags, and you better have a good reason, i.e.: "I bought this for my girlfriend's birthday next month, and she died yesterday." So that's the way it is with small retail buys: the buyer has the advantage until he hands over his money. Then the seller dictates the rules. OK. Fair enough.

But in larger purchases, it is a bit more complicated. One of the more interesting cases is when you want to remodel your house or apartment. Let's say you want to take the lowest cost way by hiring the tile men, painters, etc, individually.

The tile guy comes to your house and makes an estimate of, say R$ 1,000—labor only—to retile the whole house, payable only after the entire job is complete. For that he's going to rip out your old ceramic tile, and put in the new. Estimated time to completion: 10 days. You pay for the new tile and materials separately (maybe another R$ 2,000).

So you close the deal, and move out of the house, to rent another place for two weeks. Then it becomes a game of levando vantagem. Maybe he gets started a day or two late (car trouble, of course) then he finally begins. After four days he has your house pretty ripped up—completely uninhabitable—and guess what? He needs money.

The electric company has shut off his power. His four kids are hungry. He needs R$ 100 to survive the weekend. What are you going to do? Deny the guy US$ 33? His kids are starving for Chris's sake! Of course you're going to pay.

The following Monday, he has car trouble again. But he returns eventually, and a few days later he has maybe 20 percent of the job tiled and complete. He's doing good work, and he needs more money. This time he needs R$300 to get his car fixed, or it's going to be difficult to come back before the middle of next week—he's such a nice guy and seems so sincere.

You're thinking: This isn't right. I started this deal with ALL the "advantage". I had the money. He gets it when I say the job's done. But it's clear that I already have to extend my rental; and if I don't pay him now (or if I pressure him) him might do a sloppy job, waste material, or fuck up the job in general. I'll have to pay twice as much to do it all over again. Despite your best efforts, the advantage seems to be turning his way. He is levando vantagem on you.

You could have gone to a professional contractor or other "company" to get the job done. But in that case you'd pay 50 to 100 percent more for the service. And you'd pay 30 to 50 percent up front—giving them "the advantage" from the start.

Maybe they'll start/finish when promised, maybe they won't. Maybe they'll do a good job, maybe they won't. Maybe they won't show up at all—you are at their mercy.

Just Trust Us

Of course, it's not only the home improvement business that's this way. Like I said, I feel I'm at a disadvantage in almost every major transaction. When remodeling our apartment, we had to rent a "flat" (a furnished kitchenette) for two months. The transaction was handled by a real estate agent on behalf of the flat owner.

OK, we've got the money; they've got the empty flat. We've got the advantage—let's not give it up! So we found a nice flat in early February. We wanted to reserve it only for the months of March and April. First the agent said the owner would only accept full payment for the two months, up front, NOW.

No way. I am not paying everything in advance on a flat I won't even be using for the next three weeks. I'll make a 20 percent down payment—to "reserve" the place—and pay the rest of the first month when I move in at the beginning of March. I'll pay the second month when it comes.

The agent acted like, "Who the hell do you think you are?!" After arguing about it being "non-negotiable", and a "standard contract" and all, we finally got him to take our offer to the owner, and they accepted. Then came the payments and the contract.

Again, it was a struggle to even get a copy of the contract up front (the agent felt that we should sign whatever he stuck in front of us at the closing). We had some problems with the contract (for instance: After paying our first month's rent, the owner had right to evict us at any time for any reason, paying us two week's rent in "retribution")… more struggle to get clauses like these changed.

When that was done, the agent said the owner wouldn't be present at the closing, but that they "represented him". When we went to the closing, we paid our deposit, and we signed the contract. The owner had not signed the contract. The agent had not signed the contract. The agent took all copies of the contract and our deposit and put them in his bag.

"I'll get the owner's signature, and return your copy later this week", he said.

"Wait a minute!", we said. "You've got our money. You've got our signatures on that contract. What do we have that guarantees us a place to live next week?"

"Oh… we're a good company… you can trust us… blah, blah, blah…"

It was a fight just to get him to give us a receipt. It all worked out in the end, but we had to lay ourselves at their mercy and hope they didn't renege.

The Golden Rule

One more brief example. We are now selling a house. Despite our insistence on a fair and even contract, the buyers are doing everything in their power to try and levar vantagem. They want to move-in before transferring title to their name. They want to have title before making full payment.

They are good honest people with spotless records and credit. But our contract says, "you pay me the money, I give you title and the keys" and that's what we want. When we insist on sticking to the contract they act like we are trying to cheat them, they threaten to back out of the deal, threaten to get lawyers involved… it's ridiculous.

My point is: as an American I learned in my upbringing—and in business life—that being fair was a golden rule. Contracts should protect the rights of all parties involved. Signing a contract shouldn't put anyone at risk—it should eliminate risk on all sides.

But here in Brazil I'm finding that it seems everyone is always trying to have the upper hand in any deal. Not that most people want to cheat anyone else. The vast majority of deals happen with both sides getting more or less what they expected.

There seems to be a general attitude, however, that a fair deal is a bad deal. The only good deal is when you have the other guy "by the balls". And it's usually the property owner, storeowner, or service provider who has the upper hand, and it's the little guy—the consumer—who has to fight for his rights.

Kenneth Paul is an American businessman who has been living and working in São Paulo since 2000. Your comments are welcome at friendlygringo@yahoo.com.

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