December 2001

The Art of Being Brazilian

The Brazilian jeitinho is a means that Brazilians use
to accomplish things— it may involve something as simple
as a wink and a smile or something as serious as bribery.

Loretta Murphy

We all know that globalization is here to stay and that anyone who tries to treat the concept as a crazy, new idea has been living on another planet for the last century or so. Like it or not, ALCA and FTAA are here to stay, apparently regardless of whom they harm and whom they benefit. Multinational companies are crossing new borders and setting up in those countries which provide competitive advantages and economic opportunities. In order to be attractive to these conglomerates, developing countries have had to improve their competitivity and become more efficient in order to increase profits and thus foreign interest. So what can those of us who are jumping on the global train do to help ourselves? One option is to increase our understanding of other cultures and practices.

Everyday, representatives from all over the world meet in the same room— both physically and virtually—to conduct business. Effective communication is one of the keys to conducting successful business affairs. Merely learning the language is no longer enough—it is imperative to be able to understand other forms of communication—gestures, nuances and other even more subtle forms of human interaction which may go unvoiced and therefore unseen to the untrained eye. "Outsiders" who are not familiar with their foreign counterparts' culture may find themselves unable to manage or react to certain situations which is embarrassing, at the very least, and often costly in terms of relationship formation and financial benefits.

We've all got a story about a business blunder or cultural faux-pas. I once met a British business owner in Brazil who refused to learn Portuguese or anything about the Brazilian culture. He had good business ideas but he insisted on doing everything the "proper" way (read, "his" way). He never really came to know his clients. He never listened to them nor did he try to understand their needs. Needless to say, several failed marketing campaigns and tens of thousands of reais later, his business is still struggling.

The knowledge of and respect for the individuals with whom one negotiates is necessary in order to foster positive business relationships and to avoid possible offence. By familiarizing ourselves with cultural traits we can make ourselves aware of and even learn to expect certain behaviors in given situations and know how to react to this. With this knowledge we can turn our international business affairs and company mergers more efficient and therefore more successful.

In developing an understanding of the local culture in which companies are situating their factories and plants, managers can thereby try to comprehend what will motivate local staff and how to deal with local business culture. Moreover, by developing sensitivity to the culture of our clients, we can appeal to their personal sides, thus winning favor and, hence, gain more market share. Therefore, it can be said that cultural knowledge is a competitive advantage.

Brazil is one country of interest in terms of cultural knowledge. It is a fast-developing nation, hailed by economists as an economic miracle with regards to its rapid progress since the Plano Real was implemented and inflation was brought to a standstill. This has compelled multinationals and foreign investors to take more interest in the potential business opportunities that Brazil has to offer. Knowledge of its diverse culture and background would be useful to foreign businesses entering Brazil.

Three Races, Five Traits

In his book Casa Grande e Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves), the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre introduces a racial triangle which is the base on which Brazil was built. These are: 1) Portuguese colonists—production systems, social structures, strict value system; 2) baptized natives—sexual and family relations, magic and mysticism; and 3) African slaves—religion, magic, culinary skills. This triangle developed into a unique cultural mix which served as a base for other cultures (Italian, Japanese, German, etc.) whose people came and further diversified Brazilian society.

Although, from an outsider's view, it often appears to be complete chaos, there are, in fact, several characteristics which give the Brazilian people a national identity and uniformity. Alexandre Freitas, author of Cultura Organizacional e Cultura Brasileira, discusses five basic cultural traits which unite the majority of Brazilians. They are outlined below.

Brazilian Cultural Characteristics

1. Hierarchy

· Tendency towards centralization of power among social groups

· Distance in relations among different social groups

· Passiveness and acceptance of inferior groups

2. Personalism

· Society based on personal relationships.

· Search for proximity and affection in relations

· Paternalism: moral and economic dominion

3. Malandragem

· Flexibility and adaptability as a means of social navigation

· Jeitinho

4. Sensuality

· Preference for the sensual and the exotic in social relations

5. Adventurer

· More dreamer than disciplined

· Tendency toward aversion of manual or methodical labor

Of course, not all Brazilians fit into these patterns exactly and we cannot stereotype an entire nation but if we use these characteristics as a basis on which to analyze Brazilian culture and organizational behavior, then foreigners can better prepare themselves for business and daily life in Brazil.

The following literary analysis discusses Brazilian culture, based on these five cultural traits and an analysis of how these traits affect Brazilian organizations.


Catholicism, slavery and patrimonialism

The hierarchical system found within many Brazilian organizations can be traced back to the Roman invasion of Iberia. Roman law left its mark on Iberian society and eventually led to "Direito Canônico" (Canonic Law) through which the Iberian high clergy legitimized itself and thus, as Freitas puts it, "... became holder of extraordinary mystic, moral and even legal prestige over the peninsular populations."

Portuguese religious orders were entrusted with great authority and influenced political, military and daily aspects of peninsular life. It was this mixture of religious order with military warrior that `discovered' and colonized Brazil, and eventually influenced the agrarian system that exists to this day. The film At Play in the Fields of the Lord with actor Robert De Niro, demonstrates all-too-realistically the political stronghold that the Catholic Church held over much of South America at the time of the European invasion.

In his book, The Pan-American Dream, author Lawrence E. Harrison also points to religion as one of the main culprits for the delayed development of Brazil. He blames the "extreme inequality in the distribution of income, wealth, land and opportunity and difficulty in building democratic institutions" on the Ibero-Catholic anti-entrepreneurial, anti-work culture, inherited from the Portuguese.

Harrison quotes Brazilian sociologist Raymundo Faoro in his description of the seventeenth century Portuguese:

"All productive activity was painful and dishonorable: agriculture, even the commerce that he tolerated, and industry. He was bored by the absence of a spiritual goal, of glory, in these occupations."

Such abhorrence for physical labor resulted in the mass importation of human slaves as the base for the labor force which was, as Harrison puts it, "...ordered and repressed, separated and quieted, generating a social stratification and rigid hierarchialization of it actors, establishing an almost infinite distance between owners and slaves."

In the senzalas (slaves quarters) were the slaves and in the Big House was the patriarchal family, which eventually established the aristocratic power in Brazil. Harrison writes, "By centralizing the power on the patriarchal figure (which, without doubt helped to give origin to our machistic elements), the colonial family enforced the idea of the normality of power, of respectability and of unrestricted obedience."

Anyone who has watched the Brazilian novela Terra Nostra, situated in post-slavery, rural São Paulo, will remember actor Antonio Fagundes portraying the powerful family-head with subordinate family members and slave-mentality towards crop workers. The patriarchal family established and perpetuated family ties within their businesses and organizations and their organizational values continue to affect Brazilian organizations and society to this day.

This leads us to the idea of patrimonialism/mercantilism, which reflected the values and attitudes of their architects and managers, elitist values and attitudes that stressed the individual and the family over the community; that discouraged the free flow of ideas—and even of broad-based education; that shunned basic concepts of fair play; that saw government as an instrument to advance the narrow interests of a few at the expense of many. (Harrison)

This attitude is deeply ingrained in the Brazilian psyche and " an obstacle to progress in part because it enshrines status rather than achievement and merit." Racial prejudices "…situate people by the color of their skin or by money, by the name of their family or by the car they use." (Harrison)

The effect of these cultural values on Brazil's organizations has resulted in a reduced capacity of social organization . According to Brazilian sociologist Sergio Buarque de Hollanda in his book Raízes do Brasil (The Roots of Brazil), ...(e)ffectively the humble, anonymous and disinterested force is a powerful agent towards solidarity of interests and, as such, stimulates the rational organization of men and sustains the cohesion among them. Wherever there is any prevalent form of work ethic, there will likely be order and tranquility among the citizens because they are necessary, one and the other, towards harmony of interests.


Familism and "Live and Let Live"

Personalism is an instrument used by Brazilians to relate to other people with emphasis on personal knowledge as opposed to functional rights and duties. It is especially used in business affairs and may result in a longer time than an American normally would spend closing business deals as Brazilians take more time to get to know their foreign counterparts in order to gain trust and confidence in whatever endeavor they are about to embark. Hollanda sums up Brazilian personalism as follows:

"From friends, you may ask and get anything. This type of intercourse penetrates all social relations. When one wants somebody to do something, the best way to achieve it is by making that somebody a friend. The method is also applicable in cases where one wants services provided and then the imperative attitude is considered particularly inappropriate. The result is that relations between employer and employee are quite often more friendly here than in any other part (of the world)."

A society based on personal relationships and where trust is formed from proximity and affection seems like an excellent environment in which to effectuate change and innovative business solutions since good relationships and open communication between people are key factors for any business relationship. On one hand, the Brazilian is sociable and open to communication and dialogue. In general, the Brazilian has a wide network of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances with whom s/he fosters extensive informal relationships. But, on the other hand, the danger lies in the lack of cordiality in formal relationships which can be seen everywhere from the poor customer service in both the public and private sectors (where the citizen is subject to the employee's state of mood) to the day-to-day attitudes of the individual, for example, in traffic, where one is given the impression of being in a war-zone.

Exame magazine journalist David Cohen writes "The Brazilian limits his/her concerns to his/her family and, maybe, to a few friends. There is no clear notion of citizenship, of nation, or of consideration for the collective dimension of society." This individualistic attitude does not favor a holistic/global perspective when approaching problems.

Brazilian anthropologist Roberto da Matta, who also makes the following observations about the `live and let live' attitude in Brazil,

"If I am buying from or selling to a relative, I neither seek profit or concern myself with money. The same can happen in a transaction with a friend. But if I am dealing with a stranger, then there are no rules, other than the one of exploiting him to the utmost."

While it is true that Brazilian organizations are effectuating change by implementing Quality Programs such as ISO 9001 and importing and adapting other norms to train their employees, it is necessary to focus on the individual's sense of community as well, in order to truly effectuate change within organizations and society.

MALANDRAGEM (Hero without Morals)

Jeitinho, Flexibility and Lack of Respect for Rules

According to Harrison, "Sixty percent of the scandals (in Brazil) are related to government contracting; 20 percent are due to over-regulation; and 20 percent can be attributed to the `hero without morals' that Brazilians so admire." The hero-without-morals is better known as the malandro in Brazil. He is often seen as a charming comic hero in Brazilian films and fiction, manipulating his way around difficult situations using his jeitinho. This is often learned at an early age as can be seen in Jorge Amado's novel Capitães da Areia (Captains of the Sands).

Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of dealing with the Brazilian Federal Police or other bureaucratic organizations in Brazil will know the importance of proficiency in the science of jeitinho. The Brazilian jeitinho is a means that Brazilians use to accomplish things— it may involve something as simple as a wink and a smile or something as serious as bribery. This method of problem solving has two sides. On one hand, it is often dishonest or unfair to others since it is used towards personal interests. On the other hand, it represents flexibility and adaptability to an otherwise complicated and bureaucratic system. This allows the Brazilians to adapt much easier to changes presented in any environment.

The Brazilian has a unique capacity to adapt to situations which would be unfathomable for people from other cultures. For example, during periods of currency devaluation, Brazilians witnessed rates of inflation that reached 100% in 1980 and 200% in 1983 and 1984. Inflation became hyperinflation reaching in 1993 2679,4%. In other words, from one day to the next, the acquisitive power of the Brazilian citizen dropped by enormous quantities, thus making it virtually impossible to plan something as simple as grocery shopping from one day to the next, much less, corporate organizations on a long term basis. How Brazilians survived these difficult times may seem a mystery to Americans who have always enjoyed a relatively stable economic environment but the Brazilians know that at these times, the jeitinho and adaptability are vital tools to survival.

On the business side, according to David Cohen, "In Brazil, the corporate hero is the eliminator of fires, the solver of problems. The planner, on the other hand, is seen as boring, bureaucratic, dreamer, unrealistic…The positive connotation proliferates eliminators of fires and the image of Brazilian executives is effectively of people who are flexible and react quickly to emergencies."

According to Alain Belda, world president of Alcoa, "All models of change at Alcoa are more quickly implemented in Brazil." and his antecessor Paul O'Neill affirms that "…in Brazil, nobody needs to explain very much when they see someone doing something a better way: the new way is adopted immediately."

The philosophy behind the jeitinho, as a formatter of mental processes which facilitate flexibility and capability of adaptation, is positive for companies. However, there is a downside, as anthropologist Roberto da Matta warns in Carnavais, Malandros e Heróis "…the use of the jeitinho and the reoccurrence of an aristocratic social hierarchy result in the total mistrust of the universal rules. A mistrust which generates its own antithesis—the hope that we will finally see the laws being followed."


Calor Humano and Affection

Internationally known for the sensuality, which can be seen at Carnaval, Brazilians like 'calor humano' (human heat)—close contact, affectionate gestures, and conversations with not-so-subtle innuendoes.

Brazilian sensuality can be dated back to the miscegenation of the Portuguese with Arabs, who often practiced polygamy, thus the mixture of Mohammedan with Christian morals and values, with the resulting phallic influences and liberal attitudes in Portuguese Catholicism. Later, with the discovery of the New World, the Portuguese were introduced to the liberal indigenous sexual morals in which polygamy played an important part, as well as affection.

These mixed values have resulted in the liberal attitudes towards sexuality that can be seen in modern times in Brazil, where

"... the Brazilian includes a good dose of sensuality in his/her relations as a means of social navigation in order to achieve what s/he desires more easily. We like close contact, skin, affectionate words, and risqué glances. Our common chats and conversations contain, between the lines, a certain content of naughtiness, of sensuality." (Freitas)

If applied to organizations, the sensual manner of the Brazilian people can be used as a tool for successful contacts and in business transactions facilitating the closing of deals and personal interrelations in general. Neurolinguistics and other sciences dedicated to the study of marketing suggest that the customer needs a good dose of seduction in order to become attracted to any product. A light conversation, a simple look, personal charisma, an affectionate gesture which inspires confidence and respect, are all powerful resources to be used in the seduction of the customer. Such sensualism applied to business affairs does not denote sexuality but rather personal magnetism.


Creativity vs. Method

Hollanda observes that "…a dignified sense of idleness always seemed better and even more noble to a good Portuguese…than the insane struggle for each day's bread . What he admires as an ideal is the life of a great gentleman, exclusive of any effort, of any concern." He further adds that "...what is predominant is the antiquated conception that idleness is more important than business and that productive activity is, in itself, less valuable that of contemplation and love."

This is not to say that modern-day Brazilians are not hard-workers. Brazilians are ambitious, determined and put in long hours at the office. However, society, in general, does not value those tasks deemed as `trivial' or `physical' and the middle and upper classes would much rather pay someone to wash the car, clean the house or even train the dog while they devote their time to `more important', higher-paying work or to leisure activities. The ready availability of low-skilled, low-paid labor in most Brazilian states makes this all the more possible.

The dreamer spirit fosters creativity in people thus inspiring talent in the area of fine arts—a very strong trait in the Brazilian people, and a definite benefit welcome in most organizations, especially those involved in the arts, marketing and public relations. Unfortunately, the adventurer spirit can result in a lack of discipline and an aversion to manual or methodic labor. This can be a peril to Brazilian organizations.


When a Brazilian looks at North America s/he wonders at the quality of life, the organized social system, the clean cities and the educated and polite citizens. When a North American looks at Brazil s/he envies the tropical climate, exuberant and liberal lifestyles, the lively and festive environment and the carefree, affectionate people.

From a North American point of view, Brazilian society would benefit from stronger laws and perhaps stronger punity on those who break the laws, making it more difficult to bend the rules. This might reduce the rate of violence and criminality, as well as corruption within organizations. Perhaps by recording, remembering and learning from past experiences, Brazilian organizations could advance more rapidly. Emphasis on quality education is a cornerstone to this advancement.

On the other hand, from a Brazilian point of view, North Americans could stand to "lighten up" and become more flexible with their "rules for the sake of rules" which are often enforced to promote order but do not necessarily help all stakeholders. By encouraging flexibility and open-mindedness, North American organizations could improve their services.

North Americans and Brazilians stand to learn a great deal from one another. By fostering friendly political relationships, political leaders could set an example for their people. Increased exchanges of learning and teaching experiences, partnerships and resources would benefit both nations' populations. In this manner, perhaps more North Americans and Brazilians would be able to see and understand one another's lifestyle and organizational culture, learn from that experience and draw a bridge between the two cultures. In doing so, perhaps we will be one step closer to achieving a "happy-medium"—a perfect balance— between the North American and Brazilian cultures.

Loretta Murphy is a Canadian who first came to Brazil (Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro) as a Rotary Exchange student in 1987. She has traveled extensively throughout the country and has lived in Salvador, Bahia since 1997. Her interest in Brazilian culture has recently led her to complete a monograph entitled "Cultural Differences in Brazilian and Canadian Organizations" on which this article was based. For further information, e-mail her at

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