Brazil’s Annoying Upper Hand Game

 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.
by: Kenneth


"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

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

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