Whenever you deal with foreigners – for business or pleasure – it is wise to match your tone to their cultures and habits. There are countless anecdotes of people who lost deals because they offered alcohol to an observant Muslim or couldn’t negotiate with a Japanese for lack of understanding what “yes” and “maybe” really mean in their world – “maybe” and “probably no”, respectively.
So, what should you know about Brazilians to have a smooth dialogue with my countrymen?
The short and obvious answer is: it depends. The same way you cannot compare the behavior of Frenchmen born in Paris and Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, it is really tough to set up rules that apply both to an Amazonian and a gaúcho (someone from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul). But the following observations might be a good guide to avoid faux-pas.
* Informality – If you know anything about the country, you probably could guess this one. We tend to be very informal and cheerful – in ways that may shock sterner tourists. This applies, for instance, to the dress code. It is not a problem to show some – not all – flesh in coastal cities and in warmer cities of the Amazon and Midwest region, which includes the capital, Brasília, and the Pantanal wetlands).
Informality also applies to the high level of physical contact, which includes two or three kisses (less frequent) when you meet someone (woman-woman or woman-man, never man-man, unless among gays), or touching the arm or shoulder of someone else in the middle of a conversation (if it is persistent, there is flirt in the air).
Naturally, you should avoid the kiss/touching routine in business meetings, unless you became somewhat more intimate. This informality is present, but attenuated, in the southern states (Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Paraná), and in the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais.
* Lack of punctuality – We are not Swiss. If your meeting is at 9, it may happen at 9:30 or even at 10. Just in case, go at 9, but be ready to wait. But if you are told a party begins at 9, arrive at 10, or you will find the host in the shower (it happened to me). If it is a diner party, you probably should stick to the proposed schedule.
Pay attention to an interesting phenomenon: in certain circumstances, events will be scheduled after the storm (which falls everyday in the middle of the afternoon in the Amazon region), the soccer match or the soap opera (when these are particularly thrilling).
Clubbing tends to begin late. In São Paulo, nobody leaves home before 10 – unless you are over 70. Vacationers or locals tend to go late to the beach. Unless you are really healthy and a sportsman, it is quite possible you will hit the sand at 11, have lunch at 3 or 4, go home for a shower and a nap and start partying at 10 pm.
* Love for foreigners – Brazilians have a genuine love for foreigners to a degree I have never seen in other countries. We make an effort to communicate, we give directions, we hug, we kiss. If you are American, you may bump into the occasional US-haters (most of them in universities and certain trade unions), but this shouldn’t be frequent.
* Promises – They are not, necessarily, written in stone. If someone says: “I will call you”, it may happen or not. Once your acquaintance leaves the premises, you may realize he doesn’t have your phone number. “I will send you the budget tomorrow”, may be or not be true. Expect the best, prepare for the worst.
* Food – Unless it is a business lunch, it is quite likely your company will offer you a bite of his dish and expect you to do the same. No hard feelings if you don’t offer or accept, though. You will be also offered a cafezinho (one shot of coffee, no milk, in a small cup with saucer. It may be an espresso or made with paper filter).
This will happen everywhere you go – homes and offices, poor or rich. Some people (probably not many) might be offended if you don’t accept their caffeine. That’s how my mom was dragged to have a sip of coffee in a cortiço (a squat, but not the hippie or glamorous type of squat) when she worked for the public health system – and got hepatitis.
Yes, I am sure you met cranky, formal, punctual, anti-foreigner Brazilians. The summary above only expresses tendencies that are frequent but not universal.
Brazilian born, French citizen, married to an American, Regina Scharf is the ultimate globetrotter. She graduated in Biology and Journalism from USP (Universidade de São Paulo) and has worked for Folha de S. Paulo, Gazeta Mercantil and Veja magazine as well as Radio France Internationale. Since 2004 she has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the US. She authored or co-authored several books in Portuguese on environmental issues and was honored by the 2002 Reuters-IUCN Press award for Latin America and by the 2004 Prêmio Ethos. You can read more by her at Deep Brazil – www.deepbrazil.com.