1 de fevereiro de 2017

Meet the Brazilians

The excerpts below were taken from the book Brazil - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture, a book for anyone who wants to travel around Brazil and know a bit more about its culture. It surprised me how accurate the informations are and how honest the writer allowed himself to be, unlike other travel guides that usually sell a country and a culture that for the most part don't exist in real life.
(photos by Antonelo Veneri)

Short termism
Maybe because of this sense that it is fate and not rigorous planning that brings better days, Brazilians are not enthusiastic advocates of long term projects. The short-termism mentality applies to business, political matters, collective memory and personal life alike.

Living for the moment
It sometimes amazes foreigners how present time based Brazilians are. They might organize a party for later the same day, or go out but decide where to go only when they are already on the move. Forward planning does not apply to much of social life, except on a few exception occasions.

An outsider can be misled into thinking that living for the moment means that this is a carefree society, which is not exactly true. Brazilians, even without a lot of planning ahead, do worry about the future. It is just not so noticeable at first.

Focus on relationships
This is a relationship focused and not system oriented society. Together with the sense of immediacy, this means that, in both personal and business life, contacts are made face-to-face rather than through written communication. Phone calls are considerably lengthy too. Time is spent on establishing and maintaining relationships. In business good personal contacts are important because, given the choice, Brazilians put people they know first and, if necessary, even bend the rules to accommodate their needs.

The country of tomorrow
Brazilians are mainly optimistic, even though sometimes this can come to mean that they have a passive attitude to life. Sayings such as “Everything works out in the end” (Tudo dá certo no final) place hopes for the future in the hands of fate rather than on individual actions. There is a belief that the future will provide and “Things will get better tomorrow” (Amanhã tudo se resolve).

In political terms, this oddly passive optimism might have been reinforced by government propaganda proclaiming that “Brazil is the country of tomorrow”. This meant that given Brazil’s abundance of arable land and natural resources, it was just a matter of time before it became a key economic power. Critics answer this by saying that “Tomorrow is always tomorrow”.

O Jeitinho Brasileiro
O jeitinho is the Brazilian means of dealing creatively with life’s everyday complications. Literally translated as “a little way”, it can be taken to mean “there has to be another way”. In practice, it means that regardless of the rules or systems in place, where there is a will there has to be a way around them. If you take the country’s maddening bureaucracy and add the Brazilian tendency to challenge authority, you will understand how it comes to exist.

The jeitinho is so ingrained in daily life that you can see examples everywhere: managing to get a seat when all the places are booked up, traveling with more luggage than is allowed, or successfully ordering something that is not on the restaurant menu. Even in legal matters, if someone wants something that is not permitted, he or she will try to figure out a loophole until they find an alternative way.

Everyone for themselves
The lack of social welfare is partially the reason for the high level of individualism in Brazilian society. Everyone has to fend for themselves and do the best they can. If that means having to go over other people’s heads or take advantage of certain situations, some will chose to do so. Therefore, doing things like using a jeitinho to pay less tax (justified, perhaps, by saying that politicians misuse taxpayer's money) becomes what many consider to be an acceptable practice.

Better late than never

Brazilians find it hard to organize their own time and schedule their day around fixed points. This could be due to an influence from the indigenous peoples, in whose culture the notion of punctuality does not exist. Whatever the reason, Brazilians struggle to be on time. Being late is part of their culture and whoever deals with them should remember that. The degree of lateness may vary according to the region, but it will always be a feature.

Pride and prejudice
For a country that claims to have a “racial democracy”, the treatment of different ethnic groups is not always very egalitarian. Brazilians with fair skin, light-colored eyes and surnames that are difficult to pronounce are already halfway there when fighting for a better job. Also, those who consider themselves white will be offended if referred to as mixed-race, even if they actually are.

As a reaction to such “white pride”, members of Brazil’s black movement have been successful in promoting black music and culture. But most dark-skinned Brazilians also come from the poorest sectors of society, so even if they could escape from the (veiled) racial prejudice, they would still face economic barriers.

The feeling of pride mixed with an inferiority complex seems to apply to the country as a whole. Brazilians are proud of their nationality and their country’s size, resources and beauty. However, they also feel disadvantaged when comparing themselves with First World nations.

Happy to be Brazilians
Despite complaining about their country, government and weather (!) all ther time, there are several songs about being Brazilian, and they are decidedly positive. In spite of it all, Brazilians seem to enjoy the particularities of their culture. They may grumble about everything and everybody, but in the end they are simply happy to be Brazilians.

But beware: while Brazilians can be highly critical of certain aspects of their country (especially bureaucracy, the social system, and politics) even moderate criticism is not so welcome when coming from outsiders.

Socializing with the opposite sex
Carnaval and beach images have associated Brazilian women with tiny bikinis and sun-bronzed sensuality. But beach fashion only applies when one is on the beach, and the same can be said about Carnaval. Although sensuality is part of Brazilian culture, taking the stereotype as reality could not be a worse start.

Just like everything else, the way the opposite sexes socialize varies in different parts of the country. In the cities people of either sex go out together as regular friends. Much further inland there are places where one should not address a married or engaged woman in case a jealous partner takes it personally and reacts violently.

Brazilians make an effort to look good and, while they may expect and be pleased to be complimented, such remarks stay at the level of appreciation only (and do not tend to lead anywhere else).

As a general observation, Brazilians are tactile. Men tap each other on the shoulder. Women can touch each others knees when they are sitting, as way of emphasizing a point in the conversation. They may hold arms or hands as a demonstration of friendship. People from both sexes touch arms, shoulders, and hands as they are talking to each other. Such physical contact is part of Brazilian body language and should most definitely not be considered as anything other than that.

Reading it right
Brazilians like to be seen as a nice and friendly people – and they generally are. But sometimes taking them literally may be the cause of a social gaffe. An Englishman who had recently arrived in the country made his first contacts in Brazil and was surprised to be received so openly. Eager to start a social life, he was happy when an acquaintance said he should come to their place some time. Being  English, he tried to arrange a day and time for visiting, but was told  only “Turn up at anytime”. So he did. He could not hide his embarrassment when he realized they did not really mean it and he had completely misread their intention, which was similar to the American “Let’s do lunch” – a polite way of keeping doors open to a possible relationship in the future. When people want to arrange something, they will mention a date.

Invitations home
Strict punctuality is not expected on such occasions: about fifteen minutes after the time arranged would be just right. Dinner will probably not be served right away. You should not offer to help with the cooking or, for that matter, help yourself to anything in the kitchen, unless invited to do so. The same goes for doing the dishes. Dinner is usually a relaxed affair and can end quite late. For Brazilians eating is a social thing.

Friendship the Brazilian way
For people from cultures where you are supposed to be alright on your own and where private space is to be respected, the idea of Brazilian friendship may seem quite invasive. For a start, there are no off-limit conversations. Moreover, people express their emotions freely. This means they are not ashamed to admit they are not doing OK by themselves. So do not use expressions implying embarrassed sympathy and showing a respectful distance, like “You will be alright”, which may sound as though you do not care or are wishing the situation away (rather than showing that you have confidence in your friend’s ability to deal with their problem). Real friends face everything together.

Getting around
In Brazil, among the middle classes and above, car is king. If you want to walk to places in cities, you will be thought odd. Why walk when you can sit in air-conditioned comfort?

Driving is often fast and it helps if you know the way, since not everywhere is clearly signposted. Traffic is chaotic, little respect is paid to lanes, and drivers switch at will and without warning. Apart from this being a good excuse (sometimes a real one) for being late, it should also inspire you to be careful when crossing the street.

In major cities, traffic jams are frequent and using the horn is a routine feature of driving. It can take ages to cross town or to get to the beach.

Being alert and blending in
On London’s underground train there is an announcement that says, “Please keep your belongings with you at all times”. Nowhere is this more appropriate than in Brazil. People often walk with a daypack in their front – it is harder to steal like that. In a country with one of the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world, the desperate resort to any means to make a living.

Most people have stories of either themselves or of someone close to them being mugged or sometimes worse. The media feeds this paranoia by presenting real crime stories in lurid detail.

It is important not to stand out too much as a foreigner. Banks, public transportation, and even the street are places where you can be vulnerable.

Most women would not walk in the street by themselves after dark as that could attract attention. They notice who is around them at all times and move to avoid problems if they can.  This may sound stressful, but as with anything it is a question of learning to adapt.

Perhaps it is this pressure that causes Brazilians, who are highly materialistic and consumerist, to have an ambivalent attitude to possessions. They almost expect their belongings to disappear. There is also the contrast between people who are on the one hand incredibly friendly, warm, and hospitable and on the other totally mistrustful of strangers – especially other Brazilians.

In Brazil, people speak Portuguese and not a lot else. In tourist offices and business you may find some who speak a bit of English, but generally very few people do and certainly not in restaurants, shops or other places where a visitor might interact with the locals. Neither do Brazilians really speak Spanish, although a number think they do. Learning to speak Portuguese is useful, both from a communication and a security point of view. It is important, especially in major cities, not to draw attention to yourself. Speaking English in a loud voice will certainly not help.

Body Language
Brazilians have a relaxed body language. They are a tactile people, and putting a hand on someone when talking to them is simply an indication of interest in the conversation, nothing more. A handshake between men may well be accompanied by the other hand being places on the shoulder.

In terms of body distance, people can be in close proximity to each other and not feel that their private space is being invaded. On the contrary, backing away can be considered rude. Brazilians also maintain eye contact both when listening or talking to someone. They accompany their conversation with a whole series of gestures. Across cultures, the same gesture may have different meanings and the one to avoid in Brazil is the thumb to index finger ring sign that means “good” in Anglo-Saxon societies. It has a rather rude meaning that can get you into trouble in Brazil. It is also considered bad manners to yawn or stretch in public.

Hellos and good-byes
Introductions can be quite formal. Men will shake hands and women will kiss on the cheek (twice if they are single, three times if they are married – but just once in São Paulo), as will men to women. In groups, people will often introduce themselves to each member in this way. The same ritual is repeated when leaving and is accompanied by quite long statements about how much the meeting was enjoyed, how it was good to see you, and how you should take care, as well as passing on best wishes to family (or friends or partners) who were unable to be there. In the middle of good-byes, someone can remember to say something and restart a conversation. In this case, once the topic is finished, the farewell proceedings will start again from the beginning. This good-bye ritual is often maintained in phone conversations as well. Even among close friends, the host tends to accompany the guest to the door. Announcing you are leaving and simply walking to the door (without waiting for your host to accompany you) can be considered rude.

Conversation style
Conversation, especially in groups, is lively, dynamic, and often noisy. Normally everybody seems to be talking at once. Interruption is frequent – often people do not get to finish what they are saying before someone else jumps in. However, no one is offended by this (and there are no ritualistic expressions, as found in English, to ask permission to interject). Conversations may become wide-ranging and stray across many different points before returning to the original one.

Brazilians have a flirty way of talking, which generally applies to communication between genders. They normally compliment each other about their looks, hairstyle, or choice of clothes. Sometimes they even imply something more sexual, or suggest going out together without really meaning it. Unfortunately, the only difference between a real flirtatious conversation and a pretend one seems to be in the latter’s slightly more jokey tone of voice.

Brazilians have a vivid and often quite black sense of humor, which is not always politically correct. They will make jokes about most things (including themselves) and there is a thriving wave of satire aimed at whichever politician is in power. Making fun of religion, though, is a delicate issue and should be avoided.

Less educated people can have a simpler sense of humor:  the differences can be seen in TV comedies, which can vary enormously from basic slapstick humor to more sophisticated lampooning of political leaders and social institutions.

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