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Loosening Up In Brazil

Cross-cultural communication is tough. The solution? Learn about the customs of your global colleagues.

May 1, 1998
Related Topics: Expatriate Management
David W. Stephen remembers one of his earliest days in Sao Paulo. He drove his car out of the parking lot into one of the heaviest traffic jams in the world. A Brazilian woman screeched her brakes and allowed him to squeeze into her lane. “I gave her the OK sign,” he recalls. “As soon as I made it, I slapped my forehead, closed my eyes and pressed my head against the steering wheel.” When Stephen looked up, the woman was laughing. She knew by the pantomime that he had caught his faux pas. (A circle of one’s first finger and thumb is considered vulgar.) “She treated the incident with humor, which is a national trait. I learned to be more cautious, but also more forgiving of mistakes.”

Brazilians, he says, are generally more relaxed than Americans. If a flow of events is disrupted, they’re less likely to force things back on track and on schedule. They have a saying in Portuguese, Brazil’s official language: “Si Deus Quizer,” which means “If God wishes.” It speaks to the go-with-the flow, somewhat fatalistic attitude of the Brazilians. Stephen, who is fluent in Portuguese, lived in Sao Paulo for six years when he and his wife taught language and performing arts between 1991 and 1997. They were recruited at an Iowa University teachers’ fair that matched American instructors with overseas schools. Now having repatriated, he’s a doctoral student specializing in human capital and resource development (the corporate niche for selecting and training expatriates) at Fort Collins-based Colorado State University. When it comes to expat survival, he swears by the “railroad-crossing strategy” for cross-cultural success:

  • Stop -- withhold your judgment.
  • Look -- visualize a new or unexpected situation from a birds-eye point of view.
  • Listen -- hear what other people around you are saying.

Get comfortable with ambiguity.
American expats, says Stephen, are well advised to be flexible in one’s mindset. Things aren’t black and white, especially now as the country faces a significant crossroad. Indeed, under current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s leadership, the country’s 160 million population is poised to take a prominent place on the world stage. Foreign and domestic investment abound. One factor is the Mercusur trade group, which Brazil heads with Argentina. According to Business Week, Brazil wants to increase its bargaining clout with the United States by extending its reach to include countries such as Chile and Bolivia. “Recent legislation has made Brazil very supportive of non-Brazilian countries,” says Ilene Dolins, senior vice president and a founding partner of New York City-based Windham International, a global relocation consulting firm. “You can already see a lot of financial firms going into the country. They’re usually the precursor of a [growing business] trend.” Clearly, Latin America is hot -- and more business activity is predicted for the 21st century. So the more one understands about a host-country’s culture, the sharper one’s competitive edge.

Watch your greetings and your gestures.
When meeting Brazilians, you’ll notice that greetings can be effusive, with extended handshakes common during the first encounter, progressing to embraces once a friendship has been established, according Terri Morrison, author of “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands” (Adams Media Corp. 1994). Women often kiss each other on alternating cheeks: twice if they’re married, three times if single. The third kiss is supposed to indicate “good luck” for finding a spouse.

But don’t take this informality too lightly, warns Stephen. Although an employee may hug his or her boss in public, the boss is still viewed as one who occupies an elevated status. Brazilians are more comfortable with hierarchical relationships. When available, titles such as Doctor and Professor are used to address business acquaintances, or the terms Senhor (Mister) and Senhora (Mrs.) are used to precede surnames. Also, be aware that some individuals may introduce themselves using their titles and first names (e.g., Senhor John). So don’t be afraid to pat Brazilians on the back, but, do address them with respect.

Brazilians also are known to communicate in close proximity. They may keep in physical contact by touching arms, hands or shoulders during an entire conversation. It’s just their friendly persona -- don’t back away and automatically assume you can be the next plaintiff in a sexual-harassment lawsuit. Judge the context and respond accordingly.

Get accustomed to waiting.
Any American who has lived and worked in Brazil also will tell you: If you’re planning a meeting or conference, expect Brazilian participants to arrive late. And don’t ask, “Did you get caught in traffic?” They just don’t view time in the same way we do. “Americans need to avoid the value judgment that not being on time is being unconcerned or careless,” says Stephen. If scheduled events don’t happen with precision, so be it. Brazilians believe that what happens is more important than when it happens. In fact, it’s not unusual for TV programs slated for 9 a.m. to begin at 9:10.

The lack of punctuality is a fact of life in Brazil. Here are some additional pointers to keep in mind:

  • Avoid any business transactions around Carneval, which always precedes Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
  • Make appointments at least two weeks in advance. Never make impromptu calls at business or government offices.
  • Be prepared to commit long-term resources (both in time and money) toward establishing strong relationships in Brazil.
  • Brazilians conduct business through personal connections and expect long-term relationships. Before you invest in a trip, hire an appropriate Brazilian contact in your industry to help you meet the right people. Your despechante (guide) will be invaluable.

At the same time, expats shouldn’t land in Sao Paulo without having an American buddy to help process the first few weeks in a new foreign country. A compatriot understands more keenly how the newcomer feels and can offer suggestions on how to cope with the cultural differences, explains Stephen. For example, a host-country national won’t understand the fine art of substitution. When an American craves sour cream on his or her potato -- and sour cream is never available in the stores -- only a compatriot would think of giving the expat recipes for substitutions. “Likewise, mops, soaps, telephones and showers are all different. But it would take a fellow countryman to notice just how different and explain how to cope with it.”

Stephen, therefore, believes a double pairing is the optimal strategy. The goal, he says, is to give enough support to the neophyte so the new challenges don’t grow into insurmountable frustrations.

Global Workforce, May 1998, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 8-9.

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