There are two main types of culture – the culture of the elites that we can see in concert halls and museums and every day culture, manifesting on the street and in people’s houses and which actually defines a country and the way its inhabitants live. No matter what place in the world you visit, there are some elements of manner and etiquette you need to know before getting there. Locals will know you are a foreigner anyway, but a famous saying recommends: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” – and not without a good reason. Let’s see some habits, social norms, and taboos specific to the Brazilian society.
Diversity is joined by inequity
Although few Brazilians would describe themselves as racist, skin color determines many to engage in social discrimination. Oftentimes people with darker brown skin are socially and economically disadvantaged and have lower class jobs like workers, maids, drivers, etc. However, the rule does not apply to all individuals, so don’t assume that any mestizo is part of the lower class. Another disparity can be observed between men and women. Women make up of around 40% of the Brazilian workforce and oftentimes they are paid lower compared to men. Most of them are concentrated in sectors like teaching, nursing, and administrative support, in spite of the 1988 constitution prohibiting discrimination against women.
Men shake their hands while maintaining steady eye contact, and women kiss each other. Start with the left and alternate cheeks. In most states, people kiss three times. If you are from a culture where people don’t enjoy proximity too much, you’ll probably think that your new Brazilian friend is flirting with you because he or she will get very close when kissing you, but this is not the case. Brazilians are simply not afraid of getting to close to each other or feeling the touch of other people. Friends will also hug and give each other backslaps.
If you want to make a gift to a Brazilian, always avoid purple, whether it’s a tie, a scarf, or a flower, because purple is the color of mourning, along with black. Flowers such as orchids are widely appreciated. If you receive a gift, open it as soon as possible to express your gratitude.
Going to someone’s home
Brazilians, like many South-Americans, are not particularly punctual, especially when it comes to informal gatherings. If someone invites you to their house, arrive 30 minutes late for dinner and an hour late for a party or a reception. In Brazil it is better to over-dress than to under-dress, because Brazilians like elegant outfits and judge others by their appearance.
If you want to do business with a Brazilian entrepreneur or company, keep in mind that these people like to know who you are before closing the deal. This is why they will prefer face-to-face meetings, dealing with an individual they can relate to, and informal communication. It is acceptable to interrupt someone while he or she is speaking, but be careful about criticizing them because they hate being embarrassed. Building a relationship with a Brazilian takes time and the process cannot be rushed. Negotiation requires a good amount of time and you should never change your negotiating team (you’ll need to start over again) or bring an outside legal presence (it will be perceived as an intruder). When it comes to meetings, business people in Sao Paulo and Brasilia are punctual and arrive on time, while in Rio de Janeiro and other places arriving a few minutes late is acceptable. If you are kept waiting, it is better to hide your impatience.
Beauty and fashion
As mentioned above, Brazilians care a lot about appearance. Brazil has the most plastic surgeons per capita in the world and its population also uses extrovert and brightly colored clothing to ensure physical attractiveness. The hot climate has also lead to a preference for casual, beach clothing. When it comes to business attire, men wear conservative, dark colored business suits, in the three-piece version if they are executives. Women opt for suits and dresses which are elegant and feminine at the same time, preferably accompanies by manicures and good quality accessories. In a work-related environment it is not recommended to wear jeans.
Brazil is a collectivist society, where people belong in groups which take care of them in exchange. As a result, Brazilians are open and friendly to people, and their conversations are often animated and engaged. Interrupting someone who is speaking is not considered rude, but a sign that you are engaged in what the other person is saying. Eye contact is common among people in the same class, but people working in service provision sectors like construction workers, nurses, and house cleaners avoid eye contact with those who are perceived to have a higher social status compared to them.
There are some things you should avoid in Brazil:
- Making the inverted American “OK” sign, because for Brazilians this is an obscene gesture
- Getting dressed in white at weddings, since this color is reserved to the bride only
- Topless is rather taboo, although very small bikinis can often be seen on Brazilian beaches
- Being atheistic is considered weird, since most people are Christian. A poll which asked Brazilians who they would for revealed that 80% of Brazilians would vote for a black man, 50% would vote for a woman, and only 8% would vote for an atheist
- Eating milk and mango – people Brazil think this combination can kill you
- Talking openly about sex, also due to the religious background of most Brazilians
- Talking to a Brazilian in Spanish, as they value their Portuguese heritage very much
- Discussing politics, religion, and other controversial subjects
Consider these facts before travelling to Brazil and you will find it easier to become friends with these people with an extraordinary zest for life, but also with a perspective and customs different from your culture.