We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Brazil
Owing to Brazils continental dimensions, varied geography, history and people, the countrys culture is rich and diverse. It has several regional variations, and in spite of being mostly unified by a single language, some regions are so different from each other that they look like different countries altogether. Music plays an important part in Brazilian identity. Styles like choro, samba and bossa nova are considered genuinely Brazilian. Caipira music is also in the roots of sertanejo, the national equivalent to country music. MPB stands for Brazilian Popular Music, which mixes several national styles under a single concept.
Forró, a north-eastern happy dancing music style, has also become common nationwide. New urban styles include funk – name given to a dance music genre from Rio’s favelas that mixes heavy electronic beats and often raunchy rapping – and techno-brega, a crowd-pleaser in northern states, that fuses romantic pop, dance music and caribbean rhythms. A mixture of martial arts, dance, music and game, capoeira was created by African slaves brought to Brazil, mainly from Portuguese Angola. Distinguished by vivacious complicated movements and accompanying music, it can be seen and practiced in many Brazilian cities.
In the classical music, the Modern Period is particularly notable, due to the works of composers like Heitor Villa-Lobos and Camargo Guarnieri, who created a typical Brazilian school, mixing elements of the traditional European classical music to the Brazilian rhythms, while other composers like Cláudio Santoro followed the guidelines of the Second School of Vienna. In the Romantic Period, the greatest name was Antonio Carlos Gomes, author of some Italian-styled operas with typical Brazilian themes, like Il Guarany and Lo Schiavo. In the Classical Period, the most prominent name is José Maurício Nunes Garcia, a priest who wrote both sacred and secular music and was very influenced by the Viennese classical style of the 18th and early 19th century.
Candomble and Umbanda are religions with African roots that have survived prejudice and persecution and still have a significant following in Brazil. Their places of cult are called terreiros and many are open to visit. Indigenous traits can be found in some places like the North, from cuisine to vocabulary. There are still many indigenous groups and tribes living in monstly North Region, although many have been deeply influenced by Western culture, and several of the country’s surviving indigenous languages are in danger of disappearing completely. The traditional lifestyle and graphic expressions of the Wajãpi indigenous group from the state of Amapá were proclaimed a Masterpiece of the World’s Intangible Heritage by UNESCO.
Globo, the largest national television network, also plays an important role in shaping the national identity. Nine out of ten households have a TV set, which is the most important source of information and entertainment for most Brazilians, followed by the radio broadcast. TVs broadcast sports, movies, local and national news and telenovelas (soap operas) 6-10 month-long series that have become one of the countrys main cultural exports. People Throughout its history, Brazil has welcomed several different peoples and practices. Brazil constitutes a melting pot of the most diverse ethnic groups thus mitigating ethnic prejudices and preventing racial conflicts, though long-lasting slavery and genocide among indigenous populations have taken their toll.
Prejudice is generally directed towards different social classes rather than between races. Nevertheless, race, or simply skin colour, is still a dividing factor in Brazilian society and you will notice the skin typically darkens as the social class gets lower: wealthy upper-class people are mostly white; many middle-class are mixed; and the majority of poor people are black. Nowadays, however, Afro-Brazilians and Amerindian populations are increasingly aware of their civil rights and of their rich cultural heritage, and social mobility is achievable through education. In general, Brazilians are a fun-loving people. While Southerners may be somewhat colder and more reserved, from Rio upwards people usually boast a captivating attitude towards life and truly enjoy having a good time.
Some may even tell you that beer, football, samba, barbecue and woman is all they could crave for. Friendship and hospitality are highly praised traits, and family and social connections are strongly valued. To people they have met, or at least know by name, Brazilians are usually very open, friendly and sometimes quite generous. Once introduced, until getting a good reason not to, a typical Brazilian may treat you as warmly as he would treat a best friend. Brazilians are reputedly one of the most hospitable people in the world and foreigners are usually treated with respect and often with true admiration. Attitudes towards foreigners may also be subject to some difference treatment: In most of cities, anyone talking, acting or looking like a tourist (even other Brazilians!) could be charged higher prices, such as in parking lots, in restaurants, open malls, etc.
Brazilians seems to be honest and genuinely friendly, but many are used to small acts of corruption in their everyday lives, the so-called “Brazilian Way” (jeitinho brasileiro). If you obviously look like a tourist, you are a potential target; for instance, a vendor may try to sell goods at higher prices, or a taxi driver may choose the longest route to the destination. It doesn’t mean that you can’t trust anyone, just that you have to be a bit more alert and careful, particularly if someone seems too friendly. Whereas the “Western” roots of Brazilian culture are largely European, especially Iberian, as evidenced by its colonial towns and even sporadic historic buildings between the skyscrapers, there has been a strong tendency in recent decades to adopt a more “American way of life” which is found in urban culture and architecture, mass media, consumerism and a strongly positive feeling towards technical progress.
In spite of that, Brazil is still a nation faced towards the Atlantic, not towards Hispanic America, and the intellectual elites are likely to look up to Europe, especially France, as source of inspiration, rather than the US. Many aspects in Brazilian society, such as the educational system, are inspired by the French, and may seem strange at first to Anglo-Saxon visitors. Brazilians ARE NOT HISPANIC. Some may be offended if a visitor openly says that, or tends to believe that Brazilians have Spanish as a primary or secondary language, visitors will receive a warmer welcome if they try to start conversations in Portuguese, but even if the visitor speaks Spanish towards Brazilians, they’re likely to answer in Portuguese.
The contrasts in this huge country equally fascinates and shocks most visitors, especially Europeans, as well as the indifference of many locals towards the social, economic and ecological problems. Whereas an emerging elite of young, well-educated professionals indulge in amenities of modern society, child labor, illiteracy and subhuman housing conditions still exist even in regions blessed by economic growth and huge foreign investments such as São Paulo or Rio. As much as Brazilians acknowledge their self-sustainability in raw materials, agriculture, and energy sources as an enormous benefit for the future, most of them agree that without huge efforts in education there will hardly be a way out of poverty and underdevelopment. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Brazil has faced an increasing wave of immigration from China, Bolivia and Haiti.
Brazilians tend to be very open and talk freely about their problems, especially about political corruption and other problems. But don’t imitate them, as they are likely to feel offended if you criticize their country or customs. In some small towns, local politics can be a sensitive issue and you should be careful when talking about it. Be polite, as always. Be aware that racism is a very serious offense in Brazil. Anyone may be arrested by exposing racist ideas. Most Brazilians frown upon racism, and even if you are only joking or you think you know your company, it is still wise to refrain from anything that can be perceived as racism. According to the Brazilian constitution of 1988, racism is a crime for which bail is not available, and must be met with 6 months to 8 years imprisonment. This is taken very seriously.
However, the law only seems to apply to overt, unquestionably racist statements and actions. Therefore, be aware and be respectful when discussing racial relations in Brazil; do not assume you understand Brazil’s history of racial inequality and slavery better than a Brazilian person of color. Remember that Portuguese is not Spanish and Brazilians (as well as other Portuguese speakers) feel offended if you do not take this in mind. Both languages can be mutually intelligible to a certain extent, but they differ considerably in phonetics, vocabulary and grammar. It is not a good idea to mix Portuguese with Spanish, don’t expect people to understand what you’re saying if you (intentionally or unintentionally) insert Spanish words into Portuguese sentences.
It is also noteworthy that some Brazilians are fanatical about football (soccer) and so there are (some times violent) disputes between teams from different cities (and rivalry between teams of the same city), and walking with the shirt of a team in certain areas may be seen as controversial or even dangerous. Speaking ill of the Brazilian national football team is not considered an insult, but you should never praise the Argentine team or compare them both. Brazil is open to LGBT tourists. São Paulo boasts the biggest LGBT Pride parade in the world, and most major cities will have gay scenes. However, be aware that homophobia is widespread in Brazilian society, and Brazil is not the sexual haven that many foreigners perceive it to be.
Couples that in any way don’t conform to traditional heterosexual expectations should expect to be open to some verbal harassment and stares if displaying affection in the streets, though several neighborhoods of many of the major cities are very welcoming of the LGBT population, and LGBT-oriented bars and clubs are common. Generally, display moderate affection and avoid kissing in public, specially on bus and subway. It is best to gather information from locals as to what areas are more conservative and what areas are more progressive. Social etiquette Cheek-kissing is very common in Brazil, among women and between women and men. When two women, or opposite sexes first meet, it is not uncommon to kiss.
Two men WILL shake hands. A man kissing another man’s cheek is extremely bizarre for Brazilian standards (unless in father-son relationships). Kissing is suitable for informal occasions, used to introduce yourself or being acquainted, especially to young people. Hand shaking is more appropriate for formal occasions or between women and men when no form of intimacy is intended. Trying to shake hands when offered a kiss will be considered odd, but never rude. However, to clearly refuse a kiss is a sign of disdain. When people first meet, they will kiss once (São Paulo and Brasilia), twice (Rio de Janeiro) or three times (Florianópolis and Belo Horizonte, for instance), depending on where you are, alternating right and left cheeks.
Observe that while doing this, you should not kiss on the cheeks (like in Russia) but actually only touch cheeks and make a kissing sound while kissing the air, placing your lips on a strangers cheek is a clear sign of sexual interest. In Brazil showers are long and frequent. In fact Brazil is the only country that rivals Japan in the amount of time people spend cleaning themselves Many Brazilians can dance and Brazilians are usually at ease with their own bodies. While talking, they may stand closer to each other than North Americans or Northern Europeans do, and also tend to touch each other more, e.g. on the shoulder or arm, hugs etc. Brazilians like to drink, especially (very) cold beer (in pubs and in hot weather) and wine (in restaurants or in the winter). However getting drunk, even in a pub, is considered very unsuitable unless you are with very good friends and everybody is as drunk as you. People go to pubs to talk, flirt and tell jokes, not essentially to drink.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Brazil, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Brazil food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Brazil? Please comment below.