Brazilian Culture

Here are some pages about cultural issues. There's much more than this to Brazilian culture, of course, but it's a beginning. It's always good to learn a little Portuguese before you go. Here's a great Web site where you can learn Portuguese language basics: (Sonia is the woman behind it; she's really great.)

Arara, Our Brazilian Correspondent
Birthday Parties
Body Language
The Brazilian Bikini
Doing Business in Brazil
Food and Eating Habits
Reading Materials
To Market, to Market: Food Shopping, Etc. Brazilian Style

I'm sure we all know how difficult it can be to live in a foreign country or to share your life with someone who comes from a different cultural background, having to communicate in a language that's not yours by birth. There are so many reasons why people move around the world and each one of us, I'm sure, has a story or two to tell...For example, when I'm sad or angry, I don't feel like speaking English and tend to look for someone with whom I can speak Portuguese.

My daughter, who was born in Rio de Janeiro, and visited Brazil every American summer as she was growing up, decided to find a "compromise" between the two cultures and went to live in Europe (which, she says, has the good parts of both worlds) for a few years. She's back in the U.S. now, with a better understanding of this culture (her words, again) and more patience and tolerance for its quirks.

And, of course, there's the story of the word "amigo" or friend in English...For years, when I complained that I didn't have any friends, my ex-husband would exclaim in frustration "what do you mean, you don't have any friends, you have lots of friends..." Until I finally realized we weren't talking about the same thing: "amigo" for me goes far deeper in terms of a relationship than friend... 

Brazilians often resent what they perceive as the "coldness" of Americans, who are not accustomed to touching each other all the time and to getting physically close to other people, in general. My advice is: get used to that, it's not going to change. Make sure you surround yourself with other Brazilian expats...

On the other hand, the friendliness and warmth Americans encounter when they first arrive in Brazil may trick them into thinking that it's going to be easy to make friends there. Some may be disappointed, if they can't distinguish between genuine interest and casual socializing, which is several degrees warmer than in the U.S. Both men and women will stand closer to you and may touch you lightly during a conversation; when greeting you or saying good-bye, they will shake your hand or hug you, and both men and women will kiss you on both cheeks. These behaviors do not constitute sexual advances and are one of the main reasons, actually, why some Americans decide to stay in Brazil. I confess that if I couldn't go to Brazil often, I would shrivel and die from human warmth deprivation. The downside of all this seems to be that I always get sick more often in Brazil...more colds, sore throats, etc...You can't win, can you?

Brazilians should not be too sensitive to the fact that Americans call themselves, well, Americans. Remember that the country's name is The United States of America (not North-America). Try finding a good word to describe the citizen of such a country! They've tried, early on, and couldn't come up with anything better. So, cut them some slack, will you?

Some of you have asked questions concerning the perception of manual labor as "demeaning" in Brazil. That is an unfortunate, to say the least, legacy of the days of slavery. Also, a lot of upper- and middle-class people still have maids and other servants to do the work for them, especially in northeastern cities, which are several degrees more conservative than the large cities of the South. But, as with other aspects of Brazilian society, that too is changing rapidly.

We also had complaints that what we write in these pages applies mostly to Rio de Janeiro. Not true. Of course, things DO differ from region to region, in terms of diet and behavior and attitudes, but we've tried to emphasize what's common all over Brazil. Small towns in the interior WILL be more conservative...use common sense and you'll get along just fine. I've traveled by myself all over Brazil, on airplanes and buses, staying at hotels and small inns, going out to eat by myself at night, taking taxis, buses and the metro. Sometimes a male escort will be advisable, but in general, Brazil is a country where women traveling alone are perfectly safe and will not be harassed. People may stare at you, sometimes, but it's mostly out of friendly curiosity. Notice that I say "mostly" and always be aware of your surroundings.

And last, but not least, a few words about women and marriage, work, children, etc. Expect differences among social classes and geographical locations; also, certain families may be more traditional than others. But a desire for change and economic realities have dramatically altered the picture in Brazil. A great number of women have college degrees and work outside the home. Actually, women now outnumber men in "traditional" colleges like Law and Medicine. They are involved in politics (several large cities, including some in northeastern Brazil, have been run by women in recent years), banking and big business; more and more daughters are taking over their father's businesses; there are large numbers of doctors and scientists; the general attitude among my friends' daughters is one of "there's nothing I can't do." New divorce laws, changing attitudes towards single or separated women, extended maternity and paternity leaves, were very positive steps in the last two decades. Of course, we all wish Brazilian men had changed along...I see too many women trying to do it all, just like in the U.S.

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Revised: 11/05/08