Doing Business in Brazil

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Here are some ideas for you before you pack that notebook or IPad for Rio. Did I say notebook? I meant bathing suit, sorry! And make sure it's as small as your Blackberry, please! There's free wifi on Copacabana Beach and at many cafés now. How long until the first notebook is stolen there? I'm counting the days...Just because we're chatty and funny, doesn't mean our advice shouldn't be taken very seriously...It's in alphabetical order, and they're all important points. We apologize to all of you who have written asking for this page. It took a long time to write.

Important Note: There are very good books out there such as "A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differently" by Robert Levine, that support our less-than-scientific views (anyone with complaints about them, please read this book and others we recommend on Brazilians and Brazilian culture). The weekly magazine Veja (12/02/09 issue) published a very interesting article regarding Brazilians perception and use (or misuse) of time. The New York Times online (July 31, 2009) published a fascinating survey on how different groups spend their day in the U.S., which would be interesting for you to read and to compare with how Brazilians do it.

Check out the other Crosscultural Pages, too. And if you still have any other questions or comments on the idiosyncrasies of this wonderful country, please e-mail us.

General advice:

Introductions from mutual acquaintances are very important. Have someone call Brazil before you go or carry a letter of introduction with you. I can't stress enough the importance of having personal contacts in Brazil.

The office secretary is the person to ask questions of, regarding office procedures, dress code, and any other help you may need when you first arrive. Treat her with respect and kindness and she'll be your best friend, believe me.

I was recently asked about greetings...When you first meet your business associates, they'll probably shake your hand. Afterwards, you may get kissed on the cheeks by males and females alike, if you're a woman, and by females, if you're a guy. It can also happen that the kissing part will be sprung upon you when introduced...

Can we get to the point?

How do I look?

Is it time for that cafezinho (little coffee) yet?

On a first name basis?

On the phone: ah, those chatty Brazilians!

What time is it anyway or why is everybody always late?  

Can we get to the point?

No, not right away. "Getting straight to the point" is something Brazilians find quite offensive, so don't be aggressive. I've watched Brazilians, in the midst of terribly important negotiations, doing what Americans might think of as "unnecessary socializing." Remember that doing business IS a type of social interaction in Brazil. People need to get acquainted and comfortable with each other before getting down to business.

For the same reason, when calling someone on the phone, remember to chat first and talk business second. After more than twenty years in the U.S., I was still startled and upset when people launched into whatever business they had with me, without a few minutes of preliminary generic, break-the-ice kind of chitchat that would show that they cared for me as a PERSON. They never got my business again that way.

How do I look?

General advice

Brazilians are usually quite shocked by the way Americans dress. The question most people ask is: "Why is it that with all the money and stores that are available in the U.S., Americans dress as if they were poor?" Try not to perpetuate the stereotype of the badly-dressed gringo or gringa by following our advice below. If you need to, check fashion magazines and websites to find out what's in style and where you can purchase certain items. There are catalogs for women that sell the latest fashions in good-quality fabrics at reasonable prices.

Jeans are very popular with Brazilians of all ages, but they are normally ironed, worn with belts and DO NOT have holes and patches on them...well, these days...we can't really say that, can we? Just don't wear holes and patches to work, even if the dress code is casual.

For Women

Clothes

Remember that Brazilians are very fashion-conscious and follow European styles. You don't want to look dowdy or unfashionable, so avoid polyester and double-knits like the plague (unless it's the new generation of polyester fabrics and the style and cut are impeccable).

Depending on where you go in Brazil and the time of the year, you can either wear a stylish business suit (if you can afford it, go for Armani...) or a dress with a jacket. I love the look of linen and it's the perfect fabric for the tropics, but we all know what happens to linen: it wrinkles...The alternative is a really good rayon (which is called viscose in Europe and Brazil) or rayon-blend for the summer and, if you're going to São Paulo and places south where it can get quite chilly in the winter, a good light-weight wool. With the humidity, these fabrics will relax and unwrinkle themselves overnight.

Light-weight linen or cotton short-sleeved shirts are a good idea if you can have them ironed. Otherwise, I would opt for light knits in rayon. Try not to wear blouses with bows and frilly stuff...stick to crisp, elegant-looking shirts and tops. If you like your hemline above the knee, no problem. Everybody wears them and, as a matter of fact, you might be mistaken for a nun, if you don't.

Cleavage is OK, if not too pronounced; you'll see it on TV anchors and commentators...(when in doubt, skip it! Always skip in formal office environments).

Here are some more ideas for formal dress code at the office, recommended by stylists in Rio, but they apply to Brazil in general:

Dark color chemise-style dresses, black pants in wool, tweeds, or pinstripes, worn with white shirts or light-colored shirts, twin sets, knee-length, straight skirts in similar materials, a simple straight, knee-length dress worn with a jacket, suits, cardigans over dresses or shirts, simple, understated jewelry. Don't wear heavy makeup, miniskirts and piercing are a no-no, and jeans...only if there are casual days.

For informal dress code at the office:

Chemise-style dresses in khaki (stretch materials are OK), a nice t-shirt or short-sleeve blouse, khaki pants, good-looking chinos, elegant, pressed jeans, knee-length straight or flared skirts in khaki or colorful material, sandals (no flip-flops or sexy!), colorful mocassins or ballerina shoes, white shirts (these are always a good choice, even though they'll need washing more often...)

Shoes

In Rio and places north, where it gets very humid and hot, women wear dresses or short skirts with sandals to work. Depending on where you work, hose is optional. To be safe, wear hose and a pair of nice pumps the first day, then take the cue from the women around you. They are awfully friendly and will be glad to answer any questions you may have regarding dress codes and so on. Pack a good pair of sandals with a medium or "city" heel; that way you can wear them at night, too.

Makeup

Even though it's said that Brazilian women wear more makeup than American women, most of my friends in Rio, Salvador, Recife, etc., usually go for a light powdering of the nose and a bright-colored lipstick. The reason is obvious: with that humidity, how long do you think they could keep eye-shadows, mascaras, etc. from running down their faces? The other reason is: they have a permanent tan...so who needs makeup during the day? In Rio, young women actually don't wear makeup at all in daytime.

My advice is then to stick with light makeup during the day and add more in the evening. Take your makeup with you in a little bag and apply it inside the air-conditioned building where you'll be conducting business or in the ladies-room at the restaurant. And yes, it's OK to wear bright-colored nail polish to go with that bright-colored lipstick in a casual office, so go ahead and indulge yourself. It's not viewed as unprofessional in Brazil. It just has to be the right color for you. One thing, though: stay away from artificial nails. There's nothing more horrendously unstylish. Your own nails, even if they're short, will do just fine!

Handbags

Take a good quality tote bag with you that zippers up (one that fits your notebook during the day and that you can wear when you go out with your Brazilian friends at night) and beware of sticky fingers anywhere you go. Attaché cases are too masculine and have "foreign business woman" written all over them. I'm partial to those camping-tent canvas ones by Prada myself...They're discreet, chic and virtually indestructible. Don't carry a backpack, unless it sports a famous European label. Evening bags are only for very formal affairs.

Jewelry

Take good quality costume jewelry: your favorite small earrings, faux pearls - if they don't look too real...-, and an inexpensive watch. Leave your real stuff at home. I always wear my wonderful watch, of course, but I don't want to be responsible for you losing yours!

Finally, a word on colors: Brazil is a tropical country, so women tend to wear very colorful prints and bright colors. But Brazilians have a flair for colors that Americans cannot match. Sorry! So, stick to neutrals and black and white. You can't go wrong there, and, in any case, they travel well and mix and match easily. Do not wear green and yellow together: those are the colors of the Brazilian flag and look great there, but not on items of clothing.

If you're going to be in Brazil for a while, I'm sure you'll see something you can't live without. Buy it and wear it; you'll blend in with the crowd!

For men

(I can't imagine why I wrote several paragraphs for the ladies, but have only a couple for the guys...) But they're based on my own American guy friends experience.

Clothes

Just like the women, you want to look fashionable and stylish. Invest on the best suit you can afford with a European design and cut and a good-looking silk tie - one that shows you're a man of good taste, like a Gucci or Hermes.

Do not under any circumstances wear a tie with a short-sleeved shirt. People will mistake you for a Mormon missionary. Leave your undershirts and white socks at home, please. And never, ever, wear socks with sandals when going casual. That's reserved for totally clueless tourists...

Watch out for plaids and stripes and odd color combinations. They'll give you away immediately as this, well, unsophisticated American. Jeans are ubiquitous for casual wear, thank goodness, so take a good pair - no holes or patches or frays - along. They are always worn with belts. (I read somewhere on the Web that only young people wear jeans in Brazil...not true, you'll see middle-aged men in jeans everywhere.)

Shoes, etc.

Good shoes and a good leather belt are a must.

Jewelry

Except for your watch (assuming it's not a gold Rolex), leave your jewelry at home (you don't want to tempt fate and spoil a perfectly good business trip). Take your notebook in a good case that can double as a briefcase or a funky, chic notebook bag.

Personal grooming

Make sure you have a good haircut and look well-groomed - check your fingernails, please - at all times. Some people may think we're exaggerating, but that's probably because they've never taught college kids in the U.S....even my brightest kids at Harvard needed reminding on occasion.

Is it time for that cafezinho (little coffee) yet?

In most Brazilian government offices and businesses, coffee will be offered to you when you arrive. The Brazilian version of the espresso, that is, dark and strong, served in demitasse cups. It'll come on a tray with a sugar bowl and tiny spoons. Cafezinhos will be served several times during the day by a maid or office boy. These days offices tend to have a coffee bar with an espresso machine.

On a first name basis?

No, unless invited to do so. The American custom of first names in the work place is quite disconcerting to Brazilians, who are accustomed to very defined social status/age and rank/position ways of addressing each other. The way I see it, calling the boss "Peter" doesn't make me his equal, so we might as well keep our distance, linguistically-speaking.

The Portuguese language provides for that very nicely, with the formal pronouns "o senhor" for men and "a senhora" for women, in direct address: for instance, "would you like a cafezinho?" becomes "o senhor aceita um cafezinho?" or "a senhora aceita um cafezinho?"

There are also the words "Seu" before the first name for men and "Dona" before the first name for women, which are always used when addressing someone (until they tell you not to, basically). So you would call your male business associate or employee "Seu Pedro" and your female business associate or employee "Dona Ana." There are exceptions to this rule, of course: your male or female counterparts, if you're about the same age and rank, will probably not be offended if you call them by their first names.

It's very common for male bosses, executives and any higher ranking official or bureaucrat to be called "doutor" in Brazil. It DOESN'T mean that this person is a medical doctor or has a PhD, necessarily...in most cases, actually, it's just an honorific title. By the way, elementary school teachers - usually females - are still called "tia", which means aunt, in many places in Brazil.

On the phone: Ah, those chatty Brazilians!

We mentioned it already, but it's worth stressing the point: when talking on the phone, don't sound like you're so pressed for time that you don't have time to be social. You'll never hear from them again if you do. And don't end your conversation by wishing a Brazilian a nice day. That sounds incredibly phony (it sounds phony to Americans, too...I wish people would train their employees to skip that once and for all). Depending on the kind of relationship you have, a simple "bye" will do. And if someone says that they're going to call you to go out, don't sit by the phone waiting for them to do so. Very often, it's just the Brazilian way of saying that they'll see you later, but they aren't quite sure when.

What time is it anyway or why is everybody always late?

This one comes last only because my list is in alphabetical order. It's way up there as the stickiest issue...The perception of time and the concept of punctuality are very different in Brazil, but I insist: it has nothing to do with Brazilians being lazy and a race of procrastinators. Just take a look at the crew working around the clock at places like the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory in the state of São Paulo and you'll see what I mean. Or even, the people who put together those spectacular carnaval parades in Rio de Janeiro. It takes an enormous amount of effort, dedication, and extraordinary long hours to do that, and the logistics are frightening. That said...

In general, when scheduling meetings and such, allow for some degree of tardiness. In the U.S., people are accustomed to rigid schedules and appointments that must be kept on time, and usually things work better and faster. In Brazil, people often deal with several people and different problems at the same time, and face an incredible bureaucracy to boot, not to mention long lines at the bank, government offices, etc. Add to that the fact that Brazilians, as a rule, "waste time" on socializing wherever and whenever, and you'll have a scenario made to measure to drive American business people up the walls.

My advice is: don't get upset about what you perceive as inefficiency and waste of your precious time; slow down and remember where you are. I realize that that's not easy to do, when you're on a business trip and pressed for time, but that's the only way I know of dealing with it myself.

Employees ARE expected to arrive on time, by the way, but senior management usually keep more flexible schedules, arriving later in the morning and leaving long after anyone else.

Birthday Parties

Brazilian Body Language

Food and Eating Habits

To Market, To Market: Food-Shopping, etc. Brazilian-Style

Crosscultural Pages

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