A security guard stood nearby as I waited in the otherwise empty office lobby for a driver to pick me up and return me to my São Paulo hotel. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a Brazilian woman open one of the large glass doors and enter the building. At first, she headed for the elevators, but once she saw me, she smiled and quickly changed course toward me. She broadened her smile further, introduced herself as the spouse of one of the leaders in my training program, moved to within inches of my face, and warmly shook my hand. She enthusiastically welcomed me to Brazil, said she hoped the training had gone well, and wished me a wonderful visit to São Paulo, all the while warmly smiling (and standing quite close). As quickly as she had waltzed up to greet me, she disappeared into the elevator. I said to the guard that she was certainly a friendly woman, and smiling, the guard replied, “Oh, yes, we’re all very friendly in Brazil!”
Earlier in the day, working with the leaders, I had noticed that in addition to standing closer than British, Canadian, or American leaders, Brazilian leaders occasionally pat the arm of the other person when they engage in conversation. While I was initially surprised by the reduced personal space and seemingly extroverted behavior, I always eagerly anticipate my training journeys to Brazil. The welcoming human warmth, the incredible churrasco (Brazilian-style meats prepared on the grill), the caipirinha (the national cocktail made with sugar-cane based cachaça and limes), and Brazilian music have provided a special allure for me for more than a decade.
A CULTURAL PRIMER
Brazil is the largest country in South America in area and population with more than 200 million inhabitants, and it has the world’s seventh largest economy. Colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century, today the country is one of the world’s most diverse. São Paulo boasts the largest population of ethnic Japanese outside Japan, and Afro-Brazilians, German, and Italian immigrants and various mixtures of these groups create a rich cultural tapestry.
Since 1960, the new city of Brasília, has been the nation’s capital, purposely located in the center of the country. São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, is also the most populous city in the Americas. Rio de Janeiro, on the Atlantic coast, is the country’s other megacity, but Brazil has more than a dozen cities with more than 1 million inhabitants. More than 40 cities have a population above 500,000.
It is important to note that the native language is Portuguese. Portuguese shares Latin linguistic roots with Spanish, and Brazilians often can decipher some Spanish expressions. Since there are many more vowel sounds in Portuguese than the five found in Spanish, however, it is more difficult for Spanish speakers to understand Portuguese than vice versa. I recommend trying to learn some Portuguese, and that bilingual English-Spanish speakers especially learn some Portuguese rather than attempt to rely on their Spanish alone.
A nephew of mine who is a native-Spanish speaker was assigned a high-level leadership position in a multinational company in Brazil. He shared with me a story about how he put a Portuguese ending on a Spanish word in a presentation to his team that he made in “Portuñol,” the halfway combination language, and said something embarrassing that he did not intend to communicate. While many high-level leaders in Brazil speak English, depending on whom you are working with, many of your customers, particularly at the supervisor/individual contributor level, likely will not. In such cases, an interpreter comes in handy.
KEY CULTURAL FACTORS
One reason I enjoy working with Brazilians so much is that in every workshop I’ve taught, learners are enthusiastic, respectful, participative, and enjoy the learning experience. Here are some differences and similarities to expect when working with Brazilians.
GROUP VS. INDIVIDUAL
Developing rapport and strong personal relationships is key to success. While networking is important in any culture, cultivating relationships and connections is even more critical for getting things done in Brazil. Compared to individualistic U.S. or British natives, Brazilians are more collectivist, focused on the group. Loyalty to family and colleagues is a strong value, and socializing after hours is a common and expected part of work. Why wouldn’t you want to spend relaxing social time with work colleagues you care about? On one of my earlier training trips to Brazil many years ago, my co-facilitator and I had finished the third day of training at around 11 p.m. While settling into my bed for a good night’s rest, I heard a loud banging on the door. Two cigar-chomping young Brazilian leaders from the program had come to fetch me to participate in the impromptu karaoke show that was taking place downstairs. I got dressed, went downstairs, and sang with the group. Nearly every program participant was there, enjoying the company of their colleagues.
While in the U.S. it is not uncommon to take a half-hour or 45 minutes for lunch, to skip lunch, or even to eat lunch at your desk while continuing to work, in Brazil, plan for the full hour (and a few minutes more) when you are conducting training. There is a powerful social dimension to meals. Schedule at least 15 minutes for your morning and afternoon breaks and allow participants to enjoy the networking time. Keep in mind that time in Brazil is experienced as more fluid than in the U.S. This also is reflected in non-work-related social events, where it is culturally common to arrive 20 minutes or more after the stated time. In general, when there is a conflict between people and rigidly adhering to schedules, relationships receive priority.
Finally, particularly in a training setting, be prepared for robust, energetic participation. I recommend arriving before the program starts to greet every participant individually before you start, usually by shaking everyone’s hand. Exude personal warmth when communicating. In general, Brazilians appreciate a relaxed, informal presentation style. Small and large group discussions work well, so make sure to allot sufficient time for lively group interactions. I find that U.S.-style training agendas with times segmented into rigid 10- to 15-minute chunks have to be adapted to meet Brazilian group needs. If you have a British or American eight-hour program, I recommend taking time to adapt your training plan to provide more time for group interaction, even if you selectively cut material that is less relevant. Using U.S.-style time management may make your participants feel harried and actually decrease learning. Instead, take time before your training to adjust to the culture.
HIERARCHY AND COMMUNICATION
Status and hierarchy are important. My Brazilian colleague, Ana, while appearing in a television program with me recently, mentioned that social class still plays a role in Brazilian society, and hierarchy in the organization can be seen in employees’ interactions with leaders. In Brazil, a large company might have a dining hall for directors, another for managers, and a third for employees, she explained. Coming to the U.S., it would be surprising to see the general manager having coffee in a single cafeteria with a small group of employees.
This cultural difference is referred to as “power distance,” and includes how much individuals defer to authority figures. Brazilians display greater deference to their leaders (thus, greater power distance) than you would find in Germany, the U.S., or Scandinavia, for example. Of course, this difference represents a cultural tendency, and there are occasional exceptions to the norm. In my experience, workshop leaders enjoy status. If possible, it is still a good idea to have the highest-level leader in the organization introduce you to help you establish credibility.
In terms of communication styles, Brazilians are less direct than Americans. Take extra care to avoid giving negative feedback in public, and realize that a direct “No” or correcting a mistake in public may be perceived as blunt and insensitive.
OTHER PRACTICAL CONCERNS
Visa: For U.S.-American travelers, a visa is required. While the visa lasts for 10 years, it can take a month or more to process. Even if you use an expedited service such as Travisa, apply for your Brazilian visa as early as possible. Do not expect to be able to get it overnight or even from one week to the next.
Dress Code: Brazilians tend to be fashion conscious and pride themselves on their dress and appearance. I always make sure to wear a suit jacket and nice shirt and slacks. I also shine my shoes for every presentation. While jeans are becoming more ubiquitous and expectations are changing, “casual dress” in Brazil is more formal than in the U.S.
Jeitinho Brasileiro: The art of getting things done by bending rules or creative problem solving, such as dealing with bureaucracy, is known as jeitinho or literally, the little way. Jeitinho has both positive and negative connotations, such as clever problem solving on the positive side or bending the rules in a morally questionable way to get what you want on the negative side.
Holidays: Check to make sure your business trip does not conflict with national holidays. During Carnaval, Christmas holidays, and major futebol (soccer) matches, for example, it likely will be more difficult to meet with business partners.
Traffic: Traffic in the larger cities, especially in São Paulo, is heavy. Last fall (which was spring in Brazil), our smartphone’s navigation program consistently showed that a meeting point a business partner had chosen was 35 minutes away. We left 50 minutes before our appointment and arrived 20 minutes late. In contrast, the trip back to our niece’s home was only 40 minutes. On another trip, the “40-minute” drive to the airport took almost three hours. Make sure to leave early and to account for unpredictable traffic in your planning.
I hope these cultural tidbits serve you well when you visit Brazil, and that you have the same rich, joyful experience I have had. Boa viagem!
Dr. Curtis D. Curry, COO of leadership consultancy Quality Learning International, has spent the last 25 years helping global organizations develop high-performing leaders. He speaks four languages and served as the director of the World Trade Institute of the Americas. Dr. Curry also has an MBA and an MA in International Studies, and is a fellow at the Institute for Cross Cultural Management at Florida Tech. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.