Communicating with Brazilians

[ Latin American Studies ]

Communicating with Brazilians

When "Yes" Means "No"

By Tracy Novinger

Illustrations by Donald Haughey

A book to help Americans learn to communicate successfully with Brazilians and vice versa.



33% website discount price


6 x 9 | 260 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70287-5

Brazilians are gracious, friendly, fun-loving people, which makes their country a very inviting place to visit for pleasure or business. So great is their cordiality that Brazilians will say "yes" to almost any request—even when they actually mean "no"—which can be quite confusing for U.S. visitors who are used to a more direct style of communication. In fact, as Americans spend time in Brazil, they discover a number of cultural differences that can hamper their communication with Brazilians. To overcome these barriers, this book analyzes Brazilian culture and modes of communication and compares them with their American counterparts to help Americans learn to communicate successfully with Brazilians and vice versa.

To aid Americans in understanding the Brazilian perspective, Tracy Novinger presents a portrait of Brazil's history, racial fusion, economy, and contemporary lifestyles. She focuses in on many aspects of Brazilian culture, such as social organization and ranking systems; preconceptions, worldviews, and values; sexual behaviors and eating customs; thought patterns; nonverbal communication such as the use of time, space, gestures, touch, eye contact, rituals, etc.; and differences in Brazilian and American point-making styles when negotiating, persuading, and conversing. For quick reference, she concludes the book with a summary and checklist of the leading Brazilian cultural characteristics, as well as eight recommendations for enhancing intercultural communication.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I. Communication Is Culture
    • 1. Communicating with Brazilians
    • 2. What Constitutes a Culture
    • 3. Perceptual Filters in Communication
  • Part II. Resplendent Brazil: Land of Paradox
    • 4. A Capsule of History
    • 5. Racial Fusion
    • 6. Surviving the Economy
    • 7. Experiencing Brazil
    • 8. Social Organization
    • 9. Ranking Systems
    • 10. Preconceptions
    • 11. Worldview
    • 12. Values and Identity
    • 13. Sex and Food
    • 14. Thought Patterns and Directness
  • Part III. Processes of Communication
    • 15. Verbal and Nonverbal Messages
    • 16. Everyday Communication
    • 17. More Daily Interaction
  • Part IV. Conclusion
    • 18. In a Nutshell
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Brazil is open to all races and all cultures and . . . it is located in the most beautiful and luminous province of the earth.

Brazil is the land of paradox.

Jorge Amado's description of Bahia can well be used to describe Brazil as a whole: "a land where everything is intermixed and commingled, where no one can separate virtue from sin, or distinguish the certain from the absurd, or draw the line between truth and trickery, between reality and dream." Despite the many serious problems that must be confronted just to negotiate daily living in Brazil, Brazilians exhibit happiness and zest for life.

It is easy to fall in love with Brazil, with its rich culture and its amiable people, and it is also easy to be lulled into a false understanding. The general pleasantness of daily interaction between people representing the gamut of races and hues may veil a measure of racial discrimination. More significant, however, is the social discrimination between the haves and the have-nots. The easy friendliness of Brazilians requires commitment and imposes obligations that foreigners may find unexpected, unfamiliar, or undesirable. The sometimes informal style of communication is undergirded by a hierarchical system in which everyone has a place and keeps to it, to avoid striking any note of discord in personal interactions. The social hierarchy is unforgiving of transgressions.

Language difference can impede intercultural communication, but a more difficult hurdle is "speaking" a foreign culture. Communication specialists estimate that some three-fourths of our communication takes place nonverbally, through behavior. All behavior is communication, and because we cannot stop behaving, we cannot stop communicating. During all of the waking hours that we spend with other human beings, we "speak" volumes through the behavior inculcated by our culture.

Each of us is conditioned from birth by our culture. It teaches us to use the appropriate tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, table manners, and posture, when to establish direct eye contact and when to touch, proper forms of address and social rituals, to mention only a few cultural elements—so many, in fact, that it would be impossible consciously to remember all of our cultural rules when interacting socially. We learn these rules so well that that we internalize them and they govern our behavior subconsciously. We then become aware primarily of deviations from the prescribed cultural norms. What is particularly significant in intercultural communication is that we tend to react negatively to any such deviations—because we ourselves were trained by negative feedback. One intercultural communication expert states that if left to chance, a person's chances of having a satisfying experience living abroad would be about one in seven.

This book does not treat Brazilian culture exhaustively, nor does it compare Brazilian and North American cultures point by point. Rather, it is intended to help foreigners to communicate effectively with Brazilians by highlighting Brazil's salient cultural characteristics and explaining their function within the culture. It should also make each of us more aware of the dictates of our own culture and how they mesh or clash with those of other cultures. This preparation to consciously negotiate cultural differences will accelerate bridging the culture gap. It is my hope also that Brazilians will benefit from this look across cultural borders.

One cannot reduce the culture of a nation to a book, and it is impossible to fix in static words on a page the living, dynamic aspects of culture. But such an exercise is useful nonetheless. Fixing generalizations in print provides points of reference from which to start our own dynamic, living process of comprehension.

In evaluating a book on Brazilian behavior, a Brazilian graduate student in the United States lamented that it attributed "stereotypical" characteristics of a few to the members of a whole nation and that it focused on Brazil's upper and middle classes, excluding a large portion of society. I would propound that consciously constructing a national cultural model provides a useful tool for achieving effective cross-cultural communication. Such a model is based on observation and is flexible; it is easily altered and supplemented. In these ways, it differs from a stereotype. And travelers to Brazil will benefit most from a model that has the characteristics of the stratum of Brazilian society with which they are likely to interact.

I was born in the Caribbean and lived part of my youth in Brazil, where I attended Brazilian schools. I have portrayed Brazilian cultural characteristics from my experience of living in Brazil, from subsequent visits, from archival research, and from recent focused interviews and conversations with more than one hundred individuals. I was privileged to stay in the homes of Brazilian friends on a number of recent occasions while conducting research for this book. Except for sources cited in the notes, to preserve their anonymity, I have changed the names of all of the persons from whom I gathered information.

Culture affects our communication in two major ways. The history and the experience of living in a culture shape our perceptions, which in turn filter how we interpret situations and understand persons. Culture also regulates the processes of communication interaction, both verbal and nonverbal. All of the elements of culture interact in communication. A change in one element affects all the others, just as a slight rotation of a kaleidoscope creates a new picture.

In this book, I first introduce Brazil, the concept of culture, and an outline of culture's perceptual filters. Second, to explain the Brazilian perspective, I present a portrait of Brazil's history, racial fusion, economy, and the experience of contemporary living. I address the nation's social organization and ranking systems and discuss preconceptions, worldviews, the values and identity of the Brazilian, sex and food as important cultural components, and thought patterns. Third, I examine nonverbal communication processes and the differences between common Brazilian and North American styles when negotiating, persuading, or conversing. The concluding chapter includes a list of the paradoxes of Brazilian culture, a culture-specific checklist, and eight prescriptive points to accelerate cross-cultural competence when communicating with Brazilians. I have endeavored to be objective throughout. But as the anthropologist Edward T. Hall points out, one can never entirely overcome the culture of one's youth.

Boa viagem on your venture into Brazilian culture.

A Brazilian will not say "no" (even if that is what is meant), a nicety that often confuses foreigners.

The South American Giant

When Brazil declared its independence from Portugal in 1822, the United States was the first country to recognize the new nation. The two countries have traditionally enjoyed a friendly and active relationship in both the economic and the political sphere. Brazil is Latin America's dominant country, as measured by size, population, and economy. At the international level, Brazil has supported security efforts, from dispatching an expeditionary force to the Allied campaign in Italy during World War II to sending a battalion to Angola as United Nations Peacekeepers from 1995 to 1997. Brazil is involved in a wider range of international issues and with a greater number of partners outside the Western Hemisphere than any other country in Latin America, and it backs up its interests with sophisticated diplomatic and organizational skills. In addition, Brazil has maintained more foreign policy continuity from administration to administration than is typical in Latin America. Brazil has led political efforts for economic integration in the Southern Cone of South America through the Mercosul alliance of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. And in 1998 Brazil was the United States' eleventh largest export market.

Because of Brazil's great potential as an export market, many U.S. companies have established a presence there. All of the large high-tech corporations have been established in the country for years, and many newer companies are turning their attention to Brazil as an expanding market. In a 2000 interview in Austin, Texas, a Dell Computer Corporation executive stated that Mexico was Dell's largest export market but that the company anticipated Brazil would become its largest export market in Latin America. For this reason, Dell opened a plant in the metropolitan area of Porto Alegre.

With the inauguration of Brazil's internationally focused and reformist president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, on January 1, 1995, and his reelection in 1998, unprecedented high-level contact and cooperation between Brazil and the United States began. President Cardoso visited Washington, D.C., in 1995, President Clinton visited Brazil in 1997, and First Lady Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley, and U.S. Trade representative Charlene Barshefaky visited Brazil in the late 1990s. Many other exchanges have taken place between U.S. and Brazilian cabinet and subcabinet officials.

We can expect the interaction between Brazil and the United States to increase. According to the U.S. Commercial Service's Country Commercial Guide Fiscal Year 2000, Brazil's government has been increasing opportunities for the private sector through privatization, deregulation, and the removal of impediments to competition. U.S. exporters have been able to expand their sales to Brazil and to benefit from new business opportunities that are making Brazil one of the United States' strongest commercial partners.

But despite this economic importance, the mental image most people have of Brazil, if they have one, consists of the exotic Amazon rain forest and Rio's bacchanalian carnaval. They are unaware of the country's disparate regions, such as colorful Bahia in the Northeast; conservative, colonial Minas Gerais; bustling, productive São Paulo in the Southeast; and the eco-city Curitiba and busy Porto Alegre in the South. Brazilians who live in the temperate climate of the country's industrious South say that North American visitors arrive fearful of giant snakes and expecting to see "the locals" swinging from trees. As one Brazilian said, many North Americans are hard pressed to say just where between Mexico and Cuba Brazil lies.

Brazil is an exciting and vital country, and its history and geography are such that it has salient national characteristics that are uniquely Brazilian. Much is known about the Spanish influence in the Americas, and Christopher Columbus is a familiar name to most North Americans. However, when one mentions Portuguese in the United States, the very word sounds exotic and unfamiliar. Certainly Pedro Álvares Cabral, who claimed Brazil for the Portuguese when he landed in Bahia in 1500, is not a household name in the United States.

The Spanish and the Portuguese both wanted to stake their claims in the Americas. The Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal in 1494 gave land discovered west of the Line of Demarcation to Spain and land to the east to Portugal. Thus the intrepid Portuguese had laid claim to the large portion of Brazil that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. And since they subsequently pushed the boundaries, the western frontier of Brazil is not the straight line mandated but reaches far toward the eastern side of the continent. In fact, Brazil borders every country in South America but Ecuador and Chile. And to state the obvious, Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish. As many language students will emphatically attest, the two are different languages.

As in most countries, in Brazil customs such as diet, dress, and attitudes differ from region to region. The most significant division in Brazil lies between the North and the South, causing some Brazilians to comment that their nation comprises two different countries. But along with the regional differences Brazilians hasten to point out, they also point to the many commonalities. Brazilians have many characteristics and perspectives in common, as Brazilians, that they do not share with North Americans. And, conversely, North Americans from very diverse regions of the United States share customs and beliefs that they do not have in common with Brazilians.

Beyond focusing attention on a nation's characteristics that seem exotic and foreign to outsiders, to communicate successfully across cultures it is sometimes important to just rely on common sense. Small towns in both the United States and Brazil, for example, are more conservative than are large cities, as is generally true throughout the world.

Embraceable Brazil

The prominent Brazilian statesman, politician, educator, and anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro states that Brazilians are the center of neo-Latin civilization in the New World, "better than the others because bathed in black and Indian blood, a people whose role from here on will be less a matter of absorbing European things than of teaching the world how to live with more joy and more happiness."

Brazilians are a gracious people. The primary and ubiquitous rule for personal interaction for Brazilians is to remain courteous, pleasant, and cordial in all circumstances. Abrasiveness, friction, confrontation, loss of face, hostility, overt competition, and displays of individual ego are to be avoided at all costs. A Brazilian will not say "no" to you, a social nicety that can lead to more than a little confusion. If you learn little else about Brazil, remember the cordiality rule.

Like most customs, there are exceptions to the rule of cordiality. Perhaps the most significant involves the social discrimination of the haves against the have-nots. Brazil has a class system that clearly delineates the social location of its citizens. This class system is maintained in daily interactions. The culture's hierarchy governs Brazilian cordiality, and, consequently, it is first extended horizontally and upward in the social pyramid. Pleasantness is usually maintained when communicating down the social ladder as long as the person on the higher rung perceives that the person on the lower rung is properly deferential. A not inconsequential merit of this surface civility is the pleasantness it affords in daily interactions.

Brazilian culture is structured in two other distinct dimensions, casa and rua, as described by Roberto DaMatta. The first is the realm of the "house," that in-group dimension of trusted social relationships with family, kin, friends, and colleagues. This is the safe haven in what Brazilians often experience as a dangerous world. The other dimension is the out-group realm of the "street," where one faces the danger of the unknown, the foe, and the thief. The street is where one lives at risk. Cordiality is essential in the house and conditional in the street, although great care is taken to respect the street's hierarchical rules.

Social interaction in general in the United States is conducted with more directness and bluntness than in Brazil. Brazilians experience unadorned North American directness of communication like a dash of cold water. But despite the difficulty that Brazilians sometimes have in coping with North American communication style, many Brazilians living in the United States express their appreciation of an underlying and more equitable respect of persons and human rights than they enjoy as Brazilian citizens living in their own country.

Brazil is a country where reality is perceived in a broad spectrum of color and all shades of gray. Things may be right, but maybe not, or they may be wrong, but maybe not. It depends. There is a great deal of latitude in the allocation and use of time. Civil law is broadly interpreted. And it is nearly impossible to catalog a huge segment of the population as to their "race"; they are Brazilian, which by definition is usually a mixture of races and ethnicities.

In contrast, the United States is above all a country of black and white. Things are right, or they are wrong. One is on time, or one is late. Business and law seek specific answers and concrete examples. People are categorized as either black or white. In the United States black/white segregation of the population was actually legislated, and a person who was "white" in phenotype was categorized as "black" if it could be determined that he or she had any black African ancestry, even if this was so far back that there remained no physical manifestation whatsoever—which is incomprehensible to a Brazilian.

The history, geography, experience, economy, and organization of a culture filter and shape the perceptions of its people, which in turn affect how they interact and communicate. Given that very different factors have shaped the two nations, communication between Brazil and the United States must bridge a vast cultural distance.

In Spite of Ourselves

Most of us think that we act through our own free will. But think again. For the most part, we do not.

All communication is a system of behavior. We cannot stop communicating, because all behavior is communication, and we cannot stop behaving in one way or another. Communication specialists estimate that some three-fourths of all communication is nonverbal. Some have estimated a larger proportion. In addition, the proportion of nonverbal to verbal communication frequently varies from culture to culture. For practical purposes, however, what is significant is that a person communicates far more through nonverbal behavior—such as gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, dress, body language, rituals, and courtesies—than through words.

Our behavior is taught to us from birth so that we will conform to the culture in which we live. We learn when we may speak and when we may not. We learn that some facial expressions earn approval while others provoke a reprimand. We are taught which gestures are acceptable and which are not; we learn whether we can eat food with our hands, which utensils to use at the table for what purpose, whether we need to hide the use of a toothpick with the other hand, when to shake hands, and whom we should kiss and in what manner. We learn how to address people with the words, honorifics, and titles approved by our culture, what tone of voice we should use, how close we should stand to people to converse, whether and where we should touch them, when and how to make eye contact and for how long, and countless other things that would be impossible to consciously remember and use at the same time when interacting socially. We learn this behavior well, because we must pass the ever-alert scrutiny of our peers in order for them to accept us and incorporate us into their social group. The elaborately written subconscious cultural programming that we have internalized directs most of our social behavior; consequently, we govern only a small percentage of our actions by conscious choice and thought.

We usually become aware of the culturally prescribed behavior that we expect from ourselves—and therefore from others—when someone violates the patterns we have been trained to follow. Such a violation raises our cultural rules to a conscious level of awareness. And we usually react negatively to any behavior that does not conform to our own norms, because we ourselves were trained largely through negative feedback. Negative evaluations cause dislike rather than like, avoidance rather than approach. They occur because the foreign culture deviates from the norms to which we are acculturated. The barriers are not necessarily reciprocal. They can be one-way, reflecting an unwillingness or inability to understand the norms of a foreign culture.

Most of us can clearly understand that we need to translate verbal language. We should therefore be able to understand unequivocally that we also need to translate the extensive nonverbal language that cultures use to communicate.

This does not mean that we all have to think, feel, and act in the same way. But to survive in a multicultural world, we need to be able to communicate with each other well enough to cooperate on practical issues.

Some Definitions

Before proceeding to an examination of intercultural communication, let me first define some terms. I use a macro definition of "intercultural" that indicates differences between communicators relating to language, national origin, race, or ethnicity rather than a micro definition that, for example, might indicate the difference in "culture" between musicians and accountants. I focus on the obstacles that arise in communicating across cultures that are international, rather than target intranational subcultures (sometimes called co-cultures) that share the experience of living in the same polity. "Intercultural communication" means a transnational "transactional, symbolic process involving the attribution of meaning between people from different cultures." I use the term "cross-cultural" synonymously with "intercultural."

"North American" refers to an English-speaking citizen of the United States who is an anglophone. An anglophone of northern European origin is sometimes called an "anglo" in the United States, but this latter term has a different, often pejorative connotation. One should note that the peoples of North, Central, and South America are all "Americans." When interacting with someone from the Americas, rather than say "I am an American," a citizen of the United States expresses this awareness and is somewhat more precise by referring to himself or herself as a North American, even though Canada and Mexico are also in North America. In past years Brazilians traditionally used the term "norte-americano/a" to refer to a U.S. citizen, but common usage in recent years has been simplified to "americano/a." "Norte-americano/a" now is usually confined to more formal language, or where specificity is desired, such as in the name Instituto Cultural Brasileiro Norte-Americano, a well-known Brazilian school where English is taught.


Culture is a dynamic, ongoing process that constantly creates, re-creates, and reinforces itself through its patterns of interpersonal communication. I will construct a model of Brazilian culture and national character and discuss how its distinctive features influence interpersonal communication. Because culture is central to the issue of intercultural communication, I begin with a map of cultural territory.

Tracy Novinger invests in real estate in Austin, Texas. She writes from her personal experiences of living in and visiting Brazil, as well as interviews with over one hundred people. She was born in the Caribbean, studied in Brazilian schools, speaks several languages, has traveled extensively, and holds a master's degree in communications.