Five tips for living in Brazil

Hi all,

Any time you go to another country (even if it’s just crossing the US/Canada border), you’ll encounter some cultural differences. If you plan to stay in another country for an extended period, your happiness will depend in large part on how you adjust to these differences. Your adopted country is not going to change to suit you; you must decide what your reactions will be. Although that’s a self-evident point, it’s one that many expats – even myself – forget from me to time.

Recently asked: What recommendations would you give soon-to-be expats in Brazil? How should they prepare efficiently for their expatriation project and settling in?

James from Macaé, an expert, was the first to respond. I liked his response, and add my own comments here:

1) Learn Portuguese. Yes, definitely. I can’t believe that people actually arrive here not knowing that the official language is Portuguese, but it does happen. And while Spanish will help a great deal at first, if you plan to stay on, devote some time to learning Portuguese. While Portuguese isn’t the easiest of languages to master, you don’t need that much to function day-to-day, and Brazilians are amazingly patient and supportive if you JUST TRY.

Amazon Image

2) Brazilians are “kissy-huggy”. Yes, it’s true, especially in Rio. Less so in Sao Paulo and definitely less so in the South, but still more than North Americans and most folks from Western Europe. But it’s really kind of cool, and I didn’t find this a difficult custom to embrace. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

guy-using-headphonesLOA related point which was more difficult for me to accept – OK, it still is –  IS HOW LOUD BRAZILIANS CAN BE. this trait is most pronounced in the Northeast and among cariocas (residents of Rio), but even here in the South I get to listen in on many of the conversations of my neighbors, whether I wish to or not. I teach English from home and also write. These activities are best done in relative tranquility which alas is as scarce as clothes dryers in Brazil. My suggestion, if like me you have trouble acclimating, is to open iTunes and put on your headphones.

Put on your headphones and smile!

3) Do NOT drink the tap water anywhere in Brazil. I think James is being overly cautious, although this is certainly good general advice, especially for those planning to stay only a short time and don’t wish to accustom themselves to the local microflora. I live in a small town in the mountains of the South (Canela/RS), and the water here is fine to drink straight from the tap. Even in Rio, where I lived for years, I never experienced any problems – although that was likely because the water is so heavily chlorinated, which itself is not a good thing. I think that if you plan to live in a place for awhile, you should become accustomed to the local water. Truth be told, it’s going to happen anyway, in the natural course of events. I mean, do you think that glasses and forks are washed in bottled water? Also I feel it’s important to note that water EVERYWHERE (yes, even in the US) contains microflora; visitors to the US can also experience intestinal distress until they become accustomed – which fortunately generally occurs quickly.

4) Brazilians do everything at their own pace. Oh God yes, James could not be more right. And although this is something you’ll read again and again, and you tell yourself, “Sure, that’s just the culture”, it still will drive you mad sometimes.

Note that the regional differences are quite pronounced in Brazil. In the South, most folks are quite punctual. So are paulistas (residents of Sao Paulo), allowing for unavoidable traffic delays. Actually, I find cariocas to be reasonably punctual in business situations, but in social situations, all bets are off. They will arrive when it suits them – which often means not at all. And when you next meet, they likely won’t even offer a reason. It’s hard at first not to take such behavior as personal slights, but don’t. It isn’t you, it’s accepted (or at least tolerated) behavior.

5) Despite Brazilians being friendly toward gringos, be cautious. This is good advice, especially in Rio, where it can be difficult to know whom you are talking to. It’s easy to feel all warm and happy when you make a new “friend” one afternoon at the beach. But it’s good to ask yourself: How much do you really know about that guy? And is what you “know” based only on what he’s told you about himself? Do you have any confirmation? While this may sound a little harsh, Brazilians themselves have often echoed James’ advise.

What else would I add?

6) If you are thinking to do business in Brazil, move very cautiously. Doing business here isn’t easy. And it’s not wise to rely on verbal “commitments”.

7) Brazil is a great place to spend part of the year (especially if you have dollars or euros in your pocket). But it can wear you down when you are here month after month. I am so looking forward to visiting Europe in July.

As with any type of situation/relationship, sometimes you just need to step back and look at things objectively. Mentally balance things out. Don’t allow yourself to overreact. That said, I’d budget for the annual trip abroad…

How about you? Agree? Take exception? What did we leave out?


Still in Brazil (until July!)

Amazon Image


2 responses to “Five tips for living in Brazil”

  1. MrMarques72 says:

    Hmmm…What’s your advice for an American trying to find a job in Sao Paulo?

  2. JohnInBrazil says:

    Well, it ain’t easy. Not to work legally anyway. For most gringos (in the broad sense, not meaning just US citizens), the easiest job to land is teaching English. It has paid the bills for me for 8 years here. I enjoy it and I have great relationships with my students, some of whom have studied with me for years. The issue is that it’s tough to get a work visa. A school (or other business) needs to sponsor you, and few want to go through the hassle (although my attonrey tells me the actual costs involved aren’t great). If you aren’t intimidated by working in the shadow economy (which in Brazil is huge, comprising millions of Brazilians as well as foreigners), and want to stay in SP for awhile, get some cards printed up saying “English classes, native speaker”, distribute them at businesses on Avenida Paulista, and you can quickly start to build a clientele. After the first few, “boca a boca”(word of mouth) should take over. I turn away students now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *