Friendliness in Brazil
If you followed the news coverage during and after the 2014 World Cup games in Brazil, you certainly heard again and again about how friendly the Brazilians are. (“Receptive” is how they like to describe themselves.) I certainly think it’s true. When asked why I moved to Brazil, I always give the same reply: “The natural beauty, and the people.”
But of course, with cultures it’s never really that simple. And while Brazilians do have a well-earned reputation for friendliness, there are certainlimits. In this post I’d like to reflect a bit on what I’ve seen here in Brazil, and to offer a few tips for visitors.
First, and perhaps somewhat curiously, I believe foreigners – especially North Americans – are often received more warmly by Brazilians than are other Brazilians. It’s not necessarily that Brazilians aren’t warm towards other Brazilians; they generally are, within class limitations (which is a whole other post). But Brazilians seem to like to have gringo friends. We could speculate on why that is. If you are a bit of a cynic, you might say that your new Brazilian acquaintance is hoping that one day you might be able to help him in some way, say in getting a visa, or in bringing back some Victoria’s Secret Coconut Passion (R) the next time you visit the States. Maybe they are simply curious about the US. But I’ve definitely felt on occasion that I was kind of on display to my Brazilian friend’s friends. Not intending to give offense here, just commenting. I’d welcome thoughts from Brazilians on this point.
But while Brazilians do tend to like gringos, they are Latins, and so also tend to exhibit that Latin dichotomy of emotions: If I’m a Brazilian and you are family or already a friend, I’ll do anything for you. If you are introduced to me by someone I know and trust, welcome to the circle. Otherwise, you are apt to be treated with suspicion. But going back to the previous point, being a gringo buys you extra points.
When I moved to Rio, I was surprised to find how friendly folks seemed. In those first months, I was forever asking for directions, and I don’t think that I was ever rebuffed. People would stop and point me in the right direction – even pulling over someone else to assist if they weren’t sure. Brazilians like to do little favors such as give directions. Sometimes I suspect it’s because it makes them feel good about themselves, but so what? It’s still helping.
Brazil is a sprawling country, with pronounced regional differences, more so than you’ll find in the US, perhaps more along the lines of Canada. Folks from the North and the Northeast and also in Rio are considered to be very friendly, which is true – to an extent. For instance, it’s pretty easy to strike up a conversation with someone from Natal or even the big city of Rio. Let’s say it’s Sunday afternoon and there are no free tables on the calçadão (broad sidewalk) at the beach; just ask the guy sitting alone if you can share his table, and he’s apt to welcome you to join him. You can enjoy some good conversation while you share his table and perhaps even a couple of bottles of beer. He will likely even invite you to “Passa lá em casa”, which means to drop by his house.
But as your new-won friend wanders off down the calçadão, your reverie breaks as you realize that he never gave you his address. Or his phone number. Did he even mention his last name? Don’t be offended. As Priscilla Ann Goslin notes in her humorous but spot-on guide to Rio, How to Be a Carioca, “Passa lá em casa” should never be thought of as an actual invitation.
While folks from the North and Northeast are widely regarded as friendly, folks from the South, where I now live, are considered reserved or downright cold, depending on your background. It’s certainly true that no one here is going to see you sitting alone at a table and ask you to join them. Folks are less apt to return your smile on the street.
I live in a small town of less than 40,000, and that’s including the outlying areas. While this may conjure up for you pictures of Mayberry, where everyone treats you with “Mornin’!” or “How do?”, in fact the person on the sidewalk may not return your smile, and may well ignore you completely. This is frustrating, but it’s actually common in small towns (Wilson, NC, where I spent almost three miserable years, being the epitome of small snobbish-for-no-discernible-reason small towns). In a small town, everyone knows everyone else (hell, most of them are cousins of one ilk or another) – and then there’s you.
It’s taken me seven months here in Canela to really begin to develop a circle of friends, and it’s often been frustrating. But I’ve been told frequently and finally accepted that it’s not personal. And finally, I feel that I’m building some real friendships, true friendships which hopefully will endure for years. And maybe that’s the more realistic view: true friendships take time to develop. (But shit, how about inviting a guy out for a beer once in awhile?!)
I think part of my difficulties are due to being single. I think – though I could certainly be wrong – that a couple might be viewed with less suspicion and more readily accepted.
Across Brazil, you’ll find that new acquaintances may not immediately invite you into their homes. When they do, note that generally parts of the house are open to company, while other rooms are considered private. You’re unlikely to be given a tour of the house as is so common in the US.
Also, contrary to the custom in the US, when you are the new kid on the block, don’t expect your neighbors to come round and greet you and invite you to the barbecue on Saturday. You may have to be the one to go introduce yourself. This seems odd to me, but seems to be the norm here.
I just recently had a birthday (sigh…). I live in a small apartment building of four floors, 11 apartments in total. I’ve only been living here about one month, and without giving it a lot of thought, invited my neighbors to either side and the ones below me. This is kind of standard practice in the US. If my neighbors threw a party and hadn’t invited me, I might even consider them a bit rude or standoffish. Anyone, my neighbors didn’t show. (Not actually true, a single woman that I’d chatted with a couple times did come. But none of my immediate neighbors showed.) I asked around, and it’s not common practice to invite your neighbors to parties here. Perhaps my neighbors were wondering, “Who’s this crazy guy slipping invitations under my door?”
But in general, I think that the same rules apply here in Brazil as in most of the world: People are unlikely to make the first move, perhaps only out of shyness or uncertainty as to how they’ll be received. However, most folks are friendly enough if you are willing to make that first move, which could be something as simple as asking for directions or a bit of information. Most folks at heart are friendly and, being only human, curious.
Passa lá em casa!
Way down South