From pristine rain forests to some of the biggest parties on Earth, Brazil is a world unto itself. Find out how to avoid offending the more than 193 million people who live there (and even make friends) by following cross-cultural guru Dean Foster‘s advice on how to navigate the largest lusophone (that means Portuguese-speaking) country in the world:
1. Brazilians are very comfortable with physicality: while speaking, they might take your hand or touch your shoulder, and they typically stand closer than most folks are used to. Resist stepping back!
2. Remember, the language is Portuguese…not Spanish! (And even if you know Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese can be a whole different ballgame.) But it does share commonalities with other Romance languages, so if you know Spanish or French, you might have some luck figuring out written Portuguese.
3. On many Brazilian streets, red lights are merely suggestions. In fact, many drivers speed up as the light is turning red. Always be very careful to look both ways when crossing, and never assume right-of-way as a pedestrian. Note also that many drivers turn their lights off at night (the complaint being that headlight glare is blinding!)
4. Three’s a charm. When women meet each other (and when men and women who have already met meet again), the handshake is often accompanied with three alternating-cheek “air kisses.” Men never initiate this, but respond in kind if the woman does.
5. Carnival may get all the attention, but spending New Year’s Eve in Rio is magical. Hundreds of thousands of people dressed in white wade into the ocean at midnight to make a wish for the coming year while samba drums throb and general revelry ensues. The word for the celebration, Réveillon, comes from the French word for dream, the belief being that if the waves bring your wish back to you, it will come true. (It’s easier to find a good hotel room, too.)
6. Pace yourself! The ubiquitous national drink of Brazil is the caipirinha, a delicious concoction of sugar, muddled fruit, and cachaça (a liquor distilled from sugarcane). It goes down very easily…and so will you, so pace yourself! The toast is, “Saude!” (“sow-ooje”).
7. The “OK” sign is not okay! Touching the tip of your thumb to your forefinger, with the rest of your fingers extended in the air is very vulgar in Brazil. Don’t do it.
8. Alternately, sticking your thumb between your index finger and middle finger is okay. Called “the figa” in Brazil, the gesture (sometimes used in a game of “I got your nose”! in the U.S. and beyond) signifies good luck. You’ll even see it on necklaces as an amulet.
9. Avoid wearing green and yellow together…unless you’re attending a soccer (“futbol”) game. These are the colors of the Brazilian flag, and outside of the stadium (or the pub on game days), it might look odd to wear them together.
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10. Do as the locals do. There is a sometimes not-so-gentle rivalry between Paulistanos (natives of the city of São Paulo) and Cariocas (people who hail from Rio): Paulistanos see Cariocas as too ready to drop work for a game of beach volleyball, and Cariocas see Paulistanas as too willing to sacrifice life’s simple pleasures for hard-earned money. The evidence is everywhere: Cariocas start work later, take longer lunches, and do, in fact, play volleyball on the beach whenever possible, while in Sao Paulo, socializing is more contained and there is no beach. Adjust your clock, and your attitude, accordingly, when visiting these two amazing cities.
Want more cultural dos and don’ts for your next trip to Brazil?
- Download the Brazil CultureGuide © app for your iPhone or Android from DFA Intercultural Global Solutions
- Check out National Geographic Travel’s Brazil Guide