Sometimes countries remind me of people – their national characteristics, qualities, resources and impact on others leaving impressions in much the same way that a film-star might. Brazil certainly has a film-like quality to it, and whereas the United Kingdom might remind me of Renée Zellweger, the USA of Bette Midler, and France of Meryl Streep, Brazil for me is definitely Angelina Jolie, with that mixture of beauty, sensuality, danger, and a tendency sometimes to go over the top.
Brazil has seen enormous changes over the last 30 years, most of which I have lived through, and yet Brazil and the Brazilians remain fundamentally the same through the boom and the bust years; they are a friendly, fun-loving, family-oriented, hard working people, who love their country but also love to leave it in search of opportunities wherever they may appear.
The military dictatorship of the 70s gave way to a democratic government in the 80s and by the turn of the millennium the unimaginable had happened – a Socialist, ex-union leader, with no more than primary-level education, was elected President. Luis Ignacio da Silva became President Lula, whose government continued building on the solid economic foundations laid by the previous government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an eminent sociologist, economist and author, and father of the Plano Real, the economic plan introduced almost exactly 15 years ago, on 1 July 1994, which enabled inflation to be controlled and allowed Brazil to really begin to fulfil its destiny as the “country of the future”. Almost as unimaginable is the fact that Lula’s present choice for presidential succession (which carries huge weight in the polls), and also one of the most important Ministers in his government, Dilma Rousseff, was active as a guerrilla fighter against the military during the dictatorship.
Brazil has had a long tussle with inflation, and only recently “tamed the dragon”, which has created two distinct groups of citizen: those over 30 who are old enough to remember inflation and understand all of its consequences, and those under 30 who probably never felt inflation in the market or workplace. Interestingly enough, in the run up to the Plano Real, Banco Central, the Brazilian central bank, was so concerned that there might be a run on the banks, that they had the Casa da Moeda (the mint) print 130 million extra R$100 notes. There was no run as such on the banks, and it took the Central Bank 13 years to use up all those R$100 notes. What remains of inflation is its memory, which continues to create an expectation by investors of high percentage returns on anything they do. An expectation of returns of 30% per year on an investment is commonplace. In fact, share funds which track Ibovespa, based on the Brazilian Stock Exchange, have returned an average of almost 31% in the first 6 months of this year, and no-one thinks this unusual.
But Brazilians survived and thrived even during the so-called “Lost Decade” of the 80s, when the economy was in turmoil and inflation rampant, reaching an unbelievable 40% per month at one point. Brazilians flourish in chaos, whether it be political, economic or even social. Brazil still has an intolerably high rate of illiteracy, a bankrupt educational system, a failing public health system where people die in queues waiting for treatment, and massive poverty, not to mention rampant drug wars in the slums (‘favelas’) and a largely discredited police force. But Brazilians take all this in their stride and believe in their country, in themselves and in their potential for growth, prosperity and happiness.
All Brazilians love Brazil, they salute the flag, and woe-betide any ill-advised foreigner who belittles flag or country. They themselves, on the other hand, are the first to complain about their country, their government, their countrymen and their national football team. There is a well-known Brazilian joke about the Archangel Gabriel questioning God on why he had put so many good things in one place, lush forests, abundant pastures, wide flowing rivers, tall mountains, beautiful beaches and abundant fish and game. God’s reply was: “Just wait until you see the awful people I put there!” But no-one would ever dream of burning the Brazilian flag. There is a national pride that runs through everyone, pride in the country, in its achievements, in its soccer team, its Olympic teams, its Formula 1 drivers, its beaches, its Carnival – “God is Brazilian”.
Brazil stands out from the rest of the film-stars in other ways. When the global crisis was at its worst, and concerned citizens all round the world were pumping up their savings and cutting their spending, Brazilian credit card spending went up 15% quarter-on-quarter, and the new car market boomed; this, admittedly, in part because the government reduced some of the taxation on cars to make them more attractive.
Brazil has close cultural, historic and economic links with Africa and with the Middle East. Much of the vocabulary of Brazilian Portuguese is flavoured by words brought in by slaves from Angola, Guinea and other African countries. The traditional ‘feijoada’ (black bean stew) and ‘moqueca’ (fish stew) are African dishes which came along with the slaves, together with the musicality and rhythm, creating the softness of Brazilian Portuguese when compared with the much harsher, clipped Portuguese of Portugal.
The Portuguese who came to Brazil in the 17th and 18th centuries already brought with them a Moorish heritage, both in terms of culture, traditions and bio-types. The Moors were not finally expelled from the Iberian peninsula until the end of the 15th century after 600 years of Moorish domination. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, there was an enormous influx of Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians and European Jews into Brazil, which reinforced Brazil’s cultural vocation as a commercial, trading nation. Names like Haddad, Saad, Habib, are common alongside traditional Portuguese names like da Silva or da Costa. On Jewish religious festivals, commerce in the fashionable district of Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro, with its clothes and jewellery shops, closes down.
Brazilians are great communicators. During the 60s, 70s and 80s, Brazilians suffered from a lack of investment in the communications infrastructure and the government monopoly or, at minimum, tight controls, on most types of communication. As late as the mid-90s, Brazil still had a deficit of some 10 million landlines, which, if offered, would have found instantaneous buyers. In 2009, Brazilians are only second to the Americans in numbers of mobile phones. The same is very much the case with the digital revolution in computers. These tools complement the natural pleasure (or need) that Brazilians take in maintaining strong communication with family, friends and business contacts. In fact the relationship with these different groups is much the same. Brazilians are able to play while they work and work while they play. Brazilian businesspeople see social events, family reunions, business meetings, trips to restaurants and even holidays as opportunities to have fun, but also to network and innovate. They are natural entrepreneurs.
Some do’s and don’ts when dealing with Brazilians:
- Don’t underestimate their business ability just because they don’t have fluent English. Make an effort with the language – it’s really appreciated. Be patient if they want to speak English. Speak slowly and clearly to help them to understand.
- Don’t assume that they only have one job, or only have one proposition on the go at any one time. Brazilians multi-task in everything.
- Make an effort to meet their friends and their family. That way you will become part of their accepted circle, and privy to new information, new opportunities. Ask about the family, learn the names of wives, children, brothers. They are important. Show them your world also.
- Do not criticize Brazil. You can describe what a difficult time you have had with certain aspects of bureaucracy, but don’t criticize the country.
- Don’t complain about noise – Brazilians are noisy, restaurants are noisy, even cinemas can be noisy. There will be time for serious, quieter conversations later. Enjoy the moment. Show that you know how to have fun.
- Dress well, even if it’s casual. If you wear jeans, wear quality jeans. Same for moccasins, shirts, etc. Keep yourself well-groomed. Many Brazilians will go to the hairdresser (barber) every 15 days. Many men have regular manicures.
- Be available to talk any time of day. Do not be surprised to get a phone call at 10 in the evening, it’s more likely than getting one at 9 in the morning. Don’t be reluctant to go out for dinner at 10pm or 11pm. It’s common. Lunches often go on for several hours, so if it’s an important lunch make sure you have some spare time after lunch before your next appointment. Food and drink are important, enjoy your food.
- Don’t worry if your appointment, meeting, lunch, dinner is an hour or two hours late, it happens all the time and it is not a sign of disrespect.
- Make sure you always have your business cards or equivalent with you, and make sure you have a working mobile phone (best if you have a local number).
- Many Brazilians have stereotypes of Americans, Brits, Japanese. Do not disagree strongly with the stereotype, just explain that some people are like that (whatever it is), and show that you are an international person.