Get to know your visitor: Brazilian etiquette

  • 02 September 2015 | Christine Marot
The family structure forms the core of society in Brazil. Image courtesy of Marlon Dutra

The easiest way to impress your Brazilian guests is by greeting and welcoming them to South Africa in their home language: “Olá, bem vindo à África do Sul”.

Having a basic grasp of how Brazilian society operates will make also it easier to understand their etiquette, so here is an overview of life in the South American country.

In Brazil the family unit forms the focus of social structure. Families are generally quite large and close-knit, and form a strong support network. Family members often employ their own, since trust is a highly valued trait.

Despite a large ethnic mix, a class system exists. Very broadly, people with darker skins tend to be socially and economically disadvantaged, with a significant difference in earning power. The upper and middle classes have minimal interaction with the lower classes who usually occupy menial positions as drivers, domestic workers and gardeners. It is worth being mindful of this when introducing your guests to different strata of South African society.

Although women comprise 40% of the Brazilian workforce, they earn relatively poor salaries as teachers, administrative clerks and nurses, for example and have generally held a lower status than men. However, this is changing and women are gradually achieving recognition, particularly in governmental positions. South African governmental structures have many women in positions of power, so this might be a point of interest to your guests, especially the ladies!

Meet and greet

You should feel at ease greeting your Brazilian guests with a kiss or hug. Both men and women are expressive, often using a pat on the shoulder or hand on the arm when emphasising a point.

If you find yourself in a formal setting with your guests, such as a meeting introduction for example, men are expected to shake hands on greeting, and often use one hand to shake hands and the other to grasp the other man by the shoulder. Women do things differently, they kiss on both cheeks, starting with the left. If a Brazilian woman wishes to shake hands with a man, allow her to extend her hand first, rather than extending your hand to her. 

Gifting

When a Brazilian is a guest in your home, they may present flowers or a small gift to the hostess. It is traditional for the hostess to open her gift immediately, so don't put it away to open later as you may cause offence. Should you be in a position when you need to select a gift for a Brazilian visitor, avoid purple or black colours as these are associated with mourning and will be considered offensive. 

Appointments

It is customary for Brazilians to arrive half an hour after the appointed time for a dinner invitation, so bear this in mind when planning your menu. If you invite them to a large party or celebration, they are likely to arrive an hour late, as they are accustomed to doing back home. When it comes to a formal business meeting, however, they are always punctual.

Dress code

Brazilian women are noted for their colourful, sexy outfits. While this is most prevalent in large cities such as Rio de Janeiro, women of the south and interior of the country tend to dress more conservatively. The region of Brazil that your guests come from will therefore, to a large extent, determine their dress code.

People in Brazil judge others by appearance, and they have a strong sense of style. Even their idea of casual wear may appear more formal than one might expect, so make them feel at ease by dressing elegantly and attending an event overdressed rather than underdressed.

Doing business

When it comes to doing business, Brazilians are fanatical about the need to establish some form of relationship before the business dealings can get under way. As such, they prefer to meet in person with prospective business partners to establish an initial rapport. If you need to facilitate such a meeting, exercise patience and indulgence in this regard. Also be aware that focus will be on the individual with whom they are dealing and not on the company that person represents.

During the requisite "getting-to-know-you" period, allow the Brazilian business people to raise the subject for discussion, and never to try rush the relationship-building period or show impatience at how slowly you feel things are progressing. Be prepared to spend time ironing out the smaller details.

In a business or even social setting, never criticise someone in front of their colleagues, even in jest. This not only causes the person under criticism to lose face, but such an action will be seriously frowned upon and you will lose credibility.

As long as you are polite and attentive, communication can often be quite relaxed, with no strict protocol observed. In a meeting, everyone who has a contribution to make is welcome to do so, and it is acceptable to interrupt the person who is speaking to make an important point.

A term you may encounter during business or other meetings is jeitinho, which means “finding a way”, or negotiating around a rule without breaking it. While looking for mutually agreeable solutions, never get angry or raise your voice – this is considered highly offensive.

Endeavour to maintain your original negotiating team or you may have to start the whole process from scratch if the team changes.

Although the face-to-face verbal communication preceding a business deal constitutes the majority of the interaction, the formal agreement will take the form of a comprehensive legal contract.

It is worth bearing in mind that Brazilians prefer to their own lawyers and accountants during negotiations, as they dislike outside legal representation. As such, it is a good idea to hire a translator if you are not fluent in Portuguese.

Business cards are usually exchanged during introductions with everyone at a meeting. It would be useful to have the reverse side of your business card translated into Portuguese.