Why Brazilians don´t complain – study

On the news the other day, they showed a study conducted by Fábio Iglesias, doctor of psychology and researcher of the University of Brasilia, which I thought was really interesting and helped me shed some light on why Brazilians never complain.

This is a summary translation of the article about this same study from the STU website (in Portuguese).

The article starts with a story of a pregnant woman in the subway. Brazilian subways/tubes have special grey seats for the elderly, pregnant women, the handicapped and people with small children. The people sitting in these seats do not give up their seat and she does not complain. The article also mentions an elderly man who stopped complaining after the person on the grey seat snapped, “old people should die”.

Now for the summary:

“It´s not a problem that solely affects the subways of Brasilia. Brazilians are not in the habit of complaining in their daily lives. Political corruption, tax increases, hospital negligence, massive bank queues, and every day violence only cause commotion in the general population in exceptional circumstances. Why does this happen? The answer to such passiveness may lie in a study conducted by Fábio Iglesias, doctor of Psychology and researcher of the University of Brasília (UnB). According to him,  Brazilians are the protagonists of the phenomenon, “pluralistic ignorance“, a term coined in 1924 by the American Floyd Alport, pioneers of modern social psychology.

“This behaviour occurs when a citizen acts according to that which others think, and not to that which he/she thinks is correct. These people think in the following way: if no one else does it, why should I?”, says Iglesias.  The problem is that, if no one says anything and consequently nothing is done, the collective desire is suffocated. Brazilians, according to Iglesias, feel the need to belong to a group. “They don´t talk about themselves without mentioning the group to which they belong.”

Iglesias started his research in queues. He observed the reaction of people standing in line in banks, cinemas and restaurants. When someone jumped the line, most pretended they had not noticed.  Standard behaviour is cordial and peaceful. For two months, he analysed  lunch peaks in a collective Brazilian restaurant. There were 57 “line jumps”. “These people would jump the line pretending to be unaware of what they were doing, chatting on the phone or greeting someone. The others would stare at the wall, avoid eye contact with others,” he affirms. The 29-year old airline ground officer, Sandro Leal, from Rio, admits he does not react when he sees someone jump the line in the bank. “I wait for someone else to do something. No one wants to be considered a drag”, he says.

Iglesias provides another common example of pluralistic ignorance: “When a teacher asks the student if they understand, in a class room, students rarely lift a hand to say they have doubts. No one wants to stand out, a phenomenon called, “diffusion of responsibility, ” which leads to inertia.

Even those who suffer a series of losses or damages seldom complain. Like in the case of the 58-year old teacher from Rio, Maria Luzia Boulier. She purchased an encyclopaedia with a volume missing; paid products on her credit card that she never bought; made an on-line purchase of a faulty treadmill. Maria Luzia only complained in the latter case. For a few days she called the company and never got an answer. She went to the Procon, the Brazilian customer protection agency, waited in line for 40 minutes, and eventually gave up and went home. “I´m lazy. Complaining is useless most of the times,” she says.

The “what´s-the-point” excuse is common among non-complainers. The 25-year old art student, Solano Guedes, says he avoids involvement in any public situation. “I´m negligent, like all Brazilians. I´ve seen street fights, people trying to break into cars, but I never say anything. It´s a combination of fear and lack of belief in the authorities”, he says.”

The article then mentions specific cases related to public scandals, such as the Collor administration and the Renan Calheiros case in the Senate, in which public manifestations and political support were rare or absent.

“The UnB study states that the “culture of silence” also occurs in other countries, such as Portugal, Spain and parts of Italy, which are also collectivist,’ says the psychologist. In individualist nations, such as some European countries, the United States and our neighbour, Argentina,  what counts is what every individual thinks. Actions are based on self-reference’, affirms the study. In the centre of Buenos Aires and Paris it is common to see daily public manifestations. The media can act as an initiator of complaints, especially in issues related to public policy. If a citizen sees what he would like to say in the media, the logical conclusion is the he/she is not alone,’ affirms the researcher.”

The article also includes an interesting observation of anthropologist, Roberto DaMatta who claims that the neglectful behaviour of Brazilians cannot be dissociated from the Brazilian “jeitinho“. The Brazilian custom of offering money to guards, parking in spaces reserved for the disabled and using the hard-shoulder in heavy traffic leads Brazilians to believe they have no moral background to complain about corruption, for example. “A society with a guilt-conscience cannot be a society  of protest,” he concludes.

Iglesias adds that studies and viewpoints agree on one point: People should learn to complain according to their own conscience in order to avoid the so-called, “spiral of silence. The first step is to speak up.”

For the full article, visit the SPU website (in Portuguese).


2 thoughts on “Why Brazilians don´t complain – study

  1. […] Another thing that took forever today was getting home after my concert. Public transportation is pretty impossible on Sundays in Belo–life slows down, and the busses don’t come very often. Plus, there’s this HUGE fair every Sunday right in downtown (very close to where my concert was taking place), and it makes navigating that section of the city nearly impossible. And so here’s what my trek home looked like: about 15 minutes of hard walking with a cello on my back, waiting for about 15 minutes at the bus stop, a 20 minute bus ride (there was traffic, this ride should have taken only 7 minutes), and another 8 minute walk home. Interesting cultural observation at the bus stop: Brazilians (at least here in Minas) rarely speak up when someone is cutting in front of them. There were dozens of people waiting for taxis at the bus station, and when one would arrive, it didn’t matter how long you had waited; whoever got to the door first was the one who got in the taxi. But no one ever said “Hey! I was here before you!” Nope. That’s just the way things go. There has actually been a recent study about this phenomenon, and if you are interested you can look here. […]


    1. This also happens in Argentina, strangely enough. People never complain in public. They think that a person who complains is “chato”, a pain in the neck, a nuisance. Thanks so much for your comment.


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