Making friends in Brazil

The other day I read an article in “gringoes” in which a foreigner complained about making friends in Brazil and the difficulty Brazilians have in saying “no” to invitations, leading to a low headcount at parties, say. The author (it was a help-type article) explained the dynamics of Brazilian and friendship, but failed to answer the question, “how does a foreigner make friends in Brazil?”

This may seem ridiculous to people accustomed to travelling and meeting new interesting people, but Brazilian friendship does not follow quite the same rationale one is used to. As the author very wisely put it,  the most important thing for Brazilians is family. They will happily attend the wedding of a family member, no matter how distant, but will rarely appear at the wedding of a work colleague or friend-seeking gringo. The reason for this is easily answered when one makes the fatal mistake of actually attending someone else´s birthday party. You will politely be seated at a table, with people who already know each other but are not family members of the hosts, to silently witness the delights of someone else´s party without being seen, heard or spoken to.

It is not impoliteness, although there may be a seed of that somewhere, it is simply lack of social skills. Brazilians are emotional people, not intellectual. They are moved by emotions and meeting strangers means dealing with the negative emotions of insecurity, self-consciousness, shyness, etc.  Staying within the family comfort zone implies not dealing with anything risky.

They do not know how to deal with people they are not emotionally connected to. No emotional connection = no relationship, even if the context is a company meeting.  They hate formality and are totally uncomfortable with any type of decorum and ceremonial courtesy. Back slapping and joke cracking is always preferable and present in any occasion. Foreigners find that intimidating and they perceive that discomfort, no matter how subtle. Insecurity, inadequacy or defensive arrogance seeps in, which only makes matters worse. Safe-distance, semi-formal relationships are a mystery to them. It´s all or nothing.

These limitations make is difficult to work with and for Brazilians, as being your colleagues “buddy” gets all caught up with being professional and objective. You will get better results from Brazilian workers if they like you, which can be tough on a Scandinavian executive.

Returning to the subject of friends: the answer is simple. You cannot make Brazilian friends unless you accept their (culturally unfamiliar) habits. Here are some basic rules to survive in the Brazilian friendship arena:

1. They can´t say NO. When you invite someone out, accept anything other than “yeah, sure, how about after work today?” as a NO.  Brazilians prefer to go to the movies alone or with their moustached spinster aunt than go with you. If there is no deep emotional or blood connection, there is nothing. They can´t deal with the silence, complex conversations, unexpected questions and the emotion toil of bonding from scratch, no matter how shallow. They only function in groups (the collectivist concept), and feel inadequate with the one-to-one approach.

2. They are always late. If you do manage to drag a Brazilian away from his girlfriend or mother-in-law´s chá de casa,  expect long waiting sessions. From doctor´s appointments to simple queues, waiting is a Brazilian way of life. Never arrange to meet outside the theatre or ask to be picked up at your home. You should pick them up (expect a long wait in your car) or arrange to meet at parties, where you can keep busy until your would-be pal arrives. A friend once planned a midday barbecue. All us foreigners arrived 5 minutes early while all the Brazilian invitees arrived from 1-4 hours late! One guest arrived at dusk with her entire family and no sign of guilt.

3. Never take invitations seriously. If there is no formal written invitation with RSVP and a contact e-mail/cell phone number, ignore the invitation. I was once invited to tea with a home-made cookie promise from my potential colleague´s mother and everything, only to be greeted by a closed door and a dead silent house on the day of the tea party. My students laughed when I told them I had actually fallen for it that one time (the invitation “joke”). If you are invited, believe me, it is because no one else wants to go or they need a larger crowd. And never, whatever you do, accept the, “come over whenever you want,” invitation unless you want to see hostile Brazilians at their best.

So what do you do? There are two options:

1. Accept work “confraternizações. They can be productive and help the people you want to make friends with get acquainted and build some type of emotional bond without having to deal with the bad emotions. Go to colleagues chá de casas, chá de bebês (to which you will be invited because of the gift) and little work get-togethers. They are boring as hell, but can lead to a few promising friendships.

2. Make friends with foreigners, who might or might not know Brazilians. The best option is moving to a town with a university. They are usually packed with foreign teachers and students from all over Brazil who are just as lonely as you are.

16 responses to “Making friends in Brazil

  1. Pingback: Multiculturalism: How to Identify a True Friend in China and Brazil The CSOFT Blog: Translation, localization and all things language·

  2. Oi. Quem estiver buscando um amigo brasileiro pode me contatar, estou à disposição. Eu também gostaria muito de fazer novas amizades. Podemos também ajudar um ao outro no Inglês e o Português. =D

    Hi. Anyone seeking a Brazilian friend can contact me, I am available. I also would love to make new friends. We can also help each other in English and Portuguese. = D

    My Facebook – facebook.com/vitor.livingstone / My Skype – livingbarross / My Phone +55 11 9 85955962 /

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  3. Hey! Nice post! I agree with most of what you said, but well… There are some things that need to be cleared up. For instance, we DO know how to say no. It only depends on the person… If he or she is a close friend, it’s hard though… As for the invitations, you’re totally right. Don’t take them seriously, because this is just a polite way of saying that you’re welcome in their houses. But if they text/email you, yeah, that’s for real.

    P.S.: It IS weird to invite someone out if you don’t have bonds…

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    • Thanks for your comment. Most foreigners are loners, they make one friend at a time and find it hard to interact with entire groups of friends, as do most people. Brazilians, especially, like to be in groups and are not very fond of that awkward silence that close one-to-one friendships sometimes need. It´s 100% cultural, because I am from a generation that left home at 15 and so are most of my gringo friends. We all live far from our families and get used to making friends one at a time, in different places. That is why it is so hard for us to understand why one Brazilian will not hang out with us or accept an invitation to dinner, for example. He or she will most definitely not turn up, turn up late, or/and turn up with loads of other friends or family. It´s happened to me sooooo many times. Although a Brazilian can be an introvert, he does not steer far from his family or close, childhood friends. In my experience, anyway.

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  4. Very interesting (and funny) to learn about your experience, I am Brazilian and can definitely agree with these stereotypes. Just about #1, I think the discomfort on 1-1’s comes when a total ‘stranger’ invites you for something; living overseas, I’ve been invited out by colleagues whom I had previously just said ‘hi’ (and I think that’s delightful) – but I must admit that this would have been VERY awkward if it had been in Brazil! And that most of my Brazilian friends would have think the person is a weirdo! One-to-one is perfectly ok when you know the person well tough, which goes back to what you were saying about Brazilians needing an emotional connection.
    Having said that, they are stereotypes which carry as much of truth as of personal perceptions.
    Maybe another tip for making friends in Brazil – play a sport, take lessons of some kind or start a conversation group (Brazilians need and want to speak English).
    Enjoying your blog!

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    • Thanks so much for your light-hearted approach to my post. Most Brazilians get offended. I hope you don´t find anything here that does offend, because that is never the objective. My passion for Brazil is total and I just want to see it become a better country for everyone. I have always been a critic, and was raised in a family of critics so my opinions tend to offend. Thanks again.

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  5. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that
    I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.
    After all I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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  6. Cipriana, I was so pleased to have found your posting of Oct. 30, 2009 which answered so many questions that came of my one month visit to Brazil. I wish to return to certain of the same places and reacquaint myself with those I felt so “attached” to upon leaving, however your writing gives
    dimension to an emotional component linked or bound to the intellectual. To me this is an impediment experienced in the “English speaking” world that doesn’t translate well in Brazillian
    culture.
    I wish at another time to send a note via E-Mail and Obrigado,
    MB

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