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.