Thursday, 8 January 2009

Communicating with Brazilians

Returning from an extended stay in Brazil, I started to read Tracy Novinger’s Communicating with Brazilians: When „Yes“ means „No“ (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003) with great interest. Already after the first few pages I decided to like this book. Because of sentences like these:

„Beyond focusing attention on a nation’s characteristics that seem exotic and foreign to outsiders, to communicate successfully across cultures it is sometimes important to just rely on common sense. Small towns in both the United States and Brazil, for example, are more conservative than are large cities, as is generally true throughout the world.“

„Most of us think that we act through our own free will. But think again. For the most part, we do not.“

„Culture is the logic by which we give order to the world … Put simply, culture is the way we do things around here.“
Given that, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" (in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions) this is a refreshingly succinct and useful statement.

Now let’s have a look at the Brazilians who Darcy Ribeiro characterises as „better than others because bathed in black and Indian blood, a people whose role from here on will be less a matter of absorbing European things than of teaching the world how to live with more joy and more happiness.“ I think Darcy Ribeiro is right, I do indeed believe that Brazilians live with more joy and happiness than others. All others? No idea, really, but definitely with more joy and happiness than the Swiss. Needless to say I can already hear some protests so let me hasten to add: save for one or two exceptions.

I do not intend to point out how the book has to be seen in context of all the other books written about Brazil. Anyway, how could I? I only know Stefan Zweig’s Brasil. Um país do futuro and Peter Kellemen’s Brasil para principiantes and both of them are not mentioned in the bibliography (I highly recommend them). What I want to do here is to highlight some of the things I liked about this tome.

First and foremost: the abundance of telling anecdotes. Contrary to academics in the communication field who routinely dismiss them („of anecdotal value at best“), I love and treasure them for they teach me the essentials.

„A young woman who is an engineer hired by Schlumberger to work on oil platforms said that when she goes home to São Paulo, she and her sister no longer go out at night without their parents because the city has become so dangerous. One evening the two women went to a movie and were followed when they drove home. They called their house by cell phone. Their parents immediately turned on all of the outside lights, they and their gardener stationed themselves visibly to observe the arrival of the two sisters, and they ensured that the two young women had immediate access to the enclosed garage area.“

I heard numerous such stories when travelling for some months in the Northeast in 2006 and I heard again numerous such stories when teaching English in Santa Cruz do Sul in 2008. In other words: „Personal safety is an issue of primary public concern in Brazil.“

In the chapter „Racial Fusion“ the following story, under the headline „Only in Brazil“, can be found:

„Recently, three years after the fact, it was discovered by chance that two babies had been switched at birth in the hospital. Each family loved the happy little boy it was raising. Despite daily news coverage and avid public interest in custody considerations, no reports remarked on the fact that one of the boys was black and was accepted at birth by white parents and that the other boy was white and was raised without question by dark-skinned parents.“

So, there is no racism in Brazil? „Of course there is“, says Ricardo (of Schütz & Kanomata Idiomas in Santa Cruz do Sul), „and it is a problem but we’re not as neurotic about it as the Americans.“ Indeed.

And then there’s the jeito:
„The most significant, pervasive, and typical national filter through which the Brazilians see the world is that of jeito or jeitinho – the concept of finding a way … For Brazilians, there is always a way, some way, any way, to accomplish what one needs or wants to accomplish.“
I especially warmed to this wonderful definition here:
Jeito is a product of an intelligent, inventive, free, and creative attitude that one should take the initiative of acting in opposition to rules.“

But isn’t that ethically problematic? Of course it is, sometimes, but what isn’t?

So much for now. I will soon come back to this inspiring work.

Tracy Novinger
Communicating with Brazilians
When „Yes“ means „No“
University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003


Tracy Novinger said...

Muito obrigada. É música para a minha alma. Meaning, of course, "music to my soul".

Kalina said...

It is so nice to know that Brazil is still with you, in a way.
a Brazilian hug for you.

AcrossCultures said...

The text can also be found here:

Tracy Novinger said...

See some cultural notes on Mexico and a link to Hans Durrer at