Brazil Doing Business In 377
Photo by: Moustyk


Brazil is the largest economy in Latin America and the ninth largest economy in the world. Brazil has a gross national product (GNP) of roughly US$ 800 billion with a purchasing power parity of $ 1.04 trillion and a real growth rate around 3 percent annually. By the end of the 1990s, Brazil was averaging exports of approximately $53 billion. Moreover, its exports are not dependent on a single foreign market—28 percent are exported to European Union nations, 23 percent to the United States, and 12 percent to its Mercosur partner, Argentina.

Brazil is also the biggest country in Latin America geographically. Indeed, at 3,286,488 square miles (slightly over 8.5 million square kilometers), Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, after Russia, Canada, China, and the United States. Extending over almost half of the continent, Brazil borders every country in South America except Chile and Ecuador.

Brazil has a population of approximately 166 million people, making it the fifth most populous nation in the world. More people live in Brazil than the entire populations of the other South American nations combined.

Despite the great size of their country's land mass, most Brazilians live in densely populated conditions. This is because the population of Brazil is unevenly distributed, with 80 percent of its people living within 200 miles of its coastline.

Brazil is highly urbanized. Sao Paulo, with a metropolitan area of over 22 million people, is the third largest megalopolis in the world, after Mexico City and Tokyo. Moreover, at 18 million people within the city limits itself, Sao Paulo is the second largest city (after Tokyo). At more than 15 million people, greater Rio de Janeiro is the world's 15th metropolitan area. Additionally, both Salvador and Belo Horizante have populations well over 2 million, while Brasilia, Recife, Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Belém and Manaus all have populations exceeding 1 million.


During the 1990s, Brazil underwent an enormous economic shift, especially in controlling its inflation. Due in large part to political instability, Brazil had been hampered by among the worst inflation in history. Under the government of Fernando Collor (later impeached on charges of corruption), Brazil reached a record 1500 percent inflation rate in a single year. Faced with an annual consumer price increase exceeding 1000 percent in 1994, Brazil's (then) Minister of Finance Fernando Henrique Cardoso instituted the so-called Plano Real. Cardoso's initiatives rapidly improved the economy, and he was elected President later the same year.

The Plano Real restructured Brazil's foreign debt and set in place a closely controlled monetary policy creating a strong national currency. Brazil began to privatize its state-owned industry and encouraged foreign investment. Additionally, Brazil increased imports while curbing exports. This created an increased trade deficit but this import increase represented largely advanced technological equipment and machinery that equally strengthened Brazil's industrial infrastructure over the long-term.

The Plano Real also led to a more carefully controlled credit environment. While Brazil's overall growth rate shrank from 5.7 percent when the Plano Real was instituted to roughly 3 percent by the end of the 1990s, the overall results dramatically strengthened the national economy. Most notably, Brazil's inflation rate dived to less than 5 percent by the end of 1997. The success of the Plano Real received world-wide attention as Brazil's economy stabilized. In 1996, Brazil received $26 billion in foreign investment, making it second only to China as the most popular target for foreign investment at the close of the century.

The success of the Plano Real was all the more remarkable considering its timing. The latter half of the 1990s was one of the most economically volatile in history. In 1995, less than a year after the Plano Real was instituted, the Mexican peso crisis wreaked havoc in Mexico and had a domino effect on many national economies throughout Latin America. While not entirely unaffected, Brazil nonetheless survived the Mexican peso crisis with considerably less negative fallout than Argentina, Chile, and many other nations in the region. The comparative strength of Brazil during the Mexican economic crisis, in turn, encouraged foreign investors to come to Brazil.

The resulting record-setting levels of foreign investment, however, did not protect Brazil from the financial panic following the East Asian Economic Crisis that began in July 1997 and reached Brazil in late October 1997. Brazil performed better during the resultant crisis than many other nations. Still, Brazil did not remain unscathed. Its foreign exchange reserves fell from approximately $60 billion before the crisis to $52 billion afterwards. Moreover, while the annual rate of growth of Brazil's stock market rose 30 percent for the entire year, this nonetheless reflected a fall of 25 percent during October and November 1997.

By mid-1998, the Plano Real began to falter. The real began to fall under assault by monetary traders. The Cardoso government countered by doubling interest rates and cutting government spending. Both measures helped to maintain market confidence in Brazil, but the resulting high interest rates eroded Brazil's GDP growth rate to less than one percent.

This alone might have been enough to frighten away foreign investment, but the situation became critical following Russia's declaration of a moratorium on debt repayments. Brazil's foreign currency reserves fell precipitously. As a result, Brazil was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a $41.5-billion aid package.

The timing of the IMF negotiations was also a factor. President Cardoso ran for an unprecedented second term in October 1998. While Cardoso won by a substantial margin, the IMF-inspired austerity measures stirred up considerable opposition. Thus, the Brazilian Congress defeated Cardoso's planned deficit-reduction initiatives such as pension reform in December 1998. Even more seriously, Cardoso faced open rebellion from the state of Minas Gerais. The governor of this, Brazil's third-largest state, former Brazilian President Itamar Franco, simply stopped all state debt repayments to the Federal government. Franco's action, in turn, led to widespread concern among foreign investors. In response, Cardoso's government was forced to let the real float in mid-January 1999.

The resulting readjustment at least temporarily restored confidence in Brazil's economy in 1999. The devaluation, in turn, gave Brazil a stronger export advantage. However, this caused difficulties with its Mercosur partners, especially Argentina, which retained a one-to-one ration of its currency to the U.S. dollar.


With the largest economy in Latin America, Brazil has always attracted interest from abroad. Brazil has encouraged even greater interest from foreign investors in the latter half of the 1990s due to the relative success of the Plano Real, coupled with Brazil's increasing integration with Mercosur partners of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

Yet for all its dominance in South America and its central role in Mercosur, Brazilian business culture is not particularly typical for Latin America. Indeed, Brazil differs from all other American nations due to its uniquely Portuguese (rather than Spanish) history, coupled with its marked internal regional differences. Arguably, it is not possible to understand Latin America as a whole without understanding Brazil. On the other hand, understanding the rest of the Latin American nations does not ensure particularly accurate insight into doing business in Brazil.


Brazil is the most populous Portuguese-speaking country in the world by a large margin. Brazil has well over 16 times as many people as Portugal itself. Brazilian Portuguese differs as markedly from the Portuguese spoken in Portugal as American English differs from the English spoken in England. Unlike the comparison to English, however, where British English is viewed as the more standard dialect and accordingly is more widespread world-wide, the dominant world dialect of Portuguese in the 20th century remains Brazilian. Nor is Brazilian Portuguese uniform—significant regional accents exists between the Southeast, the region around Rio de Janeiro, and the North.

The Portuguese language is a useful tool when doing business in Brazil because it gives access both to the large number of Brazilians who speak only Portuguese or to those who speak other languages poorly. Additionally, because Brazil is the dominant Portuguese-speaking nation, a foreigner's use of Portuguese is often interpreted as a sign of sincere interest in Brazil. Thus, while speaking the local language is always advisable for gaining market insight and building relationships, the use of Portuguese in Brazil by North American business people is of particular value. Brazilians have come to expect that the majority of North American business people with whom they come in contact will speak little or no Portuguese. For this reason alone, it is an advantage for a U.S. or Canadian businessperson to learn to speak Portuguese, as it will likely reflect a presumed interest in and commitment to Brazil that the non-Portuguese speaker would have to demonstrate in other ways.

Because most of Latin America speaks Spanish while Brazil uses Portuguese, the use of Spanish has taken on a somewhat special status. Many educated Brazilians, including most of its business class, speak at least some Spanish. Nonetheless, some Brazilians have grown to resent other Latin Americans who may expect the Brazilians to use Spanish in their interactions with them. Another point of irritation for many Brazilians rests with non-Latin American foreigners who mistakenly believe that Brazilians speak Spanish.

Like Spanish, English is also widespread, especially among the educated and the business class. Additionally, many government officials and business leaders have received degrees from British, U.S., or Canadian universities, increasing the number of people in leading positions who speak English with great fluency. Indeed, for many Brazilians, fluency in English for business purposes may be viewed as a sign of their education. This can present potential problems in international business, since indicating that a Brazilian's English is poor or otherwise less than fluent may prove to be a source of loss of face.


Brazil is a divided nation regarding its view of technology. While it is unwise to speak in blanket terms, it may still be helpful to describe general geographic differences in this respect. The states of southeastern Brazil, along with northern Europe, Canada, and the United States, share a view of technology as a controlling mechanism. The northern states of Brazil, by contrast, traditionally hold a more ambivalent toward the use of technology than the United States and other control cultures. Northern Brazilians, particularly in nonurban areas, are more likely to see themselves as subject to the forces of nature around them than as controllers of that environment. Finally, among native groups in the Amazon regions of Brazil, people are more likely to view themselves as neither controlling nature nor subject to it; instead, they are likely to view technology as a means to be in harmony with nature.


Environmental issues are a major concern in Brazil. Since the nation has within its borders the vast majority of the Amazon rain forest, Brazil is home to over half of the world's known species of plants, animals, and insects. Because the Amazon is viewed by many other nations as an irreplaceable natural resource, Brazil has frequently been the subject of negative criticism for its policies toward development. To some extent, the criticism is arguably more critical of Brazil than many Brazilians believe it should be. One need only compare the Brazilian energy sector's carbon dioxide emissions of 60 million tons to that of other comparably sized nations such as the United States at 1.5 billion tons or China at 800 million tons.

Still, to a large extent, much of the criticism regarding Brazil's handling of the Amazon rain forest has been justified, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s. During that period, Brazil asserted that its growth as a world power depended at least in part on developing the largely unexplored resources of Amazonia. Brazil has not always welcomed these attacks, arguing that the United States and Europe have no great expanse of undeveloped territory because they exploited that territory to reach their level of advanced development.

This official position led to many initiatives that increased risk to Brazil's interior. Thus, in 1960, President Juscelino Kubitschek established a new city in the interior—Brasília—as Brazil's new capital. Beginning in the late 1960s, Brazil markedly increased cattle production in the interior. In 1970, Brazil formerly began colonization programs in the interior, including extremely attractive pricing as well as building new roads into the previously undeveloped regions. This in turn led to large scale agroforestry and logging, particularly in Jari. Agriculture followed, converting much jungle to coffee, watermelon, and papaya cultivation. By the mid-1970s, small farmers had seriously expanded from the Amazonian floodplain well into the jungle using slash and burn techniques that not only rapidly contributed to deforestation but began to endanger the whole rain forest ecosystem.

By the 1980s, Brazil's development activities had received widespread condemnation abroad from the scientific community and environmental activists. It is notable that Brazil responded positively to the criticism, reversing much of its support of rain forest development, and more closely monitoring that development it still allows. Indeed, in response to the earlier criticism, Brazil is a world leader in environmental monitoring from space, a project to which it has devoted considerable government resources. Moreover, it was not a coincidence that Brazil hosted the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Rio Conference assembled nations from around the world to adopt a common course of action for reaching sustainable development.



Family ties are somewhat stronger in Brazil than they are in North America or in many northern European nations. Moreover, family ties are not only stronger but broader in Brazil than in North America and northern Europe. The North American and northern European family usually consists of one's spouse and children (and occasionally one's parents). In Brazil, family ties are equally strong for kinship relationships such as cousins, in-laws, uncles and aunts, nephews, nieces, and godparent relationships. Still, Brazil has a somewhat weaker familial bond, especially in business, than many Latin American Spanish-speaking nations. As Roberto Da Matta explains, a conflict exists in Brazil" between the public world with its universal laws and contracts, and the private universe of the family, of godparents, relatives and friends."

Still, while family ties are weaker in Brazilian business than they are in many other Latin American nations, they should not be underestimated by North Americans and northern Europeans. Brazilian family ties provide considerably greater access to business joint ventures, to favorable terms on negotiations, and to reaching people in power. Family ties provide little of this in North America and northern Europe. The result is that many business people from northern Europe and North America working in Brazil may not be able to reach people in power. This may be simply because they do not know how to employ such connections, or because they believe (based on their own native) that use of such connections is somehow inappropriate.

Finally, as in most other Latin American nations, Brazilians as a whole look more or less favorably on the practice of nepotism—the hiring of relatives. In Brazil, loyalty is generally more highly valued than in nations such as the United States, Canada, or Great Britain. Nepotism, in turn, guarantees a fairly high degree of loyalty through family ties. Moreover, the very fact of hiring a relative helps to carry through with one's own familial obligations, which makes those same loyalty bonds even stronger. Nepotism, by contrast, is disdained in North America and northern Europe where family ties are assumed to cover up the relative's incompetence. Indeed, many organizations (especially in the United States) have explicit anti-nepotism policies. The result of implementing such policies in Brazil may well produce the opposite effect in Brazil, instead reducing productivity and loyalty among one's employees there.


Gender is more clearly differentiated in Brazil than in the United States. To a large extent, the United States attempts both through legislation and social norms to ignore gender differences in the work place, while such differences are more emphasized in Brazil. The result may make some U.S. business women suspect sexism where none was intended. In general, many U.S. business people avoid gender-based etiquette (such as opening the door for a woman or offering to light her cigarette) or overt compliments given regarding appearance. Gender-based etiquette in Brazil, by contrast, is not a sign of sexism but of good upbringing. Failure to participate in such exchanges or to reject such behavior as sexist is likely to be misunderstood.

Dress is also highly differentiated between men and women in Brazil. Many Brazilians give considerably more attention to make-up, for example, and women's business attire tends to emphasize femininity in a different manner than U.S. business women's attire. Misreading Brazilian women's dress may lead to underestimating the importance of their position; in turn, misreading the more conservative U.S. business attire may lead some Brazilians to misunderstand the U.S. business women with whom they work.

In Brazil, as in the United States, a considerable increase in the number of women in the work force took place between 1950 and 1980. A study by Connelly and Levison found that "In 1950, the percentage of women aged 10 or older who were economically active was 13.2; by 1980, this figure had doubled to 26.6. In urban areas in 1980, it reached 30.5 percent, and only five years later it had climbed to 37.6 percent. Of the economically active women in 1940, 53.2 percent worked outside the agricultural sector, while in 1980 almost 86 percent did so."


Brazil has the greatest inequity of wealth distribution of all major economies. A mere 5 percent of the population owns 80 percent of Brazil's land. While the inequality of income distribution among Brazilians has a very long history, the disparity has grown even greater since the 1980s. In 1980, the richest 10 percent of the population controlled 46.6 percent of the nation's wealth. By 1990, this elite 10 percent controlled 53.2 percent. When one considers that throughout this period Brazil remained in the top ten largest economies in the world, this is no small amount.

Conversely, the poorest 50 percent of Brazilians controlled a mere 13.4 percent in 1980, a figure that slipped to only 10.4 percent by 1990. Indeed, as Joseph Page observes, Brazil's "poorest 50 percent and the richest I percent have approximately the same share of the national income." Thus while Brazil ranks as one of the top ten Gross National Products, its per capita income places its at well below 100th place, falling behind its poorer Latin American neighbors of Suriname and Paraguay.

Nor is poverty limited only to Brazil's poorest 50 percent by North American or European definitions. As late as the mid-1990s, fully 85 percent of Brazilians had no system of sewage disposal. And more than 70 percent of the population have no running water at all.

By contrast, most business people in Brazil either already belong to the controlling 10 percent of the Brazilian economic elite or are actively aspiring to join its ranks. Consequently, most Brazilian business people (if not necessarily the society as a whole) seem quite comfortable with what they perceive as natural order of economic inequality. This often causes friction when Brazilian business people deal with their North American counterparts. Generally speaking, most business people in the United States or Canada are uncomfortable with class distinctions. Brazil, however, more than any other major business culture, professes to be at ease with these social inequalities. Most Brazilians view the world as a whole and the workplace in particular as innately unequal, and are more comfortable with these distinctions.


Brazil's ruling elite are among the best educated people in the world. They are often educated abroad as well as in Brazil's many well-respected universities. Still, the Brazilian elite notwithstanding, education itself is not widespread in Brazil as a whole. One half of Latin America's illiterate population lives in Brazil, and fully 20 percent of Brazil is completely unable to read. The figure for functional illiteracy is at least double that amount. Less than 18 percent of all Brazilians over the age of ten have gone beyond four years of school; indeed, more than half of all Brazilian children have never gone to school at all.


Brazil can be divided into five major regions, each with distinctive business behavior, accents, and political orientation. These regions are Sao Paulo and the Southeast, the Northeast, Rio de Janeiro, the Interior and the Federal District of Brasilia. Because Brazilians themselves often stereotype the behavior that characterizes each region, it may be useful briefly to outline these stereotypes here. It is important, however, to point out that these characterizations are not necessarily accurate depictions of the people in each regions.

The greatest concentration of business has centered on Brazil's southeastern states. While Sao Paulo is the largest industrial center in the country, the entire southeastern region is characterized by major emphasis on large business and large-scale foreign investment. Many Brazilians view the southeast as having a faster pace of life than the rest of the nation and greater emphasis on business.

People who live in Sao Paulo state are known as paulistas, with the widely accepted stereotype of being hardworking and business-minded. Widely held stereotypes also exist for mineiros (those who live in the state of Minas Gerais) as being frugal and gaúchos (those from the extreme southern border) as being extremely independent.

The Northeast is comprised of the coastal regions from Salvador northward. Those who live in the Northeast are called nordestinos, and are usually held up as a contrast to the southeast. Despite many notable exceptions, the Northeast is generally less economically developed than the southeast. The Northeast is often viewed as having a slower pace of life than the rest of the country.

The residents of Rio de Janeiro are called cariocas. Even though Rio is geographically located within the Southeast (it is actually south of the state of Minas Gerais), most Brazilians view the city as having a distinctly separate identity. Famous for its anual Carnival, Rio is also the nation's cultural center and for years served as its political capital. Brazilians often characterize the cariocas as fun-loving and spirited. On the other hand, Rio is also viewed as culturally and economically balancing the characteristics of the North and South.

The Interior represents Brazil's vast non-coastal territory. Much of the Interior is unexplored and little of it is developed. At one time, Brazil emphasized the need to develop the Interior as key to its future. Currently, these efforts to exploit the inland regions of the Amazon have come under reconsideration, at least since the Rio Earth Summit.

Finally, the Federal District of Bras-lia represents Brazil's last region. For many years after its founding, Bras-lia was seen as an artificial city carved out of an undeveloped area and centered only on politics. A major city in its own right today, some Brazilians may still hold this older view.

It is important to keep in mind that these represent national stereotypes, and are not reliable characteristics of the people and the regions. These generalizations are most useful for understanding some of the friction between regions rather than for any clear indicator of actual behavior in the regions. Moreover, the regions are not populated only by people born to them; since the 1970s, large numbers of Brazilians have moved to the nation's industrial centers looking for employment opportunities. While all major Brazilian cities have seen some influx from the countryside, the highest concentrations have come to the southeastern cities, such as Sao Paulo, Belo Horizante, Porto Alegre, and Curitiba.


Regional identities are not the only associative divisions in Brazil. Brazilians view themselves as a mestiço society, a blend of cultures. As Leni Silverstein has written, "there is a nationally held belief that the identity of the Brazilian people is characterized both racially and culturally as one-third Portuguese, one-third African, and one-third Amerindian, a result of the intermarriage of the three most populous occupants of the land."

The Portuguese heritage remains a gray area. Clearly, Brazil owes its language and its Catholicism to Portugal. Indeed, it was Brazil's Portuguese heritage and the difference of Portuguese as a mother tongue that enabled Brazil to remain a single nation in the post-colonial period. This contrasts markedly with the divisions that followed the independence of Spain's former lands in the Americas. Spanish America splintered into a wide variety of independent nations, while Portuguese America became the largest single nation in Latin America.

Yet for all its historical ties to Portugal, Brazil's relationship with its former mother country remains ambivalent at best. Even while still a colony, Brazil had grown in many respects to greater (or at least equal power) to its mother country. When Spain took over Portugal from 1580 to 1640, Brazil remained Portuguese-speaking and essentially independent of direct Spanish rule. When the Dutch attempted to take over Bahia and Pernambuco during this period, it was Brazilian forces (rather than Spanish or Portuguese troops) that forced them out, a point not lost on the Brazilian conception of nationalism when Brazil reverted to Portuguese rule in 1640. Even more significantly, when Napoleon conquered Portugal in the early 19th century, the Portuguese royal family established its capital at Rio de Janeiro. This made Brazil the only country in the Americas to have ever served as a European seat of government. With this move came marked development in industry, finance, and the arts. During this period, Joao VI made Brazil coequal with Portugal.

Brazilian independence took place in 1822 when Joao VI returned to Lisbon, and Portugal tried to make Brazil a colony once more. By this point, Brazil was already significantly more powerful than Portugal in virtually all respects from economics to military to population. Today, Brazil views Portugal as a relatively minor and very small nation. The common language perpetuates many ties with Portugal, but Brazil is seen as a much greater influence on Portugal than Portugal is on Brazil. This is in direct contrast to existing ties between France or Britain and their own former colonies. Perhaps the greatest Portuguese influence on Brazil remains the large-scale Portuguese immigration to the country. From the mid-1880s to 1970, 1.5 million Portuguese came to Brazil, fully 30 percent of Brazil's total immigrants.

Brazil is most different from Portugal, however, in the mix of cultures that blended with the Portuguese. Brazil's former slavery heritage endowed the nation with a rich African heritage. Afro-Brazilians confront considerably less of the racism that characterized many other societies (such as the United States) historically involved with the slave trade. Most Brazilians pride themselves on the country's racial equality. Indeed, because of the high degree of interracial marriages throughout Brazilian history, racial lines are often not clearly differentiated. Nonetheless, considerable income disparity continues between blacks and whites in the many professions. More significantly, while roughly 40 percent all Brazilians are Afro-Brazilian, the Afro-Brazilian percentage among Brazil's poor is notably higher, at an estimated 60 percent. These numbers, however, do not reflect the national ideals of Brazil as racially colorblind mestiço society. Moreover, while Brazilian society may be somewhat lopsided in the number of blacks in higher level executive positions, color is not an overt barrier. As a result, racism does not deny Afro-Brazilians the opportunity for upward mobility into government or business. Moreover, Brazil's strongly held ideals of what many Brazilians call a "racial democracy" have led to the strong contributions of Afro-Brazilians to the creation of modern Brazilian culture. African influence is present in virtually every aspect of Brazilian culture from its cuisine (such as the national dish feijoada) to Carnival, from business to the very nature of Brazilian Portuguese as a language, from the nature of Brazilian music and the arts to the unique nature of Brazilian religion.

Brazil's first residents, its Amerindian population, represent another important element of the culture as a whole, although with considerably less influence than the Portuguese or Afro-Brazilians. Indeed, in the reduction of their numbers from pre-Columbian days to the present, Brazil's Amerindians have matched the fate of early residents of the United States or the Argentina. Still, with the vast majority of the Brazilian interior left more or less undeveloped by the rest of Brazil until the mid-20th century, Brazil's native population retained its culture and to some degree its land considerably later than the Amerindians of the United States or Argentina. Still, by the 1990s, Brazil was the subject of widespread international protest over the treatment of its Amerindian population and the destruction of the rain forest and traditional lands in which they lived.

Probably the most dynamic influence for change has been Brazil's massive immigration. Many Brazilians have strong ethnic ties to immigrant ancestry outside of Portugal or Africa. Sao Paulo, for instance, has the largest Japanese population of any city outside of Japan. Similarly, so many Italians emigrated to Sao Paulo that the city's regional dialect of Portuguese carries clearly Italian overtones. Many of Brazil's most successful business leaders and politicians have Japanese, Arabic, Italian, Jewish, Czech, German, and other ethnic ties. Brazil was also a major center of immigration for people from the Southern United States following the fall of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War. While many immigrants retain strong ethnic ties, it is characteristic of Brazil that most immigrants have assimilated and contributed to the general culture.


Almost 90 percent of Brazilians are Catholic, at least in name. This gives Brazil the largest Catholic population of any nation in the world. Catholic holidays, consequently, affect Brazilian work schedules and are widely celebrated. Despite the importance of the Church, however, many other religions influence Brazilian society. Brazil's Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. The country is home to a thriving Pentecostalist movement, and Brazil includes among its population people of all faiths. Several prominent business leaders are Lutheran or Jewish, for example. The most important religious influence in Brazil besides Catholicism, however, comes in the form of the uniquely Brazilian religions of Umbanda and Candomble. Umbanda mixes Catholicism with elements of African religious worship of spirits (called the Lorixas or exus). Candomble more directly derives its roots from African spiritism. Both Umbanda and Candomble maintain a strong influence not only among those who practice these religions exclusively, but also among many who are nominally Catholic.


Brazil is what is called a high context culture. This means that Brazilians place a strong emphasis on how a message is said rather than on the words used alone. As a result, for many Brazilians, the eloquence with which one presents one's position becomes a part of the message. For the rhetorical effect alone, some Brazilians may exaggerate a point but this is done in such a way that others know it to be an exaggeration. Business people from more literal low context cultures such as the United States, however, may misunderstand such rhetorical flourishes as dishonesty.

As in other high context cultures, messages are also understood in terms of the full context of the communicators' relationship with one another. This particularly affects the importance for social etiquette and formality in official situations (including business meetings) and creates an emphasis on face-saving and respect.

Because of this high contexting in Brazilian communication, one needs to establish personal relationships when conducting business in Brazil. It is only within the context of this personal relationship that most substantive communication can take place, enabling adequate levels of trust to undertake most business arrangements.

To some extent, Brazilian business behavior is governed by individual interpretation and the need to gamer respect rather than on external rules and regulations. As a result, in Brazil, personal understandings may well prove more binding than contracts.

Perhaps the quintessential example of high contexting in any society is found in the jeitinho. The term itself defies translation but suggests the Brazilian way of getting things accomplished through unofficial channels, connections, and rule-bending. Livia Neves de H. Barbosa defines jeitinho "as a fast, efficient, and last-minute way of accomplishing a goal by breaking a universalistic rule and using instead one's informal social or personal resources."


As with all nations, Brazil has distinctive nonverbal communication unique to itself. It contrasts markedly with the United States in the four areas described below.

Brazilian concepts of personal distance are considerably closer than in North America. The average workplace distance while standing face-to-face between two people in North America is roughly arm's length. While regional differences are notable in Brazil (with interpersonal distance becoming greater as one moves south), the average distance is approximately three to four inches closer than in the United States or Canada.

Brazilians also place a good deal of emphasis on touch. This contrasts markedly to the United States or Canada, where most workplace touching is limited to the handshake. Common Brazilian workplace interactions would likely include handshakes of considerably longer duration than in North America and greeting kisses between men and women as well as among women themselves.

Generally speaking, many Brazilians may be more expressive with their hands than most of their U.S. and Canadian counterparts. Also, most U.S. and Canadian movement is limited to the arms and head; by contrast, movement from the torso is not uncommon in Brazil. Also, Brazilians use many gestures not commonly known in North America. One of these, the so-called fig (placing the thumb between the first and second fingers) is a sign of good luck in Brazil, while its use in the rest of South America is considered obscene.

Brazilians tend to dress more conservatively in the Southeast than elsewhere in the country. Still, as a whole, business as well as social dress is usually more formal and considerably more fashion-conscious throughout Brazil than it is in the United States or Canada. Shoes in particular receive considerable attention in Brazil, arguably as a result of its major role in the shoe industry. Indeed, accessories as a whole tend to carry more importance in Brazil than the United States or Canada. Finally, generally grooming—from hair to make-up—is given more attention in Brazilian business dress than in North American dress.


Brazil and the United States are extremely different in the way each conceives of time. Brazil is what Edward T. Hall termed a polychronic culture; the United States, a monochronic one. Brazil, like all polychronic cultures, ranks personal involvement and completion of existing transactions above the demands of preset schedules. The United States, like other monochronic cultures, adheres to preset schedules that take precedence over personal interaction or the completion of the business at hand.

Considerable regional variance exists in Brazil regarding attitudes toward scheduling and time in general. The Southeast is considerably more time-conscious than, for example, the customary pace of life in the Interior or the northeast. Thus, the generalization of Brazilian attitudes toward time that follows must be balanced against these regional influences. Nonetheless, even in the more monochronic southeast, Brazilians tend to be considerably lax in comparison to their North American counterparts.

Because Brazilian business people customarily emphasize finishing tasks over maintaining preset schedules, executives and managers often find themselves pressed for time. To mitigate the consequent overloading, higher level Brazilians often count on subordinates to screen for them. If an individual manages to circumvent those screening, the person in authority will often immediately take up that individual's request regardless of its relative importance. This is directly opposite what one might expect in the North America, where the appointment book (rather than a subordinate) dictates the schedule and acts as the screen.

This difference has far-reaching effects in Brazilian business. Because people rather than appointment books act as the screens in Brazil, personal relationships flourish within close circles. In the United States, most businesses discourage personal relationships, or at least view personal interactions as less important than maintaining the schedule. As a result, in the United States, the terms of the job determine the nature of personal relationships in a way that is often incomprehensible in Brazil. Conversely, Brazilian jeitinho stresses personal relationships in the workplace in a way that is hard for most U.S. business people to comprehend. Brazilians make distinctions between insiders and those outside existing personal relationships. Appointments are secondary. In the United States, one needs only to schedule a meeting with the appropriate people; little or no preference is given to those one knows over complete strangers. In the United States (in direct contrast to Brazil), the outsider is treated in exactly the same fashion as the close associate.

SEE ALSO : Andean Pact Nations, Doing Business in the ; Argentina, Doing Business in

[ David A. Victor ]


Barbosa, Livia Neves de H. "The Brazilian Jeitinho: An Exercise in National Identity," in David J. Hess and Roberto A. DaMatta (editors), The Brazilian Puzzle. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Connelly, Rachel DeGraff and Deborah S Levison. "Women's Employment and Child Care in Brazil," Economic Development & Cultural Change, April 1996.

Da Matta, Roberto. "The Quest for Citizenship in a Relational Universe," in J.D. Wirth, E.O. Nunes and T.E. Bogenschild (editors), State and Society in Brazil. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987.

Hall, Edward T. The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984.

Krug, Thelma. "Space Technology and Environmental Monitoring in Brazil," Journal of International Affairs, Spring 1998.

Numminen, Asko. "The Brazilian Economy is A Special Case," Unitas, 1999.

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Silverstein, Leni M. "The Celebration of Our Lord of the Good End: Changing State, Church and Afro-Brazilian Relations in Bahia," in David J. Hess and Roberto A. DaMatta (editors), The Brazilian Puzzle. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

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