Ready For Rio? What You Don’t Know About Brazilian Culture Shock

I live within two very strong and very distinct cultures – Brazilian and American. The very mention of “Brazil” to my friends often brings about images of a tropical paradise where the weather is hot, the beaches are pristine, and the people are by far the friendliest you will ever meet. When thinking of Brazil, most people often associate it with one big party – Carnival. And while sure, Carnival is a big part of our tradition, that’s not really the only thing we are known for.

The 2016 Olympics is right around the corner, and with thousands of people coming from all over the world, Brazilians are ready to welcome a plethora of cultures along with it. The athletes are busy prepping both mentally and physically for the games. But what about the spectators and tourists? What a lot of overseas travelers don’t realize, is that they should also be preparing themselves for a world of culture shock.

What does this mean exactly? It means that you should prepare yourselves to embrace the Brazilian culture and not be easily offended when they compose themselves in a manner that is different from ours (American). As a Brazilian myself, I find it humorous that simple gestures like a greeting or walking down the street, radically differs between Brazil and America. Brazilian culture is strong, vibrant and warm, but there are a few key differences that you should be aware of.


The Kiss Greeting

Brazilian Kiss Greeting
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Yes, it’s true, everyone greets each other with a kiss on both cheeks. It’s more of a quick kissing sound towards both cheeks, rather than planting a big ole sloppy kiss on someones face. It also depends on where the person you are meeting is from. People in Rio, called Cariocas, do their greeting with two kisses on each cheek while those from Minas Gerais, called Mineiros (this is what I am), kiss just once on the right, once on the left, and once more on the right cheek. That’s a whole lot of welcome that you should be prepared for. Eventually, you will get the hang of it, but don’t worry if you mess up. Brazilians are easy going and they will be glad to start the entire process over whether you like it or not.


Do Not Mistake Body Language For Flirtation

brazil body language
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Brazilians often speak with their hands. Weather they are gesturing or simply touching your shoulder or arm, they use their hands as a form of conversational expression. During a conversation it’s really common for someone to pull you in closer to have a private conversation. This applies to two women and even a woman and a man. Do not mistake this and think that they are trying to flirt or come on to you. They are simply making conversation and expect nothing out of it. Also, don’t think it’s rude if you are speaking with someone and there is constant interruption in the conversation. It’s not uncommon for someone to inturrupt you while you’re speaking and it’s certain not seen as rude. Brazilians like to talk, BELIEVE ME, sometimes it can sound like everyone is yelling at once! But that just means the conversation is good so just go ahead, jump in, and interrupt them yourselves.


Spending Money Can Be Very Different

Brazilian Real
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The exchange rate is in favor of the American Dollar, so you will have a lot more to spend in Brazil than you normally would. As of today (7/25/16) the exchange rate is $3.29 Brazilian Real for every $1 American Dollar. That should make for a very good trip! However, believe it or not, some things in Brazil will be way more expensive than they would originally be in America. Clothing, electronics, children’s toys are just some of the things that tend to be astronomically overpriced in Brazil. Some stores even let you pay on “credit”. This isn’t a credit card, instead is making multiple payments to the story for whatever items you bought instead of paying the price in full at the time of purchase. Also, make sure to tip the flanelinha! This is the person that will usher your car to a spot and keep an eye on it. They will often pop up next to your car window of out nowhere, but don’t worry, they are relatively harmless.


Underage Drinking Is Not A Big Deal

Mariana and Friends Circa 2006
Mariana and Friends Circa 2006

The legal age to drink is 18 in Brazil, but often times you will see 16 year olds out drinking with their friends and family. Don’t be too shocked though, as underage drinking is not considered taboo. The family dynamic in Brazil is a strict one, based out of severe respect for ones family, parents and elder. Because of that, most young teens are often taught to live their lives within boundaries and be responsible for their own actions. Within my social circle in Brazil, it was not uncommon for three generations of family and friends to enjoy each others company while having a glass of wine or beer. I feel that because of this, drinking and driving is not as big of a problem as it is here in America. Kids don’t often go out just to get drunk with their friends. Instead, they go out for dinner and a drink and focus on enjoying each others company. Again, this is within my circle of friends and I am sure it could differ for each person.


It’s Considered Rude Not To Accept Food

A few years ago I went back to visit Family in Minas Gerais with my Mother. This was a very small town, where I think half of the people were related to my mother and the other half to my father. Needless to say, a lot of people knew my parents which meant that we were expected to make the rounds and visit a lot of homes during our short stay. All I remember from that trip is that it fell on some sort of Brazilian holiday, equivalent to the American Thanksgiving…lots of food…A LOT OF FOOD. We ended up having 3 large meals in 3 different homes. All because if we had no accepted to stay and gather with our friends, it would have been considered extremely rude. You see, there is no such thing as a “quick visit” in Brazil. When you’re welcomed into someones home, you are welcomed into their family. Just be prepared and wear stretchy pants!


Pedestrians DO NOT Have The Right Of Way

Pedestrian Crosswalk in Brazil
Pedestrian Sign in Portuguese

DO NOT EVER THINK PEDESTRIANS HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY. I made the mistake of almost getting run over by a car the last time I happened to be in Brazil. My American mentality was still going strong and so of course I though that being a pedestrian, meant that I had the right of way. False. Pedestrians NEVER have the right of way in Brazil. Crosswalks, especially those in large cities, are more of a decoration than an actual safety measure. There are several large campaigns in Brazil that are focusing on changing this, however just be vigilant. Do not think that just because there is a crosswalk or a stop sign that people will automatically let you through.


Brazil plastic cups
Flimsy and unacceptable

Fast Food Is Eaten With Cutlery

My American friends often think it’s odd that I will bust out a fork and knife to eat a pizza or burger. Hey, don’t blame me, blame my culture! In Brazil, it’s considered unsanitary to touch your food with your hands, so most people elect to eat their meals with cutlery. But don’t worry if you forget because Brazilians are too nice to embarrass anyone, especially a visiting guest. Side note- what’s up with the small Brazilian napkins that seem to be coated in wax!? Brazil, can we please invest in good, solid absorbing napkins please! And don’t event get me started on the tiny plastic cups that take at least 3 stacked inside one another to make it sturdy.


Ketchup On Everything

Don’t be shocked if you are out getting a pizza, and the Brazilians in the table next to you bust out a bottle of ketchup to enjoy with their pizza. Or even more…uniquely, mayonnaise. Ketchup on pizza is delicious! Don’t judge it until you try it. You see, pizza is made a bit different in Brazil, they are more robust and way less “conservative” when it comes to toppings. Traditional toppings such as cheese, pepperoni, and veggies exist of course, but you also get some flavor additions. It’s common to see pizza crusts in Brazil filled with a variety of stuffing such as a popular creamy Brazilian cheese called requeijao or other cheese and meats. Pizza sauces in Brazil also tends to come in very thin layers of tomato sauce or even olive oil. However you get your pizza, just remember to always eat it with a knife and fork!


Brazilians Are Never On Time, Don’t Take It Personally

Brazilian Churrasco

This is one of my biggest pet peeves, having grown accustomed to the American standard of arriving on time or early. I am 100% American when it comes to this, and it drives me crazy when my family plans a gathering for 7pm and most people start strolling in around 9:30pm. I’m getting HANGRY people!  Brazilians like to be late to everything, even for business meetings. 30 minutes is often perfectly acceptable for being late to an important business meeting and 1 hour is nothing for personal matters. Often times when they do show up to meeting your somewhere, don’t be surprised if 3 others show up alongside them. In the Brazilian culture, an invitation is considered an open invitation to that person, as well as to their friends and family. Birthday parties are a pain to organize. Just do yourself a favor and order a caipirinha and churrasquinho, and just wait until your friend shows up.


Happy Wandering


What are some of the culture shocks you’ve encountered traveling?

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