5 faux-pas in the land of laissez-faire

by procsilas/Flickr

Even in a country prone to informality, such as Brazil, certain attitudes or habits may stir controversy or criticism. Before you cross the line and step on somebody’s toe, check these big no-nos:

  1. Soccer – When I met my husband, Lenny, who’s American, I told him that, as an honorary Brazilian, he was supposed to choose a soccer team to support. He told me to ask my father’s opinion on this relevant subject. My dad’s answer: “on one hand, you have a certain Italian vibe, so you might support Palmeiras. On the other hand, you are not snobbish and like to blend in, so you might go for Corinthians”. Naturally, he suggested teams from São Paulo, where we come from. Wisely, my husband, answered: “ok, but which is your dad’s team?” Since my father is corintiano, Lenny followed his lead.  It is easy to incur in a faux-pas in this arena. So, check if your friends or colleagues are passionate about a certain team before bashing it. Also, be extremely cautious if you decide to wear a team’s official t-shirt. Imagine this scenario: you are walking past a stadium. The game is over and you are spotted by the opposing team. Things could get ugly.
  2. Food – Most rules that are valid in the Western world should work in the country. In a restaurant or dining with friends, you may want to hold the fork in one hand, the knife in the other, switching whenever necessary. No elbows on the table, no knives used as forks, no open chewing mouth, no napkin hanging from your collar. Also, you shouldn´t use your thumb to push the food towards the fork. And don´t belch – unless you are a macho man among your peers. On the other hand, I understand it may be acceptable to use a tooth pick in most environments (very frequently found in cheap or moderately elegant restaurants).
  3. Smoking – Brazil follows the global anti-tobacco trends. Cigarette ads are forbidden on radio, TV or magazines. You cannot smoke in indoor environments such as libraries, government buildings, hospitals, restaurants, classrooms, offices and theaters – but, in some of these places, you can still smoke in the reserved smoking areas. The state of São Paulo is an exception – since last year,  smoking is forbidden in “collective environments”, both public or private. This includes bars, restaurants, nightclubs, offices, taxis and apartment building lobbies. Alas, the law is not always respected or enforced.
  4. Dress code – Brazilians can be very liberal in this department, but certain things are likely to stir some attention – in a bad way. To wear socks with sandals is a classic example. It screams “foreigner” and will most certainly cause laughter. The same with tropical shirts, full of pink hibiscus or flamingoes.  May be cool in Miami, but you definitely won’t blend in that well in Rio. One more thing: when touring a beach town, you might bump into a historic church worth the visit. Most won´t allow you to enter shirtless or wearing a bathing suit. Some might even forbid circulating in shorts or flip-flops.
  5. Lines – Sticky subject because it is a type of social interaction that may cause tension . Some believe that paulistas (like myself) love to stand in line – that we will do that even when we don´t know where it will take us. I think this might be true. I am pretty tempted to join lines. Once installed, I begin to enquire what is it for. Anyways, I understand most Brazilians don´t consider lines sacred – they just indicate a possibility of human arrangement that may or may not be respected. For that reason, when standing up in a line, I try to be really close to the person in front of me, to discourage those interested in filling that gap.  Just in case.

Do you agree with my observations? Don´t you wanna share with us some stories of  faux-pas that caused confusion – or hilarity – in Brazil?

If you liked this post, you might want to read 20 best tips if you are visiting or moving to Brazil and Is “gringo” an insult?

17 thoughts on “5 faux-pas in the land of laissez-faire”

  1. Regarding football teams, do like me and support América of Rio de Janeiro, a totally traditional, very respectable team of ancient lineage that has a fanatic fan base and not a hope in hell of ever winning a championship. Everyone feels sorry for Mequinha, so when someone asks “Who do you root for?” and you tell them “América”, you’ll be automatically excused from any football-related faux-pas and unpleasantness. This is because in polite Brazilian society, one doesn’t contend with or make fun of the mentally disadvantaged and/or differently-abled. And any hooligans, should they ever see your shirt, will just piss themselves laughing.

    Regarding clothes, remember that many public bureaucracies also won’t let you in if you’re wearing shorts or sandles.

  2. When I first arrived, in 2008, it was required that we wear a shirt with sleaves (could be short sleaves) and long pants when attending to Federal business in Federal offices. This has since been lessoned.

    While wearing Havaianas (flip-flops) is ubiquitous, it can be seen as a sign of being from a “lesser” class. Whatever… I do it weverywhere.

  3. I’ve actually done okay not supporting any team, I am not a football fan (alas (or not)) and if pressed I will simply say I root for the US team. As Thaddeus pointed out, this usually gets people to leave me alone. I’ve also learned not only not to wear a team’s jersey, but also not the team colors for the same reason. I’ve even had people stop on the street and want to start something simply because they’ve overheard me say the name of a team. I’m diverging a bit here, but ‘fan’ comes from ‘fanatic’ and I’m not really big on fanaticism in any of its incarnations.

  4. Wise decision, Markuza. Just say it is not your thing.
    I suspect that strategy might also work in Rio, if you are asked which Escola de Samba you support, and in Parintins, in the Amazon, that has an annual festival that stages the bitter rivalry that opposes the fans of two folk characters, bulls Garantido and Caprichoso.

  5. That America team sounds like the Portuguesa of Rio…

    Now then Regina, getting a bit off topic, but something you said is really bugging me. I hear Brazilians make this grammatical mistake all the time and I’m wondering why this is so common. You wrote, “Once my father is corintiano, Lenny followed his lead.”

    The correct way to say that is “SINCE my father…”

    Sorry to nitpick…how is that said in Portugues – “Uma vez meu pai…”? That sounds weird to gringo ears.

    Finally, as an FYI, we here in the US laugh just as much as you do at loud tropical shirts and especially sandals w/ socks. Give us SOME credit! Great blog and keep up the good work.

  6. The line thing is quite true, though not sure if it’s a liking thing but rather a learned tendency. In Colombia, everyone just crowds the front as if it were a bar in a club, which is really annoying since there’s no order to it.

    As for teams, I stay out of it, too. To me, soccer (or any sport) is a way to dumb people down by having them watch grown-ups kick a ball or what-have-you, which has been called giving the people ‘bread and circuses’ as far back as Roman times. Anything to keep the people out of where matters of the State occur (political arena, etc).

    In terms of dress, I’ve seen my fair share of the ‘ugly American’ in Brazil (speaking of behavior and cultural knowledge) but I really don’t see many foreigners dressed in what is thought to be the typical gringo outfit. For that matter, I’ve also never heard any gringo saying Buenos Aires is the capital of Brazil, nor that the US owns the Amazon. All tall-tales perpetrated by people who like to play ‘telephone’.

    Speaking of faux-pas, the best one is a Brazilian one from colonial times. In 1808, when the Royals docked in Rio, the women were wearing turbans as their heads were shaved due to an infestation of lice on the ships. The well-to-do women of Rio thought it the latest fashion from Europe and began to shave their heads and wear turbans, too.


  7. what about piercings?
    the football thing is really sick..and its in every country…here in greece its like dont wear red green or yellow….

  8. I am not sure about that, Mike. Many times I heard black people say “preto is just a color, not an ethnic group”. On the other hand many times I heard some black activists saying they are proud that they are “pretos”.

  9. I am in São Paulo, right now, and very impressed by the huge amount of tattoos and piercings I see. They seem to be increasingly popular among rich and poor alike. But this is Sampa, I am not sure it they are that common in other parts of the country. Anyone can help with that?

  10. I am 46, but I still play soccer, and I love to score goals, so when I am watching a soccer game in Brazil (er, uh, futebol), I tend to root for the team with the ball and let out a whoop whenever either team makes a goal. Not a good idea …

    I noticed, Regina, you said “once my father is Corinthian.” One of the commentors noted it as well, and he feels you meant “since”, which would be “Pois”. For example, “Pois o meu pai foi Corintiano …” Translated: “Since my father was a Corinthian …”

    Another funny translation is the word “boring”, which Brazilians often use in place of “chato” when they speak English. I fought that one for a long time, but I think it is correct. Chato seems to mean irritating, aggravatig, really bad, and I guess it includes boring, which to English speakers is a very mild word.

    Brazilians seem to be very polite, but they use some words we would never use, and it doesn’t bother them at all. I remember an amiga telling the flower lady she wouldn’t buy any flowers to day because the flowers were “feia” or “ugly.” I suppose it isn’t as strong a word as it is for us.

    One last comment … about using “preto” to describe a black man, I think you’re not supposed to do that, but other words like nego/a or pele, seem ok. If you are fat, skinny, tall, short, japanese, korean, you can expect to be referred to in that way without any offense intended. I just avoid those terms and swear words because inflection and timing are so important in defining their meaning.

  11. Thanks for your comments, John, particularly the ones about vocabulary misteps. It will be a long, long time till I am really fluent in English and Deep Brazil was conceived, among other reasons, to give me a reason to write in a – sort of – daily basis.
    Yes, once would be better than since in this context. And, yes, chato covers a wide spectrum, from boring to heavily irritating.
    About feia – I understand it has the same strenght and meaning in both languages. But Brazilians can be extra candid, sometimes.
    And, finally, about calling somebody nego or pelé. I couldn´t agree less. I think it is always delicate to make references to physical or ethnical characteristics. First, because many people don´t recognize themselves as blacks (or blonds, or native Brazilians) – either because they have mixed blood, or because they feel culturally identified with other groups, or because they have some degree of self-hatred. And also because most of us don´t like to be labelled.

  12. When in Rome do as the brasilians do, I believe the saying is?
    My dad always used to say: Whereever you go, whatever you do don’t do like the romans!

    On the issue of Football (what’s soccer anyway?), I would add: if you’re not brasileiro never ever speak ill or even critically about the Selecao or any of it’s players in public – even if you’re right. Having an opinion on the Selecao is something rather reserved for carriers of BR passport – an emotional issue. By virtue you may offer your cheerful support encouragement and subtle suggestions of how to improve score, but critique might raise eyebrows at the risk of someone suggesting you might be against the Selecao!

    On the issue of lines. Lines and other daily doings like shopping, public transport etc. are excellent ways for any traveller to get to know people and acquaint yourself with good behaviour in any culture. Never claim your right or place, particularly not at the cost of an elder, a mother … Other than that just don’t do lines or get into any similar shit!

    The sixth element might be a) to abstain from the use of foul blunt language, swearing, curse words. And consequently b) avoid being the least loud, lewd or otherwise aggressive, dominant, insisting, degrading, insinuating, ridiculing, sarcastic, ironic in your interaction/interpersonal communication be it with a public servant, a shopkeeper, an assistant … whoever.
    This is considered a much more serious and repelling turn off than even white socks in sandals!

    As you gradually improve your portuguese conversation and comprehension of contemporary behaviour, and eventually engage in ever more personal and stronger relations, you’re compelled to discover that Brasilians are generally very courteous, subtle and polite. Across class, gender and other segments – and from inner city to countryside by the way! And certainly very respectful towards seniors, (pregnant) mothers, children, disabled … and poor! People will not likely SHOW offense of your behaviour, but the loss of respect and the impact on your standing may be irreparable…

    Finally one might suggest a positive “Comme il faut” list!
    Greet people as kindly and personally as they greet you (never get a 2nd chance to make a 1st impression).
    Never forget greeting and introducing yourself politely at every desk you encounter.

    Always show consideration and respect in conversation as in action. For instance: where we come from Pinheiro Sao Luis MA, you kiss the hand of your in-laws or other elderly to whom you owe respect when greeting them. Also I, like my wife and kids, adress my in-laws or any other elderly person – or public servant for that matter – Senhor and Senhora.

    In public transportation give way and rise to allow elderly, mothers, kids or anyone carrying jah load to sit. If sitting offer the student to hold his/her stack of books or case.

    Always speak politely, respectfully and empathically – it will not surprisingly most llikely get you where you want!

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