We are hosting a friend from Estonia for a couple of weeks. The six days my compatriot has been here have surprisingly demonstrated how much I have already learnt about Brazil, the world and me in it! So far, I was convinced that I was still in the mid-process of adapting or understanding Brazil and Brazilians. I did not think I had made as much progress in the last two years as I would have liked. That is, I was not too happy with myself when it came to feeling like a fish in the water in my new environment.
However, this new experience of having someone from my homeland living with us for a while has served as a valuable lesson – I am actually not doing so bad at all! Moreover, even though, I think I have not changed my own values or the way I act too much, I have magically come to understand the Brazilians and their motives.
So what are the important lessons I have already learnt and integrated into my life here that might strike foreigners as funny or weird at best, or disappointing and frustrating, in the worst-case scenario?
In this post, I want to focus on how plans and promises are made in Brazil and why they are not always kept.
A Whole New Meaning to Planning
Engagements, arrangements and even promises work in a whole different way here than they do back in Europe. To get us started, it is of utmost importance here to be flexible and not to take anything too seriously (as we Estonians tend to do).
The best guideline to go by to avoid disappointment and unnecessary conflict is, therefore, to understand that plans are just ideas to be fulfilled only if nothing changes or gets in the way. In addition, sometimes plans, promises or invitations are made in the heat of the moment or as an act of friendliness, to be forgotten a couple of hours later. Of course, I am talking about casual everyday engagements, like getting together with friends or acquaintances, going to meetings or the gym, promising to help someone move or show them the city, showing up for a doctor’s appointment or making plans in itself. Serious stuff like family, weddings and football are a completely different case.
How I understand it, is there are many reasons as to why it is like that. Firstly, invitations and plans are made on a rolling basis as they occur to a person. However, in their essence they are just ideas barely taking form in the head of the person speaking, and therefore, should be taken just as such by the other party. In addition, the degree of proximity of the people interacting plays a huge role in what is going to happen (or not happen) next. The grade of commitment is proportional to the strength of the relationship.
Let me give you an example:
You go out with a group of people and have a nice conversation with someone the whole night. It completely looks like you have made a new friend. They are so open and friendly and tell you that next weekend they are going to this amazing place where they have a house and they definitely want you to go along. You are exhilarated by the offer and about the fact that you have made such a great connection with someone. After all, you are a foreigner and in a serious need of local friends. So, you answer immediately that you would love to! You agree with the other person that they will send you all the trip details during the week, once everything is set.
You mark the day in your calendar and plan the week accordingly rejecting any other plans that surge for the same date. However, days go by and you do not hear anything from your friend. You start to get a bit anxious, as you would already love to plan the departure, what to take along, what to buy, for how long you will stay etc. Nevertheless, you think that your friend is probably handling it and you do not want so seem rude or obtrusive, so you patiently wait them to confirm the details.
When the travel date arrives you become a bit worried and decide to call or send a message to your friend. They either do not respond at all; respond only after the weekend you were supposed to travel together, or some time after you tried to contact them. Most probably they will say something like: “Oh, I am sorry, I did not realize you were waiting for me! Actually, we ended up not going to the place anyway; because my grandmother’s dog had to be taken to the vet and then we decided to go to João’s birthday instead. Let’s do something some other day!”
Feelings of Worthlessness
If it is (one of) your first experience in making friends in Brazil, you will probably feel quite shabby. You might even cry a little and feel like nobody cares. In the beginning, that feeling tends to become even stronger as you meet more people. Everyone is so nice but at the same time completely unreachable. Each person you meet greets you with a kiss and asks where you are from and what you are doing in Brazil. After a while you will have figured out a phrase that you repeat like a broken record every time someone asks.
You become “the foreigner”, especially after noticing that the same people tend to ask you the same questions two, sometimes even three times, as if they had never heard the answer before. It starts to feel like being a gringa was a defining characteristic of yours, or at least the only one that is worth attention. You seem to be a magnet for just two minutes and then everybody goes back to their own as if they had fulfilled a duty and could go on with their real lives now.
Seems awfully discouraging, right? But wait! You have not considered yet the…
Brazilian point of view:
In general, Brazilians are very social and verbal. They are excellent with people. It is in their nature, their culture, an important value and a way of life. Most people have a lot going on in their lives and the lives of the members of their circles. They have big families, many friends, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues, crazy bureaucracy, complicated systems and lots of uncertainty. Each of the aforementioned means a series of (social) obligations and attachments to deal with daily.
Contacts are frequent, and the information flow never stops. Brazilians do not take too much time for making decisions or stopping to figure life out. They are in constant movement. There is no unnecessary pondering or questioning whether what was done, or what is now, is right. Anyway, life is more about the process than it is about the result. Brazilians are dynamic, not afraid of making mistakes and they let life roll out in front of them as they go.
It is important to go with the flow. First, you find a problem, and then, you find out if and how to solve it.
When you finally understand
Once you do get on one of those carousels by truly becoming part of a Brazilian circle, every once in a while, it makes your head spin. This is when you truly understand. It is only logical and natural that a person, no matter how social, just does not have the capacity or will to divide their purest selves between everything that is going on. Comparatively, it would be like reading, watching and listening all news that you can get your hands on during each day.
At the same time, everyone seems to be on the same wavelength here, so nobody even creates an expectation of actually bonding with someone they just met or coming through with plans that were casually thrown into the air as an idea. Everybody feels the load and shares the need to have the freedom to occasionally say no. Invitations are often meant as an expression of good will and politeness anyway. Ignoring someone is rude, but speaking two casual sentences to them can be just enough to get on with one’s life without maxing out energy resources but managing to be at least a bit considerate at the same time.
While the socio-cultural norms make Brazilians promise things to acquaintances they do not mean or will most likely not treat as a priority, the true essence of a person is and naturally only can be shared with their closest and loved ones. This is were commitment takes other dimensions. These relationships are constructed through years and years of cohabitation, building each connector at a time.
Therefore, the answer is yes – Brazilians do keep promises – if they think it is worth it.
Any tips I can give to other foreigners out there? I guess it comes down to patience, keeping it light and not giving up. There are people just like you in Brazil, you just have to find them. Moreover, it is important to do it using the connections you have already made, because in the beginning you are only as trustworthy as the person that introduces you. However, once you start living like a local, you will soon develop a gut feeling and learn to play by the unwritten rules.
Other fellow foreigners, what do you think? Do Brazilians keep promises?