Beginner’s Guide: 10 Ways to Keep up with Conversations in Brazil (or Other Latin Cultures)

Let me start today by asking  all “foreigners” that have been to Latin (American) countries a question:

Have you ever felt like you were unable to keep up with a conversation in Brazil? Or in Mexico? Or in Italy? Or anywhere else in that matter where there is nice climate and people that seem to be verbally way more expressive than an average countryman of yours?

The problem is not your language skills, but the fact that everybody is talking at the same time, cutting each other off and switching topics at the speed of light so you never even get a chance to chip in. Sounds familiar?

Well, fear not, it is not uncommon at all. Here is a real life example from a reader in response to my first blog post How to Understand an Estonian?:

 “(At the dining table) Friend: Are you ok? You’ve barely said one word tonight!? Me: Ah, you now just waiting for my turn here. True story. Every. Single. Time.:)”

If I am right, in that reader’s case we are talking about a scene happening in Spain. The exact culture or location does not probably even matter. After a bit more than two years in Brazil, I too still regularly feel like this when I try to participate in group conversations with locals. Just with the difference, that usually nobody asks why I am being quiet, as Brazilians themselves have a lot to say on each topic anyway – so better not encourage competition for on-air time or attention.

Before we go on, let me be clear that I am talking about conversing in groups here. In my experience one-on-ones usually are as just as nice and fulfilling as ever with friends from anywhere in the world. It is easier to connect on a human level and leave our cultural differences aside so we could understand each other. In groups, however, the culture is what dominates, not the human essence.

As mentioned, from time to time, I still get pulled into the whirlpool of group conversations with many people making parallel speeches at the same or on different topics, being loud and proud. In the middle of it all, I tend to: 1) firstly, become confused and not know whom to pay attention to; 2) then, start feeling a bit stiff, frustrated and invisible; 3) and finally, lose all interest in what is going on.

To stop that from happening, I have learnt some pretty useful ways to more successfully participate in conversations instead of just waiting for my turn to talk and, hence, never saying a word.

I feel like I have to give you a spoiler though – some of these tricks I have used myself, yet some are plain rude to me, the do-not-repeat-at-home kind. Nevertheless, they all come from my actual experience with what people act like when having conversations in Brazil.

Without further ado, in order of most innocent to completely disrespectful, here it goes:

1. Learn the secret language! 

I am not talking about the local language – you probably have that part already. I am talking about studying the slang, the lyrics of current hit songs, the names of famous pop, football and soap opera stars. Do not forget the politicians, especially the most corrupt ones! The more slang (and other code words) you can catch and throw back, the bigger the chances of being fully integrated into the conversation.

2. Make jokes! 

This helps you to relax and demonstrates initiative to make the conversation partners feel good (about themselves) as well. You will seize to be a threat and become worth paying more attention to thanks to the gratification you offer.

3. Play around and charm their socks off! 

Try to say more than what you are saying directly just with your words. Posture, gestures, looks, touching, facial expressions – all this information is being constantly interpreted and analyzed by your interlocutors. So use it to your advantage! Tell stories! Be playful! Be entertaining! There is something that Brazilians absolutely adore – it is called charminho, and it means that someone does a fetching gesture, speaks in a certain way or gives a look that is meant to fascinate or charm the other party. Generally, this is highly approved of, enjoyable to witness and a quick way to peoples’ liking. Plain cold facts, on the other hand, do not interest anyone. It is sometimes even more important how you say something than what you actually say. So just be charming!

4. Be selective! 

Listen and respond to the person you feel like paying attention to, everyone knows you cannot react to all of them at once anyway. You can ignore the others. Nobody gets offended. If they really want to know, they will repeat the question. Nevertheless, do not worry, that will not happen too often. Usually, when you finally get around to answering them, the person asking has already forgotten all about it and moved on to another topic. There is no need to feel bad about that.

5. Do not criticize the country you are in! 

You can agree with what is being said about the country, its people, politics or anything else, but you should not think you can just casually add on top of that. If you have something critical or negative to say, better keep it to yourself. Because in those conversations you are not all equal. In a way all Brazilians feel responsible for everything bad that is going on in the country, so do not make them feel judged and guilty about it!

6. Be confident about what you say! 

Even if you are not exactly sure. If you show any doubt or hesitation, no one will believe you or trust your judgement anyway. What is at stake here is you authority, your position in the group, not what the actual truth is. Remember that. Moreover, there is no need to count your words. Let them flow freely.

7.Do not be afraid to cut anyone off! 

If you do not start your sentence before the other person finishes, someone else will cut in anyway and you will lose your turn to speak. Repeatedly. Somehow, people here have the capability of speaking and listening at the same time. Even when two or more people are speaking simultaneously, miraculously they manage to keep up and not a lot of information gets lost. How do they do it? I have no idea… In addition, if the conversation is not entertaining you, change the subject to something you want to talk about. If it does not work at once, insist.

8. (S)he who speaks loudest, is definitely heard! 

Do not force your audience to put more effort than needed into hearing what you are saying. Talk loud and proud! There is no such thing as too loud. However, if you are not loud enough, no one will not even try to get what you were saying. There is too much already going on for that. Also, I do not know why that is, but in mixed groups female voices are almost always the loudest, competing with each other. If you do not believe me, just go to a restaurant and sit next to a big group of excited people. You will soon see what I am talking about.

9. Get Drunk! 

That way you will be doing many of the things listed above naturally. Or at least you will think that you are. Nevertheless, you will gain confidence, relax more and become much more easily entertained even when you might not be exactly participating. Works wonders! But let us be honest – this one is definitely not a very sustainable or a healthy approach! So use with caution. 

10. Shock them to stop them! 

When I was doing my exchange at a prestigious university in São Paulo, I experienced a phenomenon that many people effectively demonstrated in classes as well as personal conversations. When someone else was speaking and the “shockers” did not want to listen anymore, they just shouted out: “Calma!” (in English “Calm down!”) using a commanding yet offended tone of voice. The result usually was that the other person was taken aback for a second and stopped speaking, which was just enough so that the interrupter could immediately take over. It is worth noting that the first person speaking usually was completely calm and composed, until they were told to calm down in order to stop them from continuing.

These are the 10 tips I have picked up so far on how to be able to actually participate in group conversations in Brazil. Follow these tips and you should be the star of each conversation in no time!

…or just make peace with the way you are and lay your bets on one-on-one conversations or micro-groups. Moreover, I think that a good motto to always go by is “When you speak, you just repeat what you already know. When you listen, you might actually learn something new. “

However, from time to time it is still important to practice making yourself heard – in a way that does not make you feel embarrassed about yourself.  I am sure all of us can find ways that let us position ourselves the way we want to and that are respectful to ourselves and others at the same time.

Remember: adapting is not about copying, it is about embracing the new and making it your own!

Is there anything that I missed? What is your experience? Share your opinion!  🙂

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Eha says:

    In the middle of a busy Friday working day I am enthusiastically nodding and laughing – oh yea, here in Australia too, but I would imagine it would be far worse in South America! OK, from the name ‘Eha’ you will know my birthplace. Am a gregarious lively Gemini bod who thinks your ‘rules’ are absolutely oh so right!!! Really I DO think you have each and every one of these ‘commandments’ correct – my choices include ‘charm their socks of’ and ‘do not criticise the country you are in’ !! Yours is definitely the most stimulating twixt-and-between blog I have found forever and keep on writing!!!!

    Like

  2. Robson Silva says:

    I really enjoy Grete’s articles, even being a latin brazilian reading a blog made from a foreigner to foreigners, exactly because the outsider view, revealing details that we know from birth, but usually just dont pay attention for. 😉

    I become a lot curious when i read “in order of most innocent to completely disrespectful, here it goes”. But after finish the article, i was like “so… where is the disrespectful conversation trick? Maybe i’ve missed something” Hehe.

    Group conversation in brazilian (latin) culture is like to dance in a dancefloor: The other dancers are not paying attention if you are a good dancer. But if you are a really bad dancer, you dont will enjoy that yourself and soon will stop. Sometimes other dancers even will do some moves that beat in you (or almost), and vice-versa, but it’s involuntary. And everyone are just there to have fun and recreation. Also, everyone prefer to dance in middle of other dancers.

    So, talk in a group in these cultures are usually not a serious or professional moment. That’s why no one being offended if cannot conclude what was saying, and neither avoid to “shock” others to stop.

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    1. Thank you so much for the feedback, Robson! And a great explication as well! Makes sense the way you put it! 🙂

      Like

  3. Robert Austin Kelly says:

    “Just waiting for my turn here…” If only I had read this post months ago! It would have saved me so much grief. My Brazilian wife has never been able to understand why I am so discouraged when socializing in group contexts. I have always preferred one on one conversation, but never have I felt so bulldozed and disrespected as here in Brazil. Great to hear encouragement and validation. 😂

    I can certainly affirm some of these tips are pure gold, and would especially emphasize the importance of charm to any other readers!!

    Like

    1. Hahaha, it is great to hear that you are figuring things out here! I am sure it has not been easy! But all those things do make funny stories. Sometimes it is a bit hard to find to whom to tell those stories, though, as Estonians tend to think that I am exaggerating (becoming too Brazilian in their opinion) and some Brazilians might be offended by any comparisons…

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    2. Jorge says:

      Dude,
      I think that social status is important for any woman anywhere in world but if your women make a case about who you like or not, who you talk or not, don´t be a pushover.

      You´re an adult, you can choose who you talk to. Your wife cannot control you.

      Like

  4. Jorge says:

    I am brazilian and I never get drunk and rarely make any jokes but I am an oddball.

    You don´t need to get drunk but people will hate you if you don´t make any joke. Serious most brazilians HATE people who don´t make jokes or don´t laught about their jokes.

    I don´t care if people hate me (serious), you will prolly delete my comment like most blogs but I am telling the truth here.

    Like

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