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! 🙂