Business culture in Brazil is the result of a veritable melting pot of the world and reflects multiple ethnic variations and diverse cultures. Immigration from Africa, Europe and Asia coupled with Brazil’s own indigenous origins have created a vast range of different traditions, beliefs, and physical appearances.
A collectivistic attitude and sense of solidarity are characteristic of many Brazilian people. There is often a sense of pride in their ability to work together to shape the future rather than passively accept the status quo. This is reflected in labor and other organizations to empower different segments of society.
Among Brazilian civil society, there is a widely held belief that the government and law enforcement bodies are corrupt. Given the skeptical attitudes towards political institutions, collectivism in Brazil does not extend to the government. When in a time of need, Brazilian citizens generally reach out to and depend upon family, friends, or those within communities. Brazilians also commonly take to the streets and protest as a form of resistance which can impede business.
Many senior and middle ranking executives in Brazilian business culture speak excellent English and, in fact, many of them may have studied abroad in the USA or Europe.
However, English is by no means universally spoken and when dealing with people outside the major commercial centers, an ability to speak Brazilian Portuguese is extremely useful. (Try to avoid using Spanish as this can be seen as culturally insensitive. Brazilians are proud of their uniqueness in South America as non-Spanish speakers.) If doing business in Brazil for the first time, check out whether you will need a translator or not.
As with many Latin countries, Brazilians tend to put the spoken before the written word. When sending something in a written format it is usually a good idea to follow it up with a phone call or a visit.
Verbal communication in Brazil can often be viewed as being theatrical and over-emotional by those cultures which place a great significance on the maintenance of professional reserve in all situations. In a country like Brazil, if you feel something strongly, you show it.
The use of significant amounts of exaggerated body language (by the standards of less tactile cultures) plays a significant role in normal communication. Brazilians are very tactile – even across the sexes – and work in proximity. They also exhibit strong levels of eye contact when speaking to people. This combination of tactility, proximity and a steady gaze can be intimidating for some, but it is important that you adapt to these issues as quickly as possible otherwise your own reserve could be misinterpreted as unfriendliness.
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Probably the most pervasive barrier encountered by the unwary businessperson would be the ‘Custo Brasil’ or the “Brazil Cost”. This term refers to the very real extra costs of doing business in Brazil – corruption, governmental inefficiency, legal and bureaucratic complications, excessive taxation, inflation etc. Although this ‘Custo’ is difficult to define and has lessened in recent years, it remains real and the cause of great frustration for international businesspeople.
Due to this ‘Custo Brasil’, it is important to work closely with local lawyers and accountants. Many people have found the services of local middlemen (despachantes) extremely useful in overcoming many of the unfathomable local complexities. As with many countries, the opportunities are there and are real, but it is essential to understand the local business landscape if you are to reap the rewards – regardless of whether your sector is computing, banking and finance, or pharmaceuticals, local knowledge is vital.
As with most South American countries, many Brazilian companies tend to be organized along hierarchical lines with information flowing in a very structured way up and down the various chains of command.
Typical of structured hierarchies, most key decisions will be made at the most senior levels of an organization and all international negotiators are well advised to try to develop a good understanding of the corporate structure of any potential partner – as a great deal of time and resources could potentially be wasted by trying to get a decision out of somebody who does not really have the requisite level of authority.
Trying to decipher the exact structure of your contact’s organization is quite a challenge. The organization chart you are shown may not reflect the way in which power really flows due to the complicating factor of the power of personal relationships. Business organizations are riddled with internal politics where one’s allegiance to an individual may be considered of greater importance than any reporting lines on an organization chart.
The respect afforded the manager by subordinates, is directly proportionate to the personality of the boss. Relationships are of key importance in this Latin culture and the boss and subordinates work hard to foster a relationship based on trust and respect for personal dignity.
First and foremost, managers are expected to manage. The boss is expected to give direct instructions and it is expected that these instructions will be carried out without too much discussion or debate (if there is debate it should be done in private to avoid showing public disrespect to the hierarchy).
No. You cannot run away from it. If you are going to do business in Brazil, it is crucial to have good relations with local people. Above all you need to understand “Jeitinho Brasileiro.” This underlying cultural factor may be best described by the following example.
Let us imagine a situation where a man is in a hurry, out for his lunch hour. He has only this precious hour to pay a bunch of bills, and they are all closing in on the due dates. Once he gets in the bank, he faces a two-hour long queue. Desperation defines the moment. But wait he is a Brazilian. Far ahead, he sees a co-worker second in line. What do you think he will do?
You guessed right if you thought that our guy will insidiously skip the line, pretending that he will talk to his colleague. This is the kind of behavior that can exemplify how the “jeitinho” works. It means that regardless of the rules or systems in place, where there is a will there has to be a way around it.
You are probably thinking: “well people do these short cuts everywhere around the world, what makes Brazil so different? This is true but in Brazil it goes to unique proportions: people, institutions, companies, policies and even legislation have been influenced by it. The jeitinho is so ingrained in the daily lives that you can see examples of it everywhere: managing to get a seat when all places are booked, traveling with more luggage than allowed, parking in spots for disabled people, ordering dishes not on the menu etc.
Even with legal matters, if a Brazilian wants something that is not permitted, he or she will try to figure out a loophole until an alternative way is found. For Brazilians, “jeitinho” is like one of the first apprenticeships on how to get by in life, and Brazilians even practice it unconsciously.
As you consider Brazil as an export market or investment opportunity, take note of the five basic regionsv as they influence opportunity and risk and have their own cultural characteristics.
The north of Brazil is home to Brazil’s indigenous people. The Amazon is a lifeline to the millions of people that reside there, providing opportunities for fishing, hunting and basic means to survive. As we hear on the news, it is also subjected to deforestation to give way to farmland and illegal gold mining. The north is generally considered poor in comparison to the rest of the country, although some larger cities exist such as Manaus, home to several international companies. The region represents only about 4% of Brazil’s GDP with high dependence on agriculture and iron ore mining.
The northeast of Brazil has the largest population of African descendants. It has a warm climate all year round and the rich soils have turned it into an important agricultural hub. The area is also considered poor, though its stunning beaches and breathtaking national parks attract tourism, which helps boost the local economy. Traces of African culture remain evident in the local music, religion, and food. The northeast accounts for about 13% of Brazil’s GDP with oil and gas, manufacturing and ICT being key sectors.
The Central-West is known for its dry climate and abundance of national parks and exotic wildlife. Its also home to many of Brazil’s indigenous populations and to Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia. Its here that political decisions that drive and shape the country are made and it also serves to display some of Brazil’s finest architectural monuments. The region accounts for about 7% of Brazil’s GDP with prominent sectors being agribusiness and auto manufacturing.
One of the most visited regions in Brazil, the Southeast includes famous cities such as Rio De Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The mix of cultures here is extremely diverse with traces of African and European immigration across the region. Sao Paulo has the largest community of Japanese immigrants in the world. The Southeast is a powerhouse in the economy representing about 58% of Brazil’s GDP with a diversified economy including auto parts manufacturing, financial and other services, science, and technology.
The south of Brazil is considered the richest region in the country. It is heavily influenced by European immigrants with typical German architecture, cuisine and events celebrated each year. There is a higher number of fair skin and pale eyes in the south than any other region. The region has a diversified economy and the best infrastructure in Brazil and accounts for about 18% of Brazil’s GDP.
In Brazil, the differences between the social classes are very well defined. It is common to call these classes A, B, C and D. The A and B are upper, and the C and D are lower classes. It is important to be clear on which classes you are targeting for your products or services.
A multinational (Dutch) company that has a strong audience in Brazil elected to change its target class. The company, which has more than 200 stores in Brazil, repositioned itself from being only focused on class C, to penetrate class B. In this repositioning, the brand started to do fashion collections in partnership with well-known Brazilian and International fashion designers and celebrities. As a result, the brand achieved the objective and nowadays it has a market share in class B and C which increases its profits. Being attentive to the preferences in each of the classes is important for success.
Foreign businesswomen are treated fairly and with respect which reflects a trend in Brazil which sees women increasingly joining the business world and making significant advances. However, despite this trend, it is still unusual to find senior female managers at the very highest levels of Brazilian-owned organizations.
Doing business in Brazil will be a cultural adventure and an unpredictable scenario for many international businesspeople. You will be well received, enjoy great hospitality, observe the confidence and pride of Brazilians, and feel the pulse of a young and dynamic nation.
This guide has been produced by Marvin Hough, a Canadian business executive and university professor with extensive experience in international markets. During his career, he has facilitated Canadian exports and investments to global markets while working for 30 years with Canada’s official export agency, Export Development Canada (EDC). His career included overseas assignments in India, China, and Mexico where he faced and observed business culture issues on a day-to-day basis.
Since completing his EDC career, Mr. Hough has continued to be actively involved in international business through teaching at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management where he has led MBA consulting trips to markets such as China, Brazil, South Africa, and Vietnam.
Mr. Hough also runs his own firm, Marvin Hough International Research and Analysis Limited (MIRA) (www.miraservices.ca) which supports Canadian and international companies, educational institutions, and governments in entering and operating in diverse international markets.
Throughout his career, Mr. Hough has felt that Western firms should place more attention on understanding and adapting to business culture as they conduct business in global markets. He is pleased to collaborate with Global Business Culture to support greater understanding on the business culture file by producing these guides.