Hugs and Showers
This is a somewhat tedious stream-of-consciousness that has been organized to some extent about my perceptions of the differences in culture in Brazil and in the US and my reasons for working in Brazil
“Holly, why did you choose to come to Brazil?”
Oh man, this question has a lot of answers, some of which I am still trying to figure out. My first time coming to Brazil was pretty random (an advisor at my university presented a project that I thought sounded cool and so I applied) but my second and third times were definitely an intentional choice to come to Brazil specifically. And spending my final year of college choosing to research topics pertaining to Brazil for almost every paper and project was certainly intentional as well.
For awhile, when I faced this question, I could only answer that I was guided by intuition/feeling. When I thought about spending more time in Brazil, my brain just felt like, yeah do that. And so, I pursued it somewhat blindly?
But now, I have been here for more time, spent more time thinking about this question, been able to communicate more with Brazilians in their native language. The answer can be broken into two parts: stuff about me and stuff about Brazil. There’s some stuff intrinsic to holly josephs that draws me to Brazil/other things/places/people and there’s some stuff intrinsic to my perceptions of Brazil that draws me to it or is just interestingly different from what I have known so far. I’m going to try to use words to express both sides of this. First, I’ll explain who I am, and then I’ll explain what I think the culture of Brazil is (and how it feels different from what I have experienced in the USA.)
Hi, I’m Holly and I have been living in the US for 22 years. I grew up in a predominantly white suburb of New York City in a middle income environment with an incredibly loving, supportive, open-minded family that has liberal/leftist leanings but no strong political/social action due to their focus on family and understanding of how to enact their passive desire to make the world a better place for everyone. I was raised in a way in which I observed the people closest to me almost exclusively acting out of trying to make another person happier (small acts of kindness). I think this has manifested in me trying to use my life for small acts of kindness and also bigger acts of kindness. However, during my 18 years living in this suburb with my small-acts-of-kindness oriented family, I developed close to zero understanding of the nuances of the social/political/environmental problems that face the world and, to be honest, even as locally as non-white or lower income or abused or mental health afflicted people in my town and the predominantly lower-income and people of color towns that neighbor mine.
After 18 years, I knew that there were starving people in the world, there were victims of war in the world, there were people who were a abused in the world, that our planet is facing an environmental crisis. I didn’t really know that there is institutional racism, gender inequalities, subtleties to mental health, and systemic income inequalities in New York, in the USA, and in the world.
At 18, I moved to Boston, MA and studied urban planning and civil/environmental engineering. For four years, I had obligations and opportunities to understand and interact with the social/political/environmental issues in the world. I learned that NONE of it is simple. I learned that I will never understand the nuances of any social/political/environmental problem fully. Thus, it is really hard to decide how to act and I struggle a lot with this. My environment in Boston surrounded me with a lot of people who are aware of this and struggle with this.
Well, despite not knowing how to act, it feels really bad to be in a perpetual limbo state of doing nothing. Being in school was satisfying enough because it had a tangible goal (graduating) that provided direction, the time was filled with projects aimed at gaining a greater understanding and even sometimes acting on some of these problems, and there was easy access to unrelated fun.
And that’s where my brain is at. So, what intrinsic to me has to do with Brazil? I find Brazil to be a great place to observe a lot of social/political/environmental problems that are common to developing countries and some that are really really similar to problems in the United States (the environment where I have the greatest understanding of the nuances of these problems). I find that my experiences and way of interacting with humans so far has been similar enough to the ways of a lot of Brazilians that it is easy enough to connect to many individual Brazilians. I really like Portuguese. I like laughing. I like humans who interact warmly with one another. I like Brazilian food. I like some Brazilian music. I think capoeira is awesome. I like relaxed rules. I like cities.
Cool, so that’s me, somewhat. And now I can explain the second part, my perceptions of the culture of Brazil. To start, there is a cool saying in Brazil that “The best part of Brazil is the Brazilian.” I think the pride people have in their way of interacting with other humans is insanely cool. It’s the best thing to be proud of. I love the people I have met here and I love how I feel when I am in Brazil.
To dive deeper, I’m going to explain a few differences in culture that have stood out to me. My perceptions have been mostly made through comparisons to what I have seen in the United States. It feels a little weird to make these comparisons because it feels like I am talking for more than 500 million people (~200 million Brazilians and ~300 million USA people). Both countries have so many sub-cultures and so many individuals. But I’ll explain my observations given that I have mostly only surrounded myself with the alternative-hippie-nerd sub-culture in the United States and mainstream millennial culture in Brazil. (Although I think I have a reasonable understanding of the mainstream millennial culture in the United States which will be used more in my basis for comparison.)
- The stereotype that the culture is warmer in Brazil feels true to me, somewhat. There are definitely more hugs here. You meet someone for the first time, you hug and you kiss. You text someone for the first time, you can send emojis of hearts and hugs and kisses and it’s not weird. In Brazil, you will be invited to join people often. People express that they enjoy your company often. In general, love is expressed in an obvious way more often. For comparison, if you go behind a photo of my family with our arms around each other, you will notice that we actually are ghost touching each other. The arms and hands that look to be around each other from the front of the photo are actually a few inches from the next person.
However, I think the difference in touching other people comes not just from warmth, but also from a different perception of respect. I know in my family, the lack of touching is based in respect for another person’s body and from wanting consent before interactions. It has nothing to do with feeling less love for the person. I believe in more violent and more sexual ways, Brazil and the United States have the same ideals and values about consent and respecting another’s body (not that these ideals are enacted very well). But in greetings and platonic and familial ways, I think this expectation is just different.
As for warmth besides this superficial touching level, I think both cultures are really similar. I think both cultures put a lot of effort into understanding another human being, to love another human being, to be loved by another human being. However, I think the way of putting effort into socializing is different. I find that in the United States, people ask more questions and in Brazil, people talk more unpromptedly. In the United States, it is more normal ask questions because it shows that you are interested in the person. In Brazil, it is more normal to just share because it shows that you trust the person. I think both ways are reasonable manifestations of trying to connect with and show you care about the other person.
Also, in Brazil it is more common to interrupt. The interruptions are not rude. They show that the person is actively engaged in what you are saying. In the US, interruptions are less common. The lack of interruptions comes from giving the person space to complete their thought, but it also could bring doubt as to if the listener is listening.
I struggled with these differences but also found it really cool to question why I interact with people in the way I do. My lack of touchiness/extreme respect for another’s body made Brazilians feel less comfortable with interacting with me in their normal way. I was fine with being touched but I never reciprocated. Also, my style of more listening in conversations often led to me not sharing very much because I was waiting to be given a signal that the information was wanted. I also found it difficult to complete a conversation about an idea because it always got interrupted by another idea. I am guessing that Brazilians sometimes found my style of interaction colder, less interested. My non-native level of Portuguese also exacerbated some of this.
- Individualism vs. Collectivism: without a doubt, the United States is more individualistic and Brazil is more collective. With this sentence standing alone, I think the automatic judgement would be YEAH COLLECTIVISM, YEAH BRAZIL! I agree half-ly.
In Brazil, people are worried about your comfort all the time. Are you hungry? Do you want a plate instead? Do you want sauce on your pasta? Did you like that? Are you cold? Do you want a knife to peel your orange? People will offer you help and things to be more comfortable consistently. People also feel more comfortable with asking for help and accepting help. It’s awesome. But, sometimes it gets kind of demanding. Eat more! You can’t eat out of a mug! I put sauce on your pasta for you! I can tell you didn’t like that! Put on this jacket! Give me that orange so I can peel it with a knife for you! It’s all based in love and is beautiful and works well when people are actually uncomfortable and when people conform a lot. But, I am almost always comfortable and I don’t conform that much. So, I found my discomfort being assumed and I found my stranger behaviors (like eating strange combinations of food or wanting to walk instead of taking a bus) being questioned sometimes to a point of being forced to conform.
One time, I was walking around and just wanted some coconut water with lime. So, I went into a store and bought a liter of coconut water and one lime. When I was checking out, the cashier looked confused and asked me, “Hmm, why are you just buying this? Are you going to have this now?” And I was like, “Yeah, I just want to walk around and drink this.” And then she was about to put it in a bag and I was like, “No bag please.” And she was like, “What?? Are you sure?!?!” And I was like, “Uh, yeah.” Then I went to trash can in the parking lot to peel my lime and squeeze it into the coconut water and everyone around stared the whole time.
The collectivism also manifests in teamwork and problem solving. Most decisions are naturally made in the best interests of the group. People help other group members without them asking. People don’t mind waiting for every single person to be ready. In the US, most decisions are made with the understanding that every person will look out for themselves. People are unconcerned if someone is managing something differently than another person. People readily help others when others ask for help. People are unconcerned if someone is working or being alone. People wait for others to be ready until the specified time to be ready and then become really impatient.
I think the ideal is a nice blend of collectivism and individualism: having the same focus and care for others as is found in true collectivism while allowing the freedom to express oneself as is found in true individualism. I have found this nice blend in some smaller communities in both Brazil and the United States. In Brazil, I felt this blend in a permaculture course. In the United States, the communal house I lived in and many sections of the alternative-hippie-nerd culture celebrate high amounts of collectivism and individualism.
- People are more satisfied in Brazil, people are more cynical in the United States. After movies, food, a lecture most people have a positive opinion in Brazil. Most people are in a pretty good mood all the time. In the US, it is cooler to have a negative opinion sometimes. It is cooler to point out what was bad about a movie than what was good. Or to point out the faults in a professor’s lecture instead of the good points. I think this cynicism comes partially from a culture of always wanting more, but also from a culture of critical thinking.
I have heard the saying, “We are suffering, but we are laughing,” many times in Brazil. People are satisfied with less. In the US, I know a lot of people who are mentally suffering due to desire for more. Satisfaction can lead to passiveness, but I find the Brazilian way of being more satisfied/less cynical really beautiful.
- There are a lot of the same social/political/environmental problems in Brazil and the US, but most of these problems are more extreme in Brazil. Both countries have a lot of people who are working on solving these problems. Brazil and the US are countries built by slavery and both have problems with racism today. Both have an incredibly diverse population. (~36% of the US is made upof people of color and ~52% of Brazil is made up of people of color.) The US has more segregation than Brazil. Both countries have problems with poverty, but Brazil has more people living in poverty. The minimum wage in Brazil is ~50% of the Brazilian living wage and the minimum wage in the US is ~70% of the US living wage. ~40% of workers in Brazil and ~26% of workers in the US earn the minimum wage. Both countries have problems with income inequality. Brazil is the twelfth most unequal country in the world and the US is the 39th. Both have problems with police violence, general violence, drugs, and corruption, but these problems are more severe in Brazil. Both countries have a lot of people who are trying to improve these situations and a lot of people who don’t care.
- I think that the middle-class lifestyle is comparable in both countries.
- Many people in Brazil know more about American pop culture than I do. And I think now, I know more about Brazilian pop culture than almost any American.
- People take more showers and brush their teeth more in Brazil.