I don’t trust you, and here is why.

Culture Shock, the journal of an expat (2/6)

Folks in Brazil take their “churrasco” very serious. It’s Portuguese for barbecue, and just as its English counterpart suggests, a churrasco implies more than just a meal. It’s a social event.

It had only been a short while after starting an MBA in Rio when my classmates organized our first barbecue. It was established that it would cost R$80 per person, so everyone starts making deposits to the organizer’s bank account (Brazil needs Venmo, asap).

Then sure enough classmates begin sharing proof of payment within our Whatsapp group one by one. I figured the first colleague to send the screenshot of an active banking session was probably doing so out of precaution. Certainly he got an error message after pushing the payment button, so he wants to confirm receipt. But a flood of screenshots would follow throughout the next day or two.

C’mon! Is that really necessary? The answer is yes. As a matter of fact they wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Not because the organizer was looking for non-payers she could confront (Brazilians tend to avoid confrontation according to this report from HBR) but rather because participants felt the need to communicate no foul was intended… that they were serious about their intention, and ability to pay. Proving that you’ve done right by someone is a thing around here.

In many cultures the assumption is that you are truthful until proven a liar. Here that feels to be backwards. The assumption is that you are trying to screw me over. I would attribute a credit card interest rate of 649% to such sense of mistrust. But it doesn’t stop there.

This notion of an essentially suspicious culture first hit me when I needed to “recognize my signature” (reconhecimento de firma) on almost every documents I signed to start a business here. It’s similar to notarization, except you get registered in a public database which people use to verify your signature. Its purpose is simple: to make sure you are who you say you are.

To log into my bank account I need to provide an username, document number and a password. Want to make payments? Add a token, and depending on where you bank you must also download a proprietary security software. I can almost hear a voice through the computer screen: “Is that really you, Nick?”

Working on a business account? I feel sorry for you.

One core issue with such high level of skepticism is that it acknowledges deceit plays a major role in our culture. And if you are new to Brazil, you may feel a certain pressure to adopt the “jeitinho” (or Brazilian ‘way’ of doing things, often unprincipled) or become “esperto”(street smart) as quickly a possible, so you are not taken advantage of… so you can demonstrate how accustomed you’ve gotten to deceit.

After returning to Brazil for the first time as a working adult, I found myself somewhere between naive and completely skeptical. As with anything in life, avoiding either the extremes was key, and here are some of the tools I used to navigate the culture:

1) Don’t be offended: When you get a sense people doubt what you are saying, don’t be offended just yet. Try to think of any bureaucratic process you may have missed. It’s not uncommon, for example for customer service reps to ask for a reference number (protocolo) during a follow up service call. Even if they have record of your previous conversations, they might act like it never happened until you can prove that it did.

2) Get organized: You don’t need to screw anybody over to preserve your own interests. As long as you have a good paper trail to support your arguments, you are in a good place. If you have receipts flying all over the place like me, consider scanning the most insignificant contracts, receipts and have warranty numbers handy. Service call “protocolos” can also save you a lot of time. Don’t sign for anything you haven’t inspected in hopes that you can make a good faith argument two hours later.

3) Delegate with abandonment: Here’s an opportunity to capitalize on the general skepticism so common in the business environment. My experience has been that most Brazilians are very reliable and will go out of their way to make a good impression. Dare to deposit legitimate trust in someone you’ve identified potential in, and watch the amazing results of their (and your own) growth.

4) Beware of “Banho Maria”: A common response to your own mistrust towards someone is getting the cold shoulder, especially when the stakeholders are not your subordinates (e.g. suppliers, clients, partners). Expressing concerns about their abilities to deliver is often not a good strategy as Brazilians are relational and don’t respond well to mistrust. I know, it’s complicated. Try asking good questions that will reveal their commitment to your project and timeline.

5) Have guts: Risk being honest, and you’ll have nothing to apologize for. I’ve seen foreign businessmen trying to beat Brazilians in their jeitinho game — being esperto — out of fear of being screwed over. It didn’t work most of the time; especially the times it ended up in court. I have also seen colleagues with enough guts to be straightforward about their objectives and expectations; without beating around the bush looking for openings, which had much better results.

“Experience is a hard teacher because it gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” — Vernon Sanders Law

Whatever your experience has been (or will be) doing business or socializing with Brazilians you will notice there is an abysmal distance between the people and the system. Most will say the people are friendly and open for contact. Very inviting and welcoming. The system on the other hand is far distanced, suspicious and hard to comprehend even for many locals.

Have your own examples? Please share with us under comments.

Nick was raised in Brazil before moving to the United States where he went to school and started his career in marketing. He returned to South America on a 2-year contract as Country Manager for a US-based company ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (2015–2016).