By Mark Taylor
24th April, 2006
When I first arrived here I wasn’t expecting Brazilians to be rolling around in the mud, but equally I wasn’t prepared for just how seriously some Brazilians take cleanliness.
I’d never viewed myself as an excessively dirty person (I typically have one shower per day whether I need it or not) but my wife will often bully me into taking a second or third shower, and I know that I’m not alone in this. Of course Brazil is often a hot country so perhaps this is warranted to some extent, at least that’s my wife’s excuse!
Even so, Brazilians can often take great pride in their appearance, women in particular often getting their nails cleaned, tidied and painted regularly, or visiting the Chiropodist to have their toes and feet checked and cleaned. Another example of the approach to cleanliness is in clothing style. Although Brazilians do dress casually, they tend to lean more towards smart casual. A Goth or grunge styled Brazilian is a rare thing to witness, although I’ve noticed an increasing trend in teenagers following their US counterparts (and by default the rest of North America and Europe), no doubt at least partly due to the influx of US and to a lesser extent European TV programmes in Brazil.
Regular teeth cleaning is another common thing to see, with teeth typically being cleaned after every meal. It’s typical to walk into the gents around lunchtime in a shopping centre and see several guys bearing their pearly whites" at the mirror. In fact my teeth feel positively furry now after lunch, and I feel obliged to clean mine as well. Once I popped into a shopping centre toilet and was amused to see a policeman, replete with gun and truncheon, engaging in some oral hygiene.
Cleanliness in the home is often taken very seriously also, facilitated perhaps by cheaper hired help in relation to North America and Europe. It’s not uncommon to see the 50s style home with plastic covered chairs and sofas (although I’m sure we have the odd family member who still engages in this). This is aside from often seeing the concrete or tiled front of a house and backyard having every corner regularly and dutifully hosed down, to the point where a single fragment of dirt will be blasted from one end to the other. Curious to see in a country where water is often cited as a precious resource.
I’ve debated with my wife as to why Brazilians (typically middle and upper class) take cleanliness more seriously than say North Americans and Europeans. One reason I’ve seen written about before is that Brazilians are keen to differentiate between themselves and the lower class, say those living in the slums. One key difference is dressing smartly and looking ultra clean. Whether that’s really the case, or some other cultural nuance is hard to say for sure.
Do you find Brazilians take cleanliness seriously, or the opposite? If the former, any theories as to why they do? Do I just need to take more showers? Let me know at <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a> and I’ll add your comments to the article.
I have a couple other observations and a reason (about cleanliness).
1) Brazilians are very conscious about dirt from the ground outside the house (da rua). You don’t sit on the bed in street clothes because your pants have the dirt from the street and you will get it on the sheets.
2) Also, people wear flip-flops (what is that word in Portuguese?) around the house, but if they want to bring their feet up on the sofa, the flip-flops are automatically left on the ground. (I have trouble remembering to do this.)
3) A Brazilian-American friend of mine wrote a book based on her life in poor, rural, Goias state. In the farm communities, a nightly ritual was for the women to wash the feet of men before the men entered the bedroom at night.
I think Brazil has been poor and dirty for a long time. The home and especially the bedroom are sanctuaries of relative cleanliness in a very dirty world. So, there are rituals to maintain that state.
<i>You are correct in your observations: middle/upper-class Brazilians do indeed attach high importance to personal hygiene. Actually, so also do many poor people, at least when it comes to taking daily showers. Compared to South Asia, for example, one encounters much fewer people reeking of sweat!</i>
The reasons are the climate, but probably mostly cultural. Brazilians often joke about the famous Europeans, especially French, who until 100 years or even more recently used to bath only once a week or even less (*). Obviously, this was dictated as much by the absence of modern bathrooms and piped hot water, as well as the harsh winter, as by culture. Being a young country, Brazil luckily isnt weighed down by this history. Brazilians apparently consumes more deodorant and toiletteries per capita than anyone else – good for Unilever, Natura et all!.
(*) By the way, the Japanese (of whom there are many descendants here) are also famous for their hygiene – if youve read Shogun, youll remember their calling the Europeans who first landed there in the 16th century barbarians.
<i>My Brazilian wife has been teaching me just how serious Brazilians take personal hygiene. Some of the examples you cited, as well as in the comments hit very close to home. It can be exasperating at times. My wife was shocked that I washed my clothes in like colors. One should NEVER wash intimate clothes with other outer garments. It’s just not done.</i>
And yet while we were driving in São Paulo and having a conversation about this very thing, she stared out the car window and looked at the dirty streets, the graffiti filled walls, the bags and piles of garbage in the open fields. She remarked that if Brazilians were really proud of their country and themselves, then it wouldn’t just be personal hygiene they cared about. It’d be their surroundings as well.
Personally, I once saw a well dressed Brazilian gentleman inside an airport while waiting for his luggage spit on the floor. I had never seen that before (and thankfully never since) but it was something that I saw in various other forms whenever I have visited Brazil.
It’s an interesting dichotomy.
Recently read your article and the comments of other readers. It was the last one that I was glad to read. The filth in this city of São Paulo is utterly atrocious! I come from Canada and in each province there are by-laws with huge fines for littering. I have been to a couple of the city parks and noticed the lack of garbage cans. This is also evident in the streets of the city. In Canada as well as the states, this would never be the case! I witness daily, the lack of respect that Brazilians have for their city of São Paulo where people, young and old, throw litter of all sorts from their cars, walking down the street or from their windows. The rivers stink to high heavens with the trash that accumulates because people just dont give a damn and throw their trash where ever they feel. It is just a lack of respect as well as education.
Your text was like therapy for me, as my girlfriend litters me with mental abuse regarding this subject. And to give her perspective "Americans are slobs."
Why are Brazilians clean freaks? Because it has always been so cheap to keep to things clean. For example, I have a Brazilian friend who told me that she has never made her bed in her life. The result of this is a necessity to maintain class status. As if to say that if the place isn’t spotless, then you are poor. And heaven forbid that somebody may think that you are not wealthy.
Where I come from we aren’t so worried about whether other people think we are rich or not.
As a Brazilian living in Europe for a quite long time, it’s funny to read this article, as we indeed care a lot about cleaning.
I could agree with many things said but the Brazilian cleanliness has nothing to do with "differentiate themselves between and the lower class", we learn on early age that it is acceptable to be poor but not dirty! As a volunteer worker I have been in very poor places, including "favela da Rocinha" and it’s amazing of besides the lack of infra-structure people keep their place spotless. I guess you all would agree that there is noway of somebody who live in "favela da Rocinha" wouldn’t look poor.
Once I moved to The Netherlands I was amazed to see my colleagues to go work with the same shirt they had the day before, still once you choose to live abroad the better way to deal with differences and try to understand the reason for it. Very nice website, well done Mark!
In another hand, Jerel makes me sick with his comments.
I have to agree with Juliana and disagree with Jerel. The ‘obsession’ with personal hygiene is about self-esteem, respect for others and practicality:
– self-esteem: why impose upon yourself the desperate circumstances of the marginais, when you have access to running water and a washing machine? Keeping clean and cheiroso is not an attempt to mock the homeless but is partially to do with respecting oneself.
– respect for others: anyone who has had to contend with the London Undergound in the summer will know that a shockingly high percentage of commuters do not wash before leaving home. The stench on the way home is beyond description…
– practicality: personal hygiene is essential in the tropics. My wife has commented that if the UK were a tropical country, the population would be decimated by plague/cholera/etc such is the disregard for personal hygiene.
On a lighter note, there is some amusing stuff around this topic. Has anyone seen (largely) female relatives dousing hands with the ubiquitous alcool before handling someone’s newborn (to avoid infection, natch), then smothering the poor creature in kisses? LOL!
I believe the dichotomy of filthy cities (São Paulo is mentioned) and spotless homes dovetails with the ‘private prosperity, public squalor’ creed inherited from colonial times. I would add that Brazilians consider the apartment block to be an extension of home: they cooperate closely with neighbours to ensure that common areas are dignas and that the block does fall into decadencia. This contrasts with the UK, where people are unconcerned with whatever happens outside their front door. I have a student who lives in a very snazzy new build in London. The corridor was becoming filthy because…it was being used, but not being cleaned! Being a brasileira, she found this intolerable (and bizarre: ‘this block is expensive!’) and harassed the managing agent into taking action.
— Bill Martin
It’s only natural that if only ‘gringoes’ try to find an answer the debate will easily tend towards speculation. So I’ll give my contribution.
Brazil has had an extremely rapid (still ongoing) urbanization. In rural (and here I mean really aside from modern facilities and ‘products’) places there isn’t something as ‘litter’. Aside from keeping your house clean and ordained there actually doesn’t exist the garbage disposal problem since there are no industrial products and everything is either recycled naturally or easily burnt. Also people may get in touch with tv even before they can actually buy anything, so many long to go to the cities. These people are not dumb, they just had a rearing in a completely different environment. That along with the lack of education, that makes unclean habits (from urban standards) pass towards the next generation, accounts for much of the problem (individualism and political corruption also play a major role).
Just found your website by googling, "Why are Brazilians neat freaks". Yes, my wife to be is a Brazilian, and yes, she is a clean freak. After a long days work, when I just want to go to bed, she wants to take a second or a third shower. If I try to negotiate out of it, she threatens to put a long body pillow between us in the bed.
She washes the dishes by hand before she puts them in the dishwasher, so I can’t tell if the dishes are dirty or clean when I try to empty the washer. She uses the clothes washer twice a day, whereas I just used it once a week (all clothes in the same load). She makes my English Bulldog take baths every two weeks, but I’m not allowed to use the bathtub, so I have to take him to a groomer. She bought me Brazilian shoes so I can wear them from the bed to the bathroom.
I love her, and I will try to change her, but so far she seems to have the upper hand and is succeeding more at changing me.