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That's What Friends Are For

By Sandra Korstjens
November 20, 2012

'Boa tarde, we are here to see Flávia.' The man nods understandingly. 'Ah, of course. Flávia is not here yet, but I think Igor can help you as well.'

Flávia and Igor of the Federal Police, Elisabeth and André from the tax office, Jonathan and Camila from the phone shop and Marcos from the bank. Marc and I made quite some 'friends' in our short time in Uberlândia.

After two days I was already fully trained. When I arrive at a desk now, I first try to look if the person at the other side is wearing a name tag. Then of course it's: 'Oi Jonathan!'. Is there no name tag? Then you just introduce yourself and you ask the other person's name. 'Eu sou a Sandra. E você?'

Barack and David
You have to remember that only the first name is important. It seems like the last name is completely inferior in Brazil. To give some examples: our host, a professor at the local university, is addressed by many students as Roberto, Marc receives e-mails of UPS addressed to 'Senhor Marc', and an exceptional amount of both public and private bodies are interested in our mother's names. But of course only their three first names.

Brazilians even call their president by her first name, Dilma. And her predecessor, Lula, is addressed with his nickname (Lula means squid). His last name doesn't matter. It's as if CNN would always talk about Barack, and the BBC about David.

Partner in Crime
I think the use of these first names is quite practical, because everyone here has a very long surname. Every Brazilian receives at birth both the name of his father and his mother.

And there is another, more important reason for the extensive use of first names. Because the use of someone's first name sounds very intimate. And as I quickly learned here, this can be very important. The bureaucratic rules are already complicated enough, and that's why it may be clever to see the person at the other side of the desk as a 'partner in crime' to get things done.

The Quick Fix
It's actually a part of what the Brazilians call 'jeito' or 'jeitinho'. It's a famous Brazilian expression that is hard to translate. It means something like 'the easy solution for bureaucratic rules' or 'the quick fix'. This 'jeito' ranges from innocent matters, like some new 'friend' printing a form you forgot to fill out (isn't that what friends are for?), to practices that could be considered corruption. Everyone has its own way to tackle Brazilian bureaucracy.

For now I just stick to the innocent version. So I make friends, enjoy the small talk, and I remember everyone's first name. In that way, the easy solution is often suddenly within reach. And it's actually kind of fun. Like yesterday when Marc and I were walking down the street. All of sudden we heard the honking of a car. It was Marcos from the bank who waved at us enthusiastically.

Quite nice, all those new friends!

Sandra Korstjens is a Dutch freelance journalist who works and lives in Brazil since 2012. In the Netherlands she studied Public Administration with a minor in Journalism. After finishing her BSc, she completed a MA in Holocaust & Genocide Studies, while focusing on the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. She worked a couple of years for Dutch television, until she got the opportunity to move to Brazil with her husband, who is a journalist as well. They are traveling around the country first, before they will settle in São Paulo. You can read more about Sandra on her website: www.sandrakorstjens.com. She gladly receives any comments at sandrakorstjens@yahoo.com.


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