By B. Michael Rubin
June 23, 2014

Expatriates, or expats”, are people who choose, for one reason or another, to live in another country other than where they were born. There have been many famous expats throughout history. For example, the first white settlers in North America, the Pilgrims, were expats who fled England for the New World.

Today, according to United Nations calculations, 3.2 percent of the world’s population consists of expats. The percentage of expats differs widely from one country to another. For instance, there are far more expats living in the US than in Brazil. Interestingly, it hasn’t always been this way. Between 1865 and 1885, after the end of the American Civil War, as many as 20,000 Americans came to live in Brazil. This mass emigration occurred when many families who had been landowners in the South lost their land after the Civil War. At that time, the South was forced to give up the use of slaves, who were a vital element in the Southern economy for harvesting crops like cotton. Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil was interested in developing cotton farming in Brazil due to the high prices, and he capitalized on the difficult situation in the US South by recruiting experienced cotton farmers to come to Brazil.

Dom Pedro offered potential US immigrants subsidies and tax breaks. Many of those Americans who arrived became Brazilian citizens and renounced their US citizenship. A large group settled in the town of Santa Brbara d’Oeste, near Campinas in São Paulo state. Even today the residents of Santa Brbara d’Oeste celebrate their American descendants with an annual party known as the Confederado Festa. There are no accurate statistics on the number of Americans currently living in Brazil, but the totals are not high, as the descendants of the Confederate farmers are now considered Brazilians.

All kinds of different people choose to live in foreign countries for all kinds of different reasons, but if there is one thing they have in common it is the wish to understand their new country. Expats naturally view Brazil differently than Brazilians. Simple, daily routines for Brazilians, like going to the supermarket, are new experiences for expats. We see our new world with open, curious eyes. Understanding the habits and customs of Brazilians is critical for expats if we wish to adjust to our new home here.

Of course, an expat never completely adjusts to life in a foreign country because we are, after all, not Brazilians. However, we do our best to navigate the codes of social behavior in Brazil. While all people follow the same basic rules for social order, such as respect for others and obeying the laws, there are thousands of unwritten “rules” in every society that are known to everyone who lives there – except expats. For example, unlike in the US, it’s polite in Brazil to speak to strangers. Also, when riding in an elevator in Brazil with neighbors or colleagues, it’s customary for people to face each other to facilitate conversation. In the US, everyone faces the door of the elevator, which is considered rude in Brazil, if it means turning your back to those behind you in the elevator.

As the rules of social behavior are known to all Brazilians, when expats don’t know the rules, they may offend Brazilians. As a result, expats need to practice at becoming careful observers and students of social etiquette.

For this reason, it’s common to hear expats discussing among themselves the various rules in Brazil that are new or different for us. Expats often wonder about how best to adopt Brazilian customs, for instance, the conversational habit of interrupting while others are talking. In a group of Brazilians, two or three may be talking at the same time, making it difficult to understand what’s being said, particularly for an expat who is still learning Portuguese.

Here are three interesting questions raised by some of my expat friends in Brazil:

Driving. Based on the actual number of accidents on the streets of Brazil, it might be concluded that Brazilians are terrible drivers. More people are killed by cars in Brazil than in the US, while there are more cars and more people in the US. Some expats say the pedestrians are as reckless as the drivers. Pedestrians cross busy streets instead of waiting for the traffic light to turn red, or stand with their toes over the edge of the sidewalk, leaning into the speeding traffic as buses fly by, like surfers riding the nose of a surfboard. Other expats have the opposite conclusion: Many of the young men in Brazil drive over the speed limit, particularly on motorcycles, and the only reason there aren’t more accidents is because they drive very well.
So, are Brazilians good drivers or bad drivers?

Trust. Much has been written about the “jeitinho brasileiro” and lack of trust among Brazilians. It could be a carpenter who asks for half the money upfront and never finishes the job, or a plumber who arrives four hours late. There is no question that a lack of trust among Brazilians is bad for everyone, including the economy, but why this mistrust is so pervasive is unclear. Some expats believe the reason Brazilians are in the habit of cheating each other is because it’s too easy. For example, it’s not unusual for Brazilians to talk while waiting on line, and ten minutes later, a complete stranger has invited you for coffee at his home. Brazilian culture is by nature open and friendly. This kind of instant trust among strangers has its downside, however.
So, are Brazilians too trusting or not trusting enough?

Fun. If there is one image that foreigners have of Brazil, it’s that Brazilians are happy and fun-loving. Brazilians avoid bad news and conflict whenever possible. This even extends to the military, who operate on a strictly humanitarian basis, assisting flood victims in Brazil or earthquake victims in Haiti, for instance. There are no Brazilian soldiers fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Brazilians know how to enjoy themselves, giving parties for no reason at all. Any place where Brazilians congregate, whether it’s a mall or a restaurant, can become a party. When Brazilians go to hear live music, it’s customary to sing along with the performers; thus a concert becomes a singing party. Nevertheless, every year people are seriously injured or killed in football-inspired fan violence, more than in any other country in the world. Between 1988 and 2013, there were 234 football-related deaths in Brazil, including 30 last year.
So, are Brazilians happy, fun-loving people or crazed with violence?

As Brazil opens the World Cup, the expats living here are eager to welcome the many foreign visitors coming to experience the world’s most popular sporting event. We will be anxious to learn what the visitors think of our adopted country.

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Brazil. He is the editor of the online magazine, Curitiba in English.

Previous articles by Michael:

Brazil: Joao Pessoa – A Quiet Gem
Brazil: Communication for Foreigners

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