Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest country, after China, the USA, Canada, and Russia. It has by far the largest population of Portuguese speakers, with over 205 million native speakers. Despite its problems, Brazil is a global economic force and ranked as the eighth-largest economy in the world by GDP (Investopedia, 2019).
However, companies that plan to enter this market have a tough challenge: overcoming the language barrier. According to the EF English Proficiency Index, Brazil has a low proficiency score, and ranked 53rd out of 88 countries.
When it comes to the Business English Index, the situation is even more concerning: on a 10‑point scale, Brazil achieved a score of 3.27, very close to the worst score of all (2.92). This places Brazil in the 71st position out of 77 countries analyzed.
Much of the problem lies in the education system, where public schools have trouble selecting and retaining good English teachers. In addition, most students go to school part time, and there is no emphasis on language proficiency.
This poses a formidable challenge to companies seeking to enter the Brazilian market. Without localization, the chances of success are very limited. Even if you do find proficient speakers, it is important to consider that communicating in a second language is not as effective as doing so in their mother tongue. As Nelson Mandela wisely said,
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
When doing business in Brazil, Portuguese is the way to go.
If your company intends to do business in Brazil, it is strongly advisable to understand its business culture. Brazilian culture has a diverse nature, with strong Portuguese, African, and indigenous influences.
A cultural factor that is widely present is known as “jeitinho”, a typically Brazilian way of overcoming bureaucratic barriers and solving things more quickly, though not always legally. This tendency to bend the rules goes against basic principles commonly adopted in some other countries, where rules are sacred.
Historically, “jeitinho” came up as a response to the excessively complex legal system, and it evolved into a problem-solving strategy when things must be done in a timely fashion. However, as is the case with relationship-binding strategies, there must be some sort of affinity or liking between the involved parties, otherwise the person who can bend the rules will not do it. Younger people are more usually engaged in the practice of “jeitinho” than older ones. Unfortunately, this strategy – originally devised to get things done quickly – has also favored corruption, bribe, and other detrimental practices.
Personal relationships play a major role in Brazilian business culture. Brazilians negotiate with people, not with companies. Therefore, cultivating relationships is highly recommended. Whereas friendliness may open many doors in Brazil, too much of it may eventually lead to being asked favors. Therefore, finding the right balance is the way to succeed.
Time in Brazil
Brazilians handle time with more flexibility. Socializing and getting to know their partners is an important part of the process. Brazil is a polychronic culture, which means Brazilians are less focused on tasks, are people-oriented, and change plans often. Time commitment is less critical, business meals are lengthy, and negotiations take longer than in countries with a monochronic time orientation, which value doing things efficiently, without deviations, like the United States and the United Kingdom.
Meetings often start 10 or 15 minutes later than scheduled, sometimes even more, and may also end later than predicted. In social situations, Brazilians tend to be even less punctual. It is advisable not to rush things or show feelings of impatience, since this can be harmful to the relationship you are building.
Brazilians are usually friendly and hospitable. Greetings in business situations usually involve handshaking. In informal situations, men and women tend to kiss each other's cheeks once or twice. When greeting friends, hugging and backslapping is very common.
Eye Contact and Communication
Brazilians value eye contact. People who avoid eye contact may be seen as disengaged, uninterested, or dishonest. There is a preference for face-to-face meetings, instead of communication via e-mail, teleconferencing, or videoconferencing.
Interrupting someone who is talking is relatively common, and it can even be seen as a sign that the person is interested in the discussion, rather than an expression of rudeness.
Tolerance for Uncertainty
A low level of tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity has led to strict laws and regulations, in an attempt to avoid the unexpected. This also means that Brazilians feel more comfortable doing business with people and companies they know. Again, this emphasizes the importance of taking the time to cultivate relationships and building trust with Brazilian counterparts.
Hierarchy and Authority
Brazilians are more group-oriented, and that explains why nepotism tends to be common and socially acceptable. Another common feature in companies is a patriarchal structure. Many businesses are family-owned, and even when that is not the case, formal authority plays a major role. People who attend meetings often have no power to make decisions, and they will have to discuss the subject later with their managers before giving you an answer.
Brazilians’ Fear to Lose Face
Brazilians are particularly sensitive to public opinion, and they fear to lose face. Causing someone to lose face can literally ruin a business relationship. There is an implicit rule of not embarrassing people in front of others. The adage ‘praise in public and criticize in private’ is a good rule of thumb to follow when dealing with Brazilians, considering this is a group culture.
It is important to notice that most Brazilians do not speak English well. In fact, when it comes to English proficiency, Brazil is among the lowest-ranking countries in the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI).
Does your company need help to overcome the language barrier? MRC Translations can help you. Click here for more information.
Matheus R. Chaud
I am a native Brazilian Portuguese speaker with extensive experience in translation, proofreading, editing, subtitling, and quality assurance.