From pristine rain forests to some of the biggest parties on Earth, Brazil is a world unto itself. Find out how to avoid offending the more than 193 million people who live there (and even make friends) by following cross-cultural guru Dean Foster‘s advice on how to navigate the largest lusophone (that means Portuguese-speaking) country in the world:

1. Brazilians are very comfortable with physicality: while speaking, they might take your hand or touch your shoulder, and they typically stand closer than most folks are used to. Resist stepping back!

2. Remember, the language is Portuguese…not Spanish! (And even if you know Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese can be a whole different ballgame.) But it does share commonalities with other Romance languages, so if you know Spanish or French, you might have some luck figuring out written Portuguese.

3. On many Brazilian streets, red lights are merely suggestions. In fact, many drivers speed up as the light is turning red. Always be very careful to look both ways when crossing, and never assume right-of-way as a pedestrian. Note also that many drivers turn their lights off at night (the complaint being that headlight glare is blinding!)

The caipirinha: Brazil's ubiquitous national drink. (Photograph by Kenn Wilson, Flickr)

4. Three’s a charm. When women meet each other (and when men and women who have already met meet again), the handshake is often accompanied with three alternating-cheek “air kisses.” Men never initiate this, but respond in kind if the woman does.

5. Carnival may get all the attention, but spending New Year’s Eve in Rio is magical. Hundreds of thousands of people dressed in white wade into the ocean at midnight to make a wish for the coming year while samba drums throb and general revelry ensues. The word for the celebration, Réveillon, comes from the French word for dream, the belief being that if the waves bring your wish back to you, it will come true. (It’s easier to find a good hotel room, too.)

6. Pace yourself! The ubiquitous national drink of Brazil is the caipirinha, a delicious concoction of sugar, muddled fruit, and cachaça (a liquor distilled from sugarcane). It goes down very easily…and so will you, so pace yourself! The toast is, “Saude!” (“sow-ooje”).

7. The “OK” sign is not okay! Touching the tip of your thumb to your forefinger, with the rest of your fingers extended in the air is very vulgar in Brazil. Don’t do it.

Cariocas are known for their casual joie de vivre. (Photograph by Jodi Cobb, National Geographic)

8. Alternately, sticking your thumb between your index finger and middle finger is okay. Called “the figa” in Brazil, the gesture (sometimes used in a game of “I got your nose”! in the U.S. and beyond) signifies good luck. You’ll even see it on necklaces as an amulet.

9. Avoid wearing green and yellow together…unless you’re attending a soccer (“futbol”) game. These are the colors of the Brazilian flag, and outside of the stadium (or the pub on game days), it might look odd to wear them together.

10. Do as the locals do. There is a sometimes not-so-gentle rivalry between Paulistanos (natives of the city of São Paulo) and Cariocas (people who hail from Rio): Paulistanos see Cariocas as too ready to drop work for a game of beach volleyball, and Cariocas see Paulistanas as too willing to sacrifice life’s simple pleasures for hard-earned money. The evidence is everywhere: Cariocas start work later, take longer lunches, and do, in fact, play volleyball on the beach whenever possible, while in Sao Paulo, socializing is more contained and there is no beach. Adjust your clock, and your attitude, accordingly, when visiting these two amazing cities.

Want more cultural dos and don’ts for your next trip to Brazil?

Dean Foster is the president of dfa, New York, a group that specializes in global cross-cultural training and consulting. Follow his story on Twitter @dfaintercultura.

Comments

  1. Tyler Muse
    October 29, 2013, 2:31 pm

    Great notes on how language is a factor in Brazilian culture, especially how Brazilian Portuguese can be quite different. And an excellent side comment on how physicality plays into their language.

  2. Rodrigo
    Rio de Janeiro
    July 24, 2013, 11:57 am

    Be careful with the item number 4! It Varies from city to city! If you are in Sao Paulo you should give just ONE kiss in the RIGHT cheek. You kiss the air but touch the cheeks. If you are in rio, you give TWO KISSES, the first in the right cheek and the second in the left cheek. And if you are in Porto Alegre you give three kisses. right-left-right cheeks.

    Attention to the item number 7. The “Ok gesture” is ok! We do it here in Brazil to mean “Ok”. with de 3 fingers pointing up. What you CAN’T do and that’s like a bad word, is the OK sign in a different position, like this: http://migre.me/fAzmz

  3. Sheila
    San Francisco
    July 24, 2013, 11:32 am

    Another tip.. remember that Brazil is a big country and the author of this article is clearly talking about Rio and Sao Paulo! (they are not the only cities in Brazil.. don’t you know?!?) And by the way people in Brazil speed as the light is turning red as much as they do here in the US.. Can’t see any difference there!

  4. Daniel Vilhena
    Brazil
    July 24, 2013, 10:49 am

    I guess it could also be mentioned: avoid wearing flip flops and trousers together, unless you want people to know you are a foreigner!!!!

  5. Luciana Lage
    Oakland, CA
    December 7, 2012, 1:04 pm

    Good article. Not assuming the right of way as a pedestrian is very, very important. As for the three air kisses when greeting people, in some states you will see two kisses and in others just one kiss. Even we Brazilians get confused when greeting each other while traveling :)

  6. Leslie H.
    Florida
    December 4, 2012, 10:28 pm

    I was so happy to come across this posting because I am seriously considering taking a trip to Brazil in the very near future!. I just read the book “Until Brazil” by Bethe Lee Moulton and it has piqued my desire to see Brazil! It’s about a married woman, in a steady job looking for a little excitement! She goes on a business trip to Brazil hoping for a promotion and instead gets immersed in a culture and an experience that she will never forget! If this doesn’t make you want to travel I don’t know what will. http://www.untilbrazil.com/ – The book even teaches you a bit of Portuguese! I think reading your article after this book has made me feel much more prepared for this exciting trip :) I will definitely recommend your article and this book for anyone planning to go!

  7. saskia
    italy
    December 4, 2012, 2:24 pm

    brazil is a fantastic “continent”,has everything from desert to swiss mountains, but, if you want to make business with brasilians, first you need to know the language and second it’s better to have a close brasilian friend to assist you.

  8. Yours Bhutan Travel
    Bhutan
    November 29, 2012, 1:36 am

    Dear Dean

    I found it is pretty much interesting thought of yours on Brazilian Culture.

  9. Anne Pereira
    November 27, 2012, 6:34 pm

    Great read. The correct word for toasting is “Saude” and Réveillon is not Portuguese but French and used in Brazil when speaking about New Year’s Eve. Also a Paulistano is a native of the city of Sao Paulo whereas a Paulista is a native of the state of Sao Paulo. I enjoy each of your articles. Very informative!

  10. Luciana
    Passo Fundo, RS, Southern Brazil
    November 21, 2012, 11:45 am

    Very observant, Dean! Being a Southerner (that means way south of Rio and São Paulo), many of those tips don´t apply. But that´s ok. You were very generous and kind in your remarks regarding traffic. It´s much worse than that. ;-)

  11. Danyella Colares
    Madrid
    November 21, 2012, 6:28 am

    Dean, it’s a great article. As a brazilian, I can pretty much say that you are absolutely right about ALMOST everything: the capirinha, the rivalry, the ok sign… the only thing I would say is that the colors of the Brazilian flag are green and YELLOW, not orange.
    =/
    But c’mon, that would be as weird to walk around wearing green and orange.

    Congrats for the article.

    Danyella

  12. Christian Rene Friborg
    Germany
    November 21, 2012, 1:11 am

    I truly enjoyed my vacation in Brazil two years ago. The locals are very friendly, although some of them have difficulties in speaking English, so its better if you can actually speak Portuguese. The beaches are truly awe-inspiring, and its a new experience to be able to try their local food and delicacies. The one above, the caipirinha, I’ve tried it and its pretty cool.

  13. Cavel Capalbo
    Jamaica
    November 20, 2012, 9:51 pm

    I found this very interesting good reads. The cultural information shared is quite granular and really gave a strong feel for the people and customs. Likely the best tourist info for Brazil and if I go I’ll get download the full version -have bookmarked this to ensure:)
    If you do any on Jamaica, check here first: goo.gl/bng6J