Brazil: The Unfinished Country
By B. Michael Rubin
For years the favorite picture of Brazil has been, “Brazil is the country of the future and always will be.” This assessment of Latin America’s largest country comes as no surprise to travelers and expats living here – nothing is ever finished in Brazil.
Infrastructure projects are planned, promised, and vanish. A subway here in the southern city of Curitiba has been talked about for the past decade. The bullet train from Rio to São Paulo promised for this year’s World Cup is not even in the planning stages.
Of course, this is a sad testament in a country where as much as 20 percent of the GDP is hidden in the underground economy, and children only attend school half a day. However, what’s most interesting about the lack of completion in Brazil is that no one seems to be surprised about it. For me, seeing a new 20-storey apartment building half finished and abandoned is an extraordinary site.
There are tens of thousands of building projects like this all over the country. Various problems prohibit completion, but the end result is always the same: ugly and unusable monuments to poor organization and/or criminal neglect. Many of the buildings’ construction projects are halted by the government when the builders refuse to comply with tax laws or laborers’ rights. Legal and bureaucratic entanglements often prevent other builders from completing the projects. Local governments lack the financial resources to knock down the ghost-like structures.
Buildings and bullet trains are not the only unfinished projects here. Even conversations in Portuguese can be difficult to finish. Business meetings are seemingly endless and generally conclude with a scheduled follow-up meeting. In the meetings, numerous points of view are expressed, many ranging far off the agenda topic, as one man will speak for 15 minutes continuously about all the work he’s accomplished. Interrupting anyone to suggest the meeting return to the agenda is considered rude in Brazil. Before arriving at any conclusions, new topics are introduced and the original agenda focus is lost.
I have a few theories on why it’s difficult to finish things in Brazil. The first theory involves the complicated nature of life in a developing country. With so many essential issues at hand all requiring immediate attention – the need to improve education, infrastructure, and the criminal justice system, the need to fight corruption – it’s difficult to focus on one emergency. Asking a Brazilian to focus on one topic, even in a conversation, is like asking a teenager immersed in video games or Whats App messages to focus on geometry for an hour.
My second theory on the country of unfinished projects is Brazil isn’t worried about when the future will be arriving, as the aphorism states, because Brazilian culture lacks a sense of urgency. Time is not only a relative concept in quantum physics, it’s a relative concept in culture. For example, life in a small town in Mississippi moves much slower than life in New York City. Trying to convince an old man from Mississippi or a Brazilian that ‘time is money’ would be a waste of words. Without a sense of urgency, what does it matter when the bullet train is completed, or if there are five business meetings instead of one? At least with five meetings, no one will feel he hasn’t been given an opportunity to express himself.
Another theory I have is Americans are more goal oriented than Brazilians. The ‘time is money’ philosophy in developed countries serves a specific purpose – to reach a conclusion, to arrive at a plan that enables a move to the next hurdle. If the plan doesn’t work, at least we feel we’re trying and working toward a solution.
The key to creating a strategic plan is to focus, and the key to focusing is organization. To formulate a strategy, we must organize our ideas and the ideas of all the others who are participating in the project, and then we must prioritize the ideas. It’s the only way to choose a plan that makes the most sense, the strategy most likely to reach the stated goal.
In a company, an action plan must eventually be chosen no matter how many meetings it takes. Often the final decision on the plan of action will be up to the CEO because a company is not a democracy. However, democracy is problematic when there is no boss. For example, prioritized planning is required for a family to vacation abroad. As a result, some Brazilians miss or delay their vacations because of poor long-term planning. Brazilians are not strong on prioritizing, but like the blight of unfinished projects, no one is surprised about a change in vacation plans.
The lack of focus in Brazil is obvious in Portuguese conversation patterns. For example, direct questions like, “What is the purpose of your visit?” or “What do you do for a living?” are considered rude in Brazil.
Similarly, written Portuguese meanders in a way that written English doesn’t. Brazilian journalists write sentences and paragraphs that are much longer than their American counterparts. Given a list of five ideas to be expressed in an essay and told to organize the ideas by order of importance, my students struggle. They cannot determine which idea is the most important.
Brazilian students write in English the same way they write in Portuguese – they write the way they think. They drift from one idea to the next inside the same text or even the same paragraph. For them, if there are five ideas that belong to the same theme, none has a greater importance than another. When I watch them struggle to organize their ideas, I imagine an American forced into a similar dilemma if asked, “Which food on your plate is the most important – protein, carbohydrate, or vegetable?” It’s an enigma.
As language is the basis of thought, it’s safe to say that Americans think differently than Brazilians. Conversations in Brazil take their time, meandering, and rarely reach a conclusion because Brazilians do not have the same sense of urgency and are not as goal oriented as Americans.
Are conversations and writing in English more direct than Portuguese because Americans have a greater sense of urgency and are concerned about unfinished projects or how long it takes to reach a goal? I’m not sure.
Perhaps Portuguese is a more circuitous form of communication because the goal of a conversation in Brazil isn’t strictly communication, as it is in English, but rather the goal is the conversation in and of itself. There is no stated plan to a conversation; rather the function is simply personal interaction with others. Thus, once the conversation is over, the participants have in fact reached their goal, regardless of what’s been said or concluded.
In the US, time is money. In Brazil, time is best spent on the beach with one’s family, and the unfinished projects can wait for another day.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.