Welcome to the Impossible
By B. Michael Rubin
Brazil is the land of the impossible.
Brazil has a world-class reputation for recreation and enjoyment. Its beaches are a mecca for tourists. What vacationer wouldn’t enjoy tanned and fit young men and women frolicking in skimpy bathing suits.
American women are still shy about trying the tiny Brazilian thong bikini; however, young American women are learning to be more vain like their Brazilian counterparts. The bikini wax, which was invented for small coverings, has arrived in the US and is called a “Brazilian wax.”
Life is more relaxed on vacation, no matter what country you are in, but in Brazil that ambience of easiness isn’t reserved only for vacations at the beach. Brazilians live a more relaxed lifestyle with less pressure and more patience. They have twice as many federal holidays as Americans, and they rarely stay in their offices during lunch hour. While Brazil has a standing army, they haven’t fought a war since the 19th century and engage solely in peace-keeping missions, such as assisting after the Haiti earthquake.
Yet it seems impossible that if Brazilians are so calm and happy, why are they more likely to kill each other? Every year, there are more murders in Brazil than any other country in the world.
Brazilians are devoted to their families; family is the number one priority. Then why are so many Brazilians killed in auto accidents? Why do drivers disregard the speed limits as if they were Formula One racers? It seems impossible. Are they addicted to danger?
As long ago as the 1960s, when only the wealthy could afford cars in Brazil, a British travel writer, Robin Bryans, visited Rio de Janeiro. In his book Fanfare for Brazil, he wrote: “Avenida Presidente Vargas was always in spate with traffic, dangerous traffic, out with intent to kill. I called it Suicide Alley. It was a monster of an avenue. Guidebooks said it was nearly a hundred yards wide and over a mile long, but they omitted to add, every inch a killer.”
Perhaps the extreme levels of danger in Brazil are the inevitable complement to the high spirits that produce Carnival and non-stop samba.
Another impossible element to Brazilian life is the sense of time. A vacationing tourist isn’t concerned with following a schedule, which works perfectly in Brazil, where most people don’t wear watches. While it’s easy to see how someone not wearing a watch could be late, with the advent of cellphones all Brazilians have access to the precise time, but it makes no difference. The definition of “on time” is simply different.
Maybe Brazilians don’t care about being on time, or they have a diverse definition of time. Rather, they follow the words of Oscar Wilde, who once wrote of one of his characters: “He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.”
Cultures differ in their approaches to time, just as they differ in language and food and politics. Brazil’s army doesn’t invade other countries, whereas the US military seems to make a habit of it. Americans believe they can coerce their views of life on other nations and force enemies to become friends, whereas Brazilians are content to let foreigners decide for themselves if the peaceful way of life is the best.
While Brazil and the US have a similar origin, both “discovered” at the same time by European explorers from powerful nations that claimed them as part of monarchies, the two countries have developed in contrasting ways. The US has grown into a nation that thrives on individualism. Americans, in general, are focused on themselves and their personal fulfillment.
Brazil’s culture is the opposite – one of collectivism. In a collective culture, there are tighter social ties and responsibilities to family, but less trust and weaker bonds toward strangers. This system creates a distinction between those inside of a group, such as family and friends, and those outside the group. In a collective culture, people care deeply about their families and make enormous sacrifices for them, but they are wary of strangers.
The country’s collective culture explains why Brazilians in the south are opposed to Bolsa Familia, the social welfare programs operating more predominantly in the north. For the more affluent middle-class in Brazil’s south, these programs are benefitting strangers. Collectivism encourages sharing among family and trusted friends, but it is not generalized sharing with “other people.”
Collectivism also supports conformity because it’s a valuable tool to distinguish who is a friend and who is a stranger. Expats like myself are more aware of themselves in a conformist culture. Brazilian conformity may be observed in numerous iterations – from regional accents and women’s fashions to men’s facial hair and culinary habits. Trends and rumors spread throughout a population faster in a collectivist culture. Gossip forms a backbone for conforming to collective ethics because “saving face” among one’s peers takes precedence. In a collective culture, status is critical, so family secrets that protect reputations may go undiscovered for generations.
In a collective culture, family and friends provide a solid foundation, a safety net of emotional well-being and self-confidence. Women kiss men to say hello, giving form to Brazilian exuberance. The thousands of kilometers of beaches encourage a lifestyle of embracing joy.
However, in contrast to a collective culture’s distrust of strangers, Brazil is an open society. Many shops have no doors. There’s a metal gate locked when the shop is closed, but during the day shops are open to the street, and merchants enjoy the lack of distinction between indoors and outdoors. As in the coffee shops that bloom on every corner, there is no discrimination between inside and outside. Cafes’ sidewalk tables beckon to tourists and locals alike, drawn by the intoxicating smells of freshly baked bread and cakes and strong coffee.
The welcoming warmth of Brazil’s beaches couldn’t be more inviting to visitors eager to appreciate the Brazilian genius for happiness. No stressed-out, overworked tourist ever complains about the casual ways of Brazil’s people. Owing to its improvised style, everyday life is more serene as there’s less sense of urgency.
Collectivist Brazil is more open and friendly than America. It’s impossible.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.