By B. Michael Rubin
Brazilians are so polite that they say hello to strangers when they enter an elevator. My wife and I were spending a week at the beach in the Northeast of Brazil. Each time we entered the hotel elevator, my wife, who is Brazilian, would say Good Morning to other hotel guests. Inevitably, there were replies from people we obviously didn’t know or even recognize. As an American, I’m struck by this cordiality.
It’s also customary to greet strangers in Brazil when entering a waiting room in a doctor’s office. I’ve seen my wife talk to complete strangers in elevators, on planes, in waiting rooms, and on line at the bank; I’ve concluded that only the most ardent recluse could be alone in Brazil. It would require a concerted effort to avoid human contact here. You would need to pretend to be a deaf mute to get away with it. Sunglasses to fake blindness wouldn’t work, as it would elicit strangers taking your arm to guide you across the street.
Brazilians are so polite that when they cross the threshold of your home, they say Excuse Me, the same expression in Portuguese waiters use when they bring food to your table. Brazilians are so polite that if you’re invited for lunch in someone’s home, don’t expect to find salt/pepper on the table. It’s impolite to the cook to add salt to the food after you’ve been served. Drivers are so polite that they wait patiently while a car blocks a narrow street to discharge a passenger. If the delay in traffic becomes interminable, a driver will flash his headlights. A driver complaining with his horn is so shocking it would cause more accidents than it prevents.
Brazilians are so polite that men always hold doors open for women, and they stand up when women enter the room. I imagine that Brazilian politeness is linked to the easygoing lifestyle. People are not stressed in their cars, so they don’t need to honk their horns. This is a country where arriving ten minutes late is considered on time. If you’re not in a hurry, then why not stop and have a conversation with a stranger.
Talking to strangers, I believe, is a natural extension of the oral tradition. Brazilians talk more freely than Americans. (That’s a broad generalization, of course, so there are millions of exceptions.) Americans who live in states like Florida, Texas, or California, where there are large Hispanic populations, understand what the oral tradition means in all its manifestations. For Latin Americans, talking is an ongoing verbal ticker-tape, as if reality TV employed sports color commentators: “Okay, now she’s taking off her shoes.”
Along with a running commentary on reality and talking to strangers, another common occurrence in oral cultures is people addressing each other by name, even when there’s no one else in the room. “Michael, I’m taking off my shoes,” my wife might say. A simple statement such as this requires a cultural context. If my wife were American, I would be desperately examining her hidden agenda. By addressing me by name, she must be angry. Why would she tell me she’s taking off her shoes? I know – she’s sending a message that we will not be going out tonight because I’ve done something wrong. Hence, she’s verbally illustrating that her shoes are coming off to be replaced by slippers and a bathrobe.
Having been married to a Brazilian for years, I can assure you that, “Michael, I’m taking off my shoes” means absolutely nothing more than it says. It’s the oral tradition at its most glorious or mundane, an account of the now – sans analysis, ulterior motive, or ax to grind. Additionally, using the other person’s name over and over in the same conversation while talking directly to them is simply a signal of a message’s importance. It’s to discourage the other person from interrupting and has nothing to do with anger.
Another way to look at the oral tradition in Latin America or Southern Europe is to think of talking as a mirror of thinking. Everyone’s thoughts are manufactured by words, and Brazilians take this literally. Thus, talking is no different from thinking. In Brazil thoughts are silent speech, or talking is amplified thoughts, like someone inserting a microphone inside the head. Since we never stop thinking, there’s no cause to stop talking.
Latin Americans talk so much more than North Americans or Northern Europeans it’s as if their mouths never close. They talk to themselves. When they yawn, they don’t cover their mouths. Additionally, body movements accompany their conversation. As speech isn’t sufficient to convey everything the brain can imagine, Latinos talk with their whole bodies. An entire personal universe is exposed in a conversation, like visible thought bubbles, a dialogue with the soul.
Brazilians speak to their TVs, addressing a character on a soap opera, or expressing their disgust at a news story on corruption. I don’t find it surprising that Latin Americans and Southern Europeans are often Catholic. If it’s true that, as it states in the Bible, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” then the oral tradition is linked to the ancient and sacred, which North Americans have somewhat forgotten. The spoken word is older than the written word.
Another fascinating characteristic of oral culture is that noise or cacophony aren’t acknowledged. Robert’s Rules of Order and Ms. Manners’ Etiquette say it’s impolite to interrupt another person. However, in an oral culture if you don’t interrupt, it could take a week to get out one sentence. As you might expect, a Brazilian conversation features multiple interruptions and more than one person talking at a time. It’s not hard to imagine what happens when five women meet for lunch.
Unfortunately, I was always under the impression that words were designed for communication. I believed talking was the spoken manifestation of the written word. However, it’s clear now that when five people are talking simultaneously, communication is somewhat limited. If everyone’s talking, who’s listening?
Conveniently, in the Brazilian laissez-faire lifestyle, no one gets offended if others aren’t listening. If the information is important, it can be repeated and often is. While there may be less communication going on in such circumstances, there’s a great deal of excitement and verbal energy. What appears to an American observer as cacophony, for a Brazilian is fun. The greater the commotion, the higher number of decibels, the more everyone is enjoying themselves.
The innate ability Brazilians have to navigate through the waters of competing conversations can come in handy. Every store, coffee shop, and restaurant has a TV on. Every doctor’s office, nail salon, and ice cream parlor displays a TV. I find it distracting and sometimes annoying, but Brazilians aren’t in the least perturbed. It doesn’t conflict with their conversations or concentration. They have a built-in mechanism to tune out, as if not listening is second nature.
I’ve concluded this ability to tune out interference and focus one’s auditory attention would be a valuable trait to acquire. My wife is adept at this: If she’s at home watching TV or checking her Whats App, she won’t hear me asking her a question. Once, when I had to repeat my question three times, I suggested she have her hearing checked. She replied, “I hear fine, but if you want me to listen, you need to say my name. Then I know it’s me.”
On the last night of my beach vacation, my wife and I decided to have an early dinner in the hotel because we needed to get up at 5 am to catch our flight home. When we sat down for dinner, the hotel restaurant was entirely empty of patrons because it was early. Nevertheless, there were two TVs on, situated over the bar. Both flat screens were alongside each other so their edges were touching but on different channels. Is it possible to watch two TVs at the same time? Or to ignore them both and have quiet dinner conversation? It is in Brazil. I wondered if being raised in the oral tradition afforded people an aural skill that can process overload and filter through dense interference, like whale language clicks that travel hundreds of kilometers through the deepest oceans.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.