Brazil - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Brazil - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Sandra Branco, Rob Williams

For many people Brazil conjures up images of football, Carnaval and fine coffee, but it is much more than beaches and bossa nova. If you could choose only one word to describe Brazil, it would be diversity. The variety of racial types, lifestyles, wealth, landscape and climate is enormous. Jeitinho is the Brazilian means of dealing creatively with life’s


For many people Brazil conjures up images of football, Carnaval and fine coffee, but it is much more than beaches and bossa nova. If you could choose only one word to describe Brazil, it would be diversity. The variety of racial types, lifestyles, wealth, landscape and climate is enormous. Jeitinho is the Brazilian means of dealing creatively with life’s everyday complications. Literally translated as a “little way”, in practice it means that regardless of the rules or systems in place, where there is a will there has to be a way around them. The jeitinho is so ingrained in daily life that you can see examples everywhere; managing to get a seat when all the places are booked up, traveling with more luggage than is allowed or successfully ordering something that is not on the restaurant menu. Culture Smart! Brazil is a concise guide to understanding the Brazilian people and illuminating the complexities of their national identity. Familiarise yourself with their customs, traditions and culture and experience Brazil authentically.

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By Sandra Branco, Rob Williams

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Sandra Branco with Rob Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-690-0



If you could choose only one word to describe Brazil, it would be diversity. The variety of landscape, climate, flora, fauna, racial types, and lifestyles is enormous.

Brazilians tend to think of their country as some sort of continent within South America. The reason may be that its land mass represents nearly half (47.3%) of the territory. Looking at the map, we can see that the entire east side of Brazil is coastline (Atlantic Ocean), while the west side borders almost all the other South American countries, except for Chile and Ecuador.

Since Brazil is mostly situated south of the equator, the seasons are the reverse of those in Europe and the USA. Officially, summer lasts from December 22 to March 21, fall from March 22 to June 21, winter from June 22 to September 21, and spring from September 22 to December 21. In parts of the country, however, notably the Amazon region, seasonal divisions are less clearly marked and tend to be classified as "wet" and "dry."

Brazil has four time zones. Brasília time is the nation's official standard, three hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), London.

The equator crosses the north of the country, near the city of Macapá. The Tropic of Capricorn passes through the south, near the city of São Paulo. This means that most of the country is within the tropical zone and characterized by a hot and humid climate. However, tropical does not necessarily mean that every region is hot all year-round, nor that the countryside is filled with lush vegetation. Altitude, proximity to the sea, soil fertility, and prevailing winds and weather fronts all have an effect on the different regions of the country.

The north is hotter and the south cooler (temperatures in some parts can fall below zero and snow is even seen occasionally in some cities). Generally speaking, cities on the coast are more humid, while those located on plateaus inland, such as Brasilia, São Paulo, and Belo Horizonte, have more temperate climates.

More specifically, Brazil can be divided into six climate zones: equatorial, tropical, Atlantic tropical, semiarid, highland tropical, and subtropical, according to location and terrain.


Brazil is divided into five administrative regions. The characteristics of their inhabitants are highly influenced by their geographic and economic situations.


Amazonas – Pará – Acre – Rondônia – Roraima – Amapá – Tocantins

Also known as the Amazon region, the North region is mainly covered by rain forest and is sparsely populated. It rains often and so regularly that the locals tend to organize their day and even arrange meetings and appointments for "before the rain" or "after the rain."

Despite recent deforestation, there are still large areas where, if you fly over the jungle, all you can see is an immense green carpet from horizon to horizon, with hardly a sign of human habitation.

Reservations have been set up for different tribes of Native Indians (índios) and most of the larger groups live in these areas. Most maintain contact with Brazilian institutions, and just a few do not welcome strangers. It is thought that there are still more groups that have yet to come into contact with outsiders.

The Amazon is the world's largest river in volume and its annual outflow accounts for one-fifth of the world's fresh water entering the sea. It is not surprising, then, that much of the transport in the region is by boat.

Given the difficulty in policing such a vast area, some illegal settlers, traders, and even drug traffickers have taken advantage and there have sometimes been violent clashes with the indigenous groups. Nowadays there is an integrated mapping system linked to satellite photography (imazongeo) to monitor the whole area and identify illegal use of land.

The harvesting of Brazil nuts and rubber latex are still the main economic activities, together with manufacturing, mining, and logging. Industry, farming, and ecotourism play only a small role.

Originally agriculture and mining were encouraged, although this resulted in jungle-sized environmental problems and the deforestation of about 14 percent of the rain forest (an area about the size of France). The government has since launched a series of policies to control development, such as the prohibition of timber export. This has managed to halve the pace of deforestation, and the vast majority of the rain forest is still preserved undamaged.

The Amazon forest contains the largest single reserve of biological organisms in the world. Even though nobody knows how many different species inhabit it, scientists estimate that they represent 15–30 percent of all species on the planet.

The region has powerful folklore traditions, mainly with indigenous origins, that are kept alive by the caboclos — mixed descendants of Portuguese and Native Indians.

The two main cities in the North are Manaus and Belém do Pará.

The state of Acre and the western corner of the state of Amazonas are five hours behind GMT and two hours behind Brasília Time, while the rest of Amazonas, and the states of Rondônia, Roraima, and the western half of the state of Pará are four hours behind GMT or one hour behind Brasília Time. The eastern half of Pará and the state of Tocantins are three hours behind GMT at standard Brasília Time.


Maranhão – Piauí – Ceará – Rio Grande do Norte – Paraíba – Pernambuco – Bahia – Alagoas – Sergipe – Fernando de Noronha (island territory)

Perhaps the biggest contrasts within any region can be found in the Northeast. Nearly 30 percent of Brazilians live here, and the difference between rich and poor is very marked.

The coast is beautiful, with palm beaches and warm waters that attract considerable domestic and foreign tourism. The number of visitors to the island of Fernando de Noronha is severely restricted because of its status as an ecological sanctuary where research and conservation projects are carried out all year. The land on the coastal plain is very fertile and devoted mainly to sugar plantations.

In the interior, however, lie the drylands, or sertão. This area suffers regular and lengthy droughts, resulting in large-scale misery and migration. The people of this area (sertanejos) leave their homes either to work in the sugar plantations during the drought period, or for good, heading to big urban centers within the Northeast or in the Southeast, where they often end up unemployed and homeless.

The transitional zone between the coastal plain and the sertão is called the agreste and is devoted to cattle rearing. In the cities the service sector plays an important economic role. Since the recent discovery of sizeable oil fields off the coastline, the region has begun to develop economically and is attracting greater domestic and international investment.

Pernambuco and Bahia, where most of the oil fields have been found, were the main colonial centers and their resonance in Brazilian culture is strong. They have the richest folklore and inspire most of the music, cuisine, and the so-called "typically Brazilian" culture.

The region was also home to resistance centers (quilombos), created and controlled by black runaway slaves who organized themselves in self-sufficient communities. The most successful of these were in Pernambuco. Nowadays, Salvador, capital of Bahia, is the center for black consciousness and culture in Brazil.

People who live on the coast tend to be more laid-back and easygoing than those from inland. They say the sertanejos are as tough as the land they live on. Because of the heat, whenever possible, northeastern people have longer lunch hours or even take a half-hour nap after lunch. However, services and shops do not tend to close for lunch and work normal commercial hours.

The largest cities in the Northeast are Salvador, Fortaleza, and Recife.

The entire Northeast region is three hours behind GMT at standard Brasília Time, except for Fernando de Noronha, which is two hours behind GMT and one hour ahead of standard Brasília Time.

Central West

Mato Grosso – Mato Grosso do Sul – Goiás – Federal District of Brasília

This region covers most of the country's central plateau (planalto central). An area of widespread savannas and tropical grasslands, it is still sparsely populated.

In order to encourage migration and development in the remote and isolated Central West region, President Kubitschek (1955–60) moved Brazil's capital from Rio de Janeiro to "the middle of nowhere," as some called it then. The result was the planned city of Brasília, the "capital of hope." For many years, however, Brasília remained a dormitory city for politicians. It can still feel a little bit like an overgrown university campus, where you need to drive or take the bus to go across town and where sidewalks do not exist on the main roads. The place is nonetheless lightened by the stunning curves of buildings by architect Oscar Niemeyer.

The region is also home to one of Brazil's most famous ecotourist destinations, the Pantanal swamplands in Mato Grosso. People come to explore diverse fauna and flora, see multitudes of colorful birds, and spot caimans.

Due to a rapid expansion in industrial farming, the savanna ecosystem has suffered a great deal, being reduced to only 20 percent of its original size. Agro-industry and cattle-raising remain the major economic activities.

The federal government has kept back large areas in the region as reservations for the indigenous tribes who first lived there. Although the overwhelming majority of Brazilians express very protective views about native groups and their right to the land, those who live near the reservations have more mixed opinions. Some people seem to resent the fact that the tribes are given a lot of land while they have to work hard to buy a small plot.

In spite of the best efforts of the State and a slow increase in migration to the area, some parts of this region still remain remote, allowing for highly exploitative work practices to take place.

The main cities in the Central West are Brasília, Goiânia, Campo Grande, and Cuiabá.

Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul are four hours behind GMT and one hour behind Brasília Time. The Federal District of Brasília and the state of Goiás are three hours behind GMT at standard Brasilia Time.


Minas Gerais – Espírito Santo – Rio de Janeiro – São Paulo

Most of Brazil's population is concentrated in this region. It has been called "the heart of Brazil" (or sometimes its "brain") because of the major economic role it plays. It has the best-developed industry together with the most advanced agriculture, and São Paulo as both the main financial and commercial center of the country.

The region is rich in minerals and gems; it produces coffee and grains for export, plus a variety of foodstuffs, dairy, and meat products for the domestic market. It is also the traditional manufacturing base of the country. Tourism plays a significant part, particularly in the city of Rio de Janeiro and the historic towns of Minas Gerais. Minas contains a series of well-kept picturesque colonial towns with some of the best examples of Brazilian baroque art, which is unique and less ornate than the European version.

The coastline is stunningly framed by the mountains of the Serra do Mar, with some preserved areas of Atlantic forest. Mountain formations are everywhere and characterize some of the famous pictures of Brazil, such as the Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf Mountain) in Rio.

São Paulo state is a land of immigrants, with descendants from all groups who declare themselves proud of being Brazilians and paulistas (inhabitants of São Paulo state). Its capital, also called São Paulo, is the largest metropolitan area in the country and ranks fifth in the world, with a population of over twenty million. It is the main Brazilian destination for foreign business travelers. Paulistanos, the inhabitants of São Paulo city, are individualistic, dynamic, and workaholic. Most people work long hours and many have more than one job. It is truly a cosmopolitan center and its cuisine and art reflect this in their international flavor. There are more Italians (and Italian descendants) in São Paulo than in Rome. Modern travelers from Japan find in the district of Liberdade a community that keeps prewar Japanese customs and traditions. Personal safety is also a concern, and 70 percent of Brazil's bullet proofed automobiles (two-hundred a day) are sold there. The wealthy have taken to using helicopters to get around (partly also to avoid the huge traffic jams). São Paulo now has the most helicopters in the world – more than New York or Tokyo.

Rio de Janeiro, host city for the 2016 Olympic Games, remains the Brazilian picture postcard for foreigners and the main tourist destination, especially during Carnaval. Its laid-back charm and beach lifestyle even inspired the Disney studios in the 1940s, when they created a character called "Zé Carioca," who loves samba. Rio is the second-biggest Brazilian city, with a population of over six million. It is home to the mega studios of TV Globo, the most influential national network and one of the largest in the world (see Chapter 9, under The Media). Cariocas (inhabitants of Rio) claim theirs is "the most beautiful city," and contest São Paulo's claim to be "the most important city."

There is a permanent rivalry between Rio and São Paulo. Although sometimes disguised, it can be found in the most unsuspected places. Therefore, any visitor socializing or doing business in either city should be cautious before expressing any opinion about one or the other. Despite their claims, both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo share the harsh realities of high-level noise, pollution, traffic, violence, and crime.

Mineiros, people from Minas Gerais, are thought of as serious and hardworking. They can be more private and reserved on initial contact, although they are very hospitable.

The state capitals in the Southeast are Belo Horizonte, Vitória, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo.

The entire Southeast region is three hours behind GMT at standard Brasília Time.


Paraná – Santa Catarina – Rio Grande do Sul

With a cooler climate, the South is supposed to be the region with the best quality of life. It is a highly developed area, its major economic activities being cattle raising, agro-industry, the production of grains and a growing wine industry, though it keeps a balance between the rural and manufacturing sectors. It is home to Itaipu, one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world.

The coast of Santa Catarina, in particular the city of Florianópolis, is a summer tourist destination for domestic visitors as well as a considerable number of Argentinians. On the border between Brazil and Argentina, the Iguaçu Falls is one of Brazil's most magnificent sights and the region's main tourist attraction for domestic and international visitors. A recent trend has placed it on the international list of wedding destinations, catching the fancy of brides and grooms in search of an exotic location.

xxx The southern highlands were once covered by subtropical forests with a predominance of araucária pine trees. Expanding agro-industry, however, resulted in it being heavily deforested and just a few pockets of pine forest remain.

Further south, the region shares the wide plains or pampas (homeland to gaúchos, the South American cowboys) with Uruguay and Argentina. They once hunted wild cattle and drank chimarrão, a strong tea made of the herb mate, prepared and served in a bowl with a silver straw. Drinking chimarrão is still one of the best-kept traditions in this region. The term gaúcho was originally used to describe the mixed descendants of Portuguese, Spanish, and indigenous (Guarani) populations. Nowadays it refers to all Rio Grande do Sul inhabitants.


Excerpted from Brazil by Sandra Branco, Rob Williams. Copyright © 2016 Sandra Branco with Rob Williams. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

SANDRA BRANCO is a Brazilian-born writer now living in the UK. After graduating in Communications from São Paulo University she worked as a video and television producer and scriptwriter in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Bahia, and Ceará, before going on to gain an MA in Screenwriting at the Northern School of Film and Television in Leeds. She now lives and works in London.
ROB WILLIAMS is a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster in London, running MA programs in Applied Language Studies and International Liaison and Communication. He has lived and worked in France, Spain, Germany, Romania, and Brazil. He is also a lead consultant for CultureSmart! Consulting.

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