The second I stepped off the plane and into Brazil my whole demeanor changed. I set my jaw, checked for my wallet, and confirmed my notes about legitimate taxis.
I was in São Paulo – a place I had not been before with a language I did not speak – for a solo week of work. I had that uncomfortable feeling that comes with navigating new territory.
Besides just general survival, I also needed to accomplish a lot during my time in SP.
I am leading a large global project for work, and I was in Brazil to gather details from our local business in order to proceed.
My ability to navigate the office was going to make or break the project.
But, I came prepared, or so I hoped.
Before arriving, I took the time to study Brazilian work culture, history, and current events. Specifically I did the following:
- Read the Brazil portion of the book Kiss, Bow, and Shake Hands
- Used the Geert Hofstede cultural comparison chart to see the main cultural differences between the US and Brazil
- Consulted a Brazilian colleague who provided pointers on working with Brazilians
Was everything I read going to be spot on? No.
Would it provide a general sense for how I needed to tweak and flex my own very American style to better match this new working environment? I thought so.
In my research, I paid special attention to the more obvious potential cultural pitfalls in which I could self sabotage my time in the Brazil office.
The biggest difference I picked up on was the largely different scores for individualist tendencies between the US and Brazil.
My first culture technique was to:
- Be careful about acting too individualistic
I know through personal study that I have a very typical individualistic American approach. Self-reliant, mobile, direct, initiator are all (positive) words I use to describe myself.
Brazilians, on the other hand, tend to be more collectivist in nature. They think in terms of “we”, are group oriented, and value long-term loyalty and friendship in working relationships.
[Sidenote: this is not to say that I, or other Americans, do not value those thing too! This is research that comes from looking at country cultural trends in comparison to one another.]
Therefore, I needed to begin by reframing my [our] project so that my time in Brazil wasn’t focused on me getting what I needed to make it successful, or really even focused on what they needed. Instead, what would help us? Us is this case being the collective team.
To begin building the previously non-existent us, I invested time over lunch. Lunch is the main meal of the day in Brazil, and eaten with colleagues outside of the office. This proved an excellent opportunity to break bread and barriers with colleagues.
I had to check my individualistic style often in São Paulo, slowing my role to allow for group-think, nonlinear conversation, and general relationship building.
This is work I’ll have to continue to do for years, not days, if I want to stay connected with my Brazilian colleagues.
On the flip side, through my research I found that I also have a trait in common with Brazilians: the use of emotion in decision making, which is typically not a US centric style.
When reviewing Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, I read that
“Brazilians tend to approach problems indirectly, allowing their feelings to dictate the solution. Facts are admissible as evidence…they seldom overruled subjective feelings.”
Therefore my second cultural technique was to:
- Ask questions that evoke emotion and feeling.
I was especially curious to see if this style was displayed because we work for a technology company where data-driven decisions are the only decisions.
I didn’t have to keep guessing for long. In many of my meetings, first an organizational chart was presented (visually or verbally) so that I was aware of the hierarchical structure – very important in Brazil. Second the main players and project points were discussed.
At that point, I would pivot to a question such as: “Do you have a good feeling about this program?”
Not only was this question answered with honesty – or so it seemed to me – but it opened the doors for much richer conversation and transparency.
I found my Brazilian colleagues to be quite open with their emotions and expressions – more than my typical meetings with Americans.
Ultimately, this technique proved successful in getting a wealth of detail and insights about the inner workings of the business. And, it matched my personal style so was a nice departure from my typical New York flow.
Yet, even with all of my planning, international business travel often brings unexpected circumstances.
Here are a few cultural points I am kicking myself about:
- I wish I would have had set-up more group meetings. I spent a lot of time asking questions in 1:1 settings in SP without thinking that a collectivist culture might like group oriented settings.
- I was unprepared for the Portuguese language barrier. In hindsight, I would have asked a colleague or outside support to translate a couple of meetings as that would have allowed me to speak with a larger range of people.
- For the first few days I tried to keep a normal “American” schedule. This didn’t allow for impromptu pleasantries and getting to know you moments necessary when bridging a foreign culture. I ended up canceling all of my non-Brazil meetings and opening up my schedule for a more impromptu flow.
In all, I left São Paulo with the humbling reminder that culture plays a distinctive role in business success. A bit of reading and one week of practice flexing my style was an introductory course into the Brazilian work environment.
And yet, here I am, at the end of this journey (and article) writing about how this trip has impacted me and given to me. Showcasing, that maybe I need to be practicing more Brazilian ways back at home as well.