With a business travel industry currently ranked eighth in the world, Brazil is an international business hub — soon to surpass Italy, France and the U.K. If you’re one of the many business travelers heading to the popular South American destination, the following business etiquette guidelines will help you leave a positive impression on your Brazilian counterparts and avoid embarrassing cultural faux pas.
Clothing – Appearances are very important to Brazilians, so how you dress will reflect upon you and your company. Brazilian businesswomen favor elegant and feminine suits or dresses accented with high quality accessories. Brazilian businessmen wear conservative dark suits, shirts and ties. Three-piece suits are for executives and two-piece suits indicate office workers. You’ll find all Brazilians in stylish shoes that are polished and well-kept.
Greetings – Expect business greetings to be reflective of Brazil’s culture – warm and welcoming. Respond to your colleagues in the manner they address you (i.e., if they use your first name, use their first name) and if you encounter a “close talker” remember that Brazilians are comfortable with much less personal space than we’re accustomed to in the U.S. Expect your male counterparts to shake hands firmly and for a long time, and hold strong and steady eye contact. Once you get to know your associates, expect hugging and backslapping instead. It’s common for men and women to exchange kisses on the cheek when first meeting — if you’d rather shake hands, extend your hand first. Women often greet by exchanging kisses on the cheek, left cheek first.
To make a great first impression, print double sided business cards and have one side translated into Portuguese. When presenting your card to your Brazilian counterparts, have the Portuguese side facing them.
Conversation – If you speak Portuguese, you have an obvious advantage – but if you don’t, make an effort in advance of your trip to learn some key words. Even if your pronunciation isn’t the best, your colleagues will appreciate your efforts. Remember that Brazilians like to speak loudly and hold long, animated conversations – humor is an integral part of social and business gatherings. Most business meetings are informal where anyone with something to say chips in – in fact, interruptions are common. Be sure to engage your associates in conversation as remaining quiet will be taken as a lack of interest. While face-to-face communications are preferred, when it comes to agreements, Brazilians insist on detailed legal contracts.
Dining – If you’re hosting a meal, make sure you select a prestigious restaurant as most Brazilians expect high-end establishments for business meals. Give yourself enough time as these can be lengthy meals (a business lunch can last at least two hours). Make sure you wash your hands before eating and refrain from touching your food with your hands; use a knife and fork for everything, even fruit! Unless your counterparts initiate it, don’t discuss business during meals. Avoid topics on Argentina/Brazil football rivalry (even during this World Cup season), religion, Brazil’s class system, and the rainforest.
Once everyone has finished, ask the waiter to bring the check as they usually don’t until requested. At all restaurants and bars, a standard service fee of 10% is included as a line item at the end of the bill, so tipping is not expected unless you want to be extra generous.
Gifting – Offering a gift to your colleagues is not necessary during your first few meetings. If you decide to give a gift, avoid handkerchiefs (associated with funerals) and anything purple or black as these are considered mourning colors. Also, lavish gifts could be misinterpreted as a bribe and/or cause embarrassment. Ideal gifts include high-quality whiskey, wine, coffee table books and name-brand pens. If you’ll be going to a Brazilian’s home, sending flowers before or after visiting is a nice gesture. Also, if you receive a gift, open as soon as you receive it. Waiting is considered rude.
Negotiations – Punctuality is of utmost importance. However, be prepared to wait for your fashionably late Brazilian associates for at least 10-15 minutes. Once the meeting convenes, don’t expect to dive right into business as relationship-building and socializing is important. Remember that Brazilians like to take their time and don’t take well to pressure, confrontation or hard sell tactics. If you must finalize a deal, use local lawyers and accountants for negotiations. Brazilians may resent an outside legal presence.
Business interactions in Brazil require an understanding of the cultural differences between U.S. and local business practices. As you can see, adequate preparation can go a long way in making a lasting good impression.
Michael J. Kelly is CEO of On Call International which for nearly 20 years has provided fully-customized travel assistance plans protecting millions of travelers, their families, and the companies they work for.