Meetings and behaviour in business context in Brazil
If you are looking to establish successful business relationships in Brazil, this document might offer you some initial guidelines on how to navigate key cultural aspects, and show up in a way that is conducive to effective meetings.
5 most important things to know about doing business in Brazil
Brazil has often been dubbed “the country of the future”; however, given its volatile trajectory over the past four decades, a more accurate definition would be the country of ups and downs. In other words, doing business in Brazil can be quite an adventure.
Arguably the most important idiosyncratic feature of Brazilian culture is the so-called “jeitinho brasileiro” (the Brazilian way/manner), which reflects the nation’s deep sense of being unique, resourceful, optimistic and independent.
Keep in mind that Brazil has strong protectionist policies which make market entry generally difficult. The country is ranked 124th out of 190 global economies for ease of doing business (according to the World Bank, 2020).
Expect your local colleagues and counterparts to be very passionate, expressive and opinionated conversationalists. You will be encouraged to speak up and oftentimes jump into the discussion even if people are already talking over each other.
Do not expect anyone to speak English or any other language except Portuguese. If you do not speak Portuguese, it is strongly advisable that you have someone in your team who does (that said, you might be able to get by if you speak some Portuñol).
How should you communicate?
Succeeding at doing business with Brazilians requires face-to-face communication. You will only accomplish so much by phone, e-mail or Zoom. Also, physical contact is not just normal, but expected; it is an intricate part of demonstrating friendliness and creating trust. Sharing personal stories and discussing sports, music, family or current world events is usually an important preamble to any business conversation; and keep in mind that meetings will tend to be conducted at a casual, unhurried pace. Go with the flow.
Always be (and sound) cordial. Saying please and thank you is considered an essential component of any human interaction. Make sure to properly greet people when you arrive and when you leave (note: hellos and goodbyes in Brazil always carry a cheerful tone, and it is customary to wish each other well on the way in and on the way out). In spite of the casual atmosphere, Brazilians are respectful of title, rank and/or seniority (including the elderly, most of all). Like many Latin American countries, Brazil’s Power Distance score is in the upper range, at 69. Addressing someone as “você” (the informal version of “you" in Brazilian Portuguese) is acceptable only once a relationship has been established, or when you have been given express consent to do so. Otherwise be as formal as possible. Use the title Senhor(a), Dona, or Doutor(a), followed by the person’s first name - for example, Dona Beatriz, or Senhor Milton, Doutora Tânia.
How can you make a good impression?
Brazilians like to enjoy life and entertain. Do not be surprised if you get invited to a social gathering or if someone wants to show you around. You should gladly accept, and take it as an opportunity to learn more about their culture and customs. If you get invited to someone’s home, then it is appropriate for you to bring a small gift, such as wine or flowers. Be prepared for lengthy business meals (two hours or more). In fact, be prepared to not discuss work at all, therefore do not push an agenda if it does not come up spontaneously. A good rule of thumb is to allow the host to steer the topic of conversation.
Showing basic knowledge of (and curiosity for) Brazilian culture can help you score valuable points. Find opportunities to recognize success stories, especially of Brazilians who have triumphed abroad. And you should also familiarize yourself with Brazil’s most important companies; showing respect for the accomplishments of local business leaders and big family names will instantly help you earn credibility as a business partner. Importantly, refrain from ever referring to Brazilians as “Latins”.
How will you dress?
Brazil is a status and class-conscious society, thus appearances matter a lot, particularly in large urban/business centers such as São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Curitiba. Your clothes, hairstyle and accessories - even the vehicle in which you arrive, will reflect upon you and your company. A dose of vanity and sensuality is not considered a flaw but rather a plus (e.g. it is no coincidence that Brazil is home to some of the most sought-after plastic surgeons in the world). Moreover, Brazilians tend to appreciate beauty as an essential part of life - a tendency that becomes amplified along coastal regions and during the warmer months of the year. That said, context is extremely relevant and you will be better off if you ask about proper attire before you go (especially if you are visiting different regions during your stay).
How are women and men expected to behave?
When meeting people for the first time, men will commonly shake hands, including the occasional tap on the shoulder or slap on the back. For women, air kisses are the more common form of greeting, once to each cheek. Be careful, however, only to touch cheeks and make a kiss sound rather than actually kissing each cheek, otherwise, this could be misinterpreted as more than just a friendly greeting. Brazilian society tends to be fairly progressive when it comes to gender roles and participation in all areas of society. The country scores average on Masculinity (49), which equates to below average for Latin American standards. This essentially means, among other things, that women are well-accepted - and prominent - in the realms of higher education and business. Their values and behaviors may closely resemble those of North American women, which may occasionally translate into them being quite proactive and even flirtatious when it comes to social (after-work) settings. If you are a man, you should be advised to navigate such situations as graciously (and cautiously) as possible.
How should you conduct a meeting?
Meetings will likely be very animated, interactive and relaxed. As in other collectivist cultures, the emphasis in Brazil is always on personal relationships, therefore expect lots of small talk and chatter – this may have more of an impact on the deal you are trying to close than the presentation you are giving. When presenting, you should keep it short and to the point, allowing plenty of time for conversation. How you present may be considered more important than what you present. Avoid trying to rush matters to a conclusion, as Brazilian business people may not respond positively to being pressured into making a decision.
Short case study
Bettina Madsen is a top executive for one of Denmark’s fastest growing companies in the renewable energy sector. After being given the mandate to develop key international markets, she turned to Brazil as one of her top priorities.
For several months Bettina studied the competitive landscape and in the process discovered a relatively unknown third generation family business in Belo Horizonte that had a lot of potential as a local business partner. She reached out to the COO, João Carlos Ribeiro, and persuaded him to come to visit her company’s operation in Aarhus. It was a brief yet productive visit, and João Carlos was impressed. He reciprocated by inviting her to come to meet the rest of the executive team at the Brazilian headquarters. Bettina was thrilled at the opportunity, particularly because this would be her first time in South America.
A week before her trip, João Carlos sent her a friendly email suggesting that she should add a few days to her travel plans in order to explore Rio de Janeiro, explaining that this was his birthplace and that she couldn’t come to Brazil without stopping by the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (Marvelous City). He included a virtual link to a paid itinerary for two people that included a three-night stay on Copacabana beach. He signed off with “bring your husband and you’ll have a fantastic time!”. Bettina politely declined the gift, saying that she was on a tight business schedule and her husband had other pre-existing commitments, too. “I look forward to showing your team what our company is all about ... unfortunately I can’t extend my visit because I’m going to Buenos Aires immediately after our meeting”, she wrote back.
When Bettina met João Carlos and four of his colleagues and family members, she dedicated an entire hour to describing her company’s products and services, as well as its global expansion plans. All but one of the participants (the founder’s grandson) spoke English, and she thought her sales pitch was very well substantiated and well articulated. At the end of the presentation, she opened up for Q&A, which only lasted fifteen minutes. João Carlos suggested scheduling a follow-up call once she had returned from Argentina to her home country, called a taxi and then walked her to the door.
How would you describe the quality of Bettina’s interaction with João Carlos and his company throughout this entire process?
If you had to rate the success of the meeting on a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate it, and why?
What would you have done differently?