What cultural differences should I be aware of when moving from Denmark to Brazil? How safe is it to live in Brazil? Will it be difficult to get a network as an expat in Brazil?
If you’ve asked yourself these and similar questions – keep reading. In this blog post, our Brazil country specialist Signe Ørom provides the answers to the top 6 questions we get from Danish employees and families relocating to Brazil.
Signe’s first meeting with Brazil was back in 1990, when she at 16 went on a high school exchange. Since then, she has been living in Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking countries for more than 9 years. She is fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, has a Ph.D. in language and culture, and has done research on the differences between Danish and Brazilian business culture.
Naturally, Brazil is a dangerous country compared to Denmark. But having said that, it’s not as unsafe as you may have heard. I’ve been there myself for many years – both in safe and less safe places – and nothing has ever happened to me. I feel that there is an exaggerated focus on how unsafe Brazil is, and I want to stress that it isn’t the full picture.
Of course, there are things you can do to lower the risk of experiencing something unpleasant. For instance, stay away from certain parts of the cities. As many big cities around the world, big cities in Brazil have both very safe and very unsafe places. My personal experience is that if you stay in the safe parts of a city, the risk of something bad happening isn’t high.
There is a big disparity between rich and poor in Brazil, so in some situations it’s a good idea to tone down your status. If you do visit the poorer areas, you should avoid wearing things like flashy jewelry, expensive watches and fancy clothes.
The same goes for driving in Brazil. If you go for a drive in an expensive car at night, you should be aware that the surroundings will think there’s something valuable inside.
There has been some incidents where criminals have forced themselves into cars stopping for red lights making the driver buy a lot of stuff and withdrawing money at gunpoint. After a few hours, the driver is set free – with or without the car. So my advice is to drive on the larger orbital roads around the cities after nightfall and avoid the small roads in the center, where you have to stop for red lights.
When it comes to building a network, Brazil is probably one of the easiest countries to live in as an expat.
The Brazilians are very open, straightforward and curios people, which is one of the reasons I myself fell in love with the country when I first moved there. As long as you’re open-minded and interested in getting to know the culture, you can build a network very quickly.
A good way to get started is to move into a so-called “Condominio”; a gated community, where there’s a lot of social interaction for instance at BBQ’s and by the swimming pool. This is a fast way to get social connections.
When you’re doing business in Brazil, it’s crucial to spend some time and energy on building relationships. The Brazilian business culture is strongly relationship-based, and you must be prepared to invest yourself on a personal level.
In Denmark, we usually keep our personal life and our business life apart, and we feel comfortable doing business with people that we don’t know personally. This is related to the fact that we have a very high level of trust in our society.
Where 67% of all Danes say that they trust other people and the society, only 3% of Brazilians say the same. So you need to focus on establishing good personal relationships with Brazilian business partners in order for them to trust you enough to do business with you.
While there is a lot of hierarchy and respect in the business world, the tone is also very informal due to the so-called “amigo” culture. This sets Brazil apart from many other relationship-based countries around the world. So when you are building relationships, you have to balance being respectful of the hierarchy while also being very informal and personal.
I actually need a whole day to explain the key cultural differences between Denmark and Brazil!
But to make it very short: Status and hierarchy are really important compared to Denmark, as is building relationships, which I already mentioned.
Many Danish leaders find it frustrating that Brazilian employees are less independent than they are used to from Denmark. The Danish leaders experience that their employees avoid taking responsibility and wait for detailed instructions before they start working on a task.
One reason for this is that the Brazilian business culture is much more hierarchical than the Danish.
Another reason is the structure of the Brazilian society, which doesn’t encourage a willingness to take risks. If you make a mistake and thereby lose your job, it can have huge consequences for your entire family’s future. You need money in order to live in the safe areas of the city and to send your children to private schools, which is the only way to a high quality education.
One more thing worth mentioning is the difference in gender roles.
In Brazilian eyes, Danes are almost ‘gender neutral’ in their work environment. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, old or young, what matters are your skills.
In Brazil, you’re a man or a woman all the time and in all life situations. Women care about their looks, wear perfume, high heels, and tight jeans, which the men are very aware of. There’s a constant flirt going on, which may be considered inappropriate by Danes. Unless you choose to use it to your advantage!
Once again, building relationships is very important. You can’t just fly in and start presenting your product right away, because Brazilians don’t do business with companies – they do business with people.
When working with Brazilian business partners you should also be more diplomatic when communicating. In Denmark, we have a very direct way of communicating, which doesn’t work well in Brazil. When we for instance ask these very straightforward yes/no questions, it has an intimidating effect on most Brazilians.
Also, you should be aware of the different perception of time. Being used to ‘Danish efficiency’, you might be tempted to plan your 4-days business trip to Brazil with a meeting every day from 9-11, another from 11.30-12.30 and two more in the afternoon. When your Brazilian business partner is 20 minutes late for the first meeting, you’ll become really impatient and hurry through the important relationship-building part of the meeting.
My advice is: Don’t plan a tight schedule when doing business in Brazil. Always make sure to have time after a meeting for networking. And always accept when invited to lunch or to the CEO’s country house, because that’s a normal thing to do and it shows that you have a good relationship.
In the big cities, a large share of the women are employed. They have maternity leave for 4-5 months, after which they go back to work. So it’s very common to have a nanny in Brazil. There are also daycare institutions for babies and young children, but these are not as commonly used as in Denmark.
Compared to Denmark, there is a big focus on academics in Brazil from a very early age. Children start in pre-school at the age of 4 or 5, where they already start learning how to read and write.
Another difference in relation to childcare institutions and schools is the question of safety. Once I brought some visiting Brazilians to my daughter’s school. As in most Danish schools, the children play on an open playground during the breaks where anyone can walk in. The Brazilians were shocked of the – in their eyes – serious lack of safety.
In Brazil high walls surround most institutions, and you can only enter through a gate with a guard. When the bell rings the gate is closed and they know exactly who’s in and who’s out. The daycare institutions are provided with a camera, so you can watch your kids (and the ones taking care of them) from your work.
We also focus on different things in school. In Denmark we learn how to think independently and express our opinions, while in Brazil, the focus is more on general knowledge and memorizing. In my experience as a teacher, I’ve noticed how my Brazilian students ask more questions about the given tasks. They want to be perfectly sure what to learn in order to pass the exams, because they normally get clear instructions on what to do.
At my cross-cultural training workshops I hear many stories about how Brazilians perceive the Danes.
Again, the Danish level of trust shocks the Brazilians. The baby carriage left outside the café is a classic example. But they’re also surprised by people’s honesty at the supermarket where we weigh our fruit without sneaking in extra fruit afterwards. And the fact that we stamp our ticket at the train station without knowing whether we’ll meet a conductor or not.
If they don’t know the cultural roots of the Danish society, the Danes can seem pretty naïve in Brazilian eyes.
They also notice how quiet everyone is in public spaces. I once did a training course for a group of Brazilians who lived in Denmark for half a year. They met at the mall in the weekends, which is a common thing to do in Brazil: You meet up, stroll around, get a cup of coffee or some food, go to the cinema or just hang out and chat for a couple of hours.
So that’s basically what they did, when some bypassing Danes got intimidated by their loud talking and their big gestures and called the police. The Brazilians didn’t understand what they had done wrong – they were just talking after all. So their conclusion was unfortunately that the police officer had to be a racist.
That’s another cultural difference to be aware of: How loud or discreet you are in the public space.
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