Differences Between the Brazilian and American Cultures

Abstract

Every country has its own unique values, beliefs, and ethical principles which vary according to the culture practiced. Cultural practices affect not only the way people live their lives but also how businesses are conducted. This paper aims to examine the culture of Brazil including its values, practices, and ethical standards. The Brazilian society will also be classified into appropriate cultural orientation and values orientation dimensions. In addition, the paper will compare and contrast Brazilian culture with American culture. An analysis will then be made concerning the most suitable leadership style that can be applied to Brazil as well as the most effective technique that can be used to motivate Brazilian employees. Most importantly, the paper will give recommendations as to how synergy can be created between Brazilian workers and American managers operating in the same organization.

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Brazil is a Latin American country and its culture closely resembles that of its neighbors. Brazilians are more people-oriented and less task-oriented. They do not relate with others in an official or orderly manner. Their relationships with other people are interpersonal in nature and they hold human relations with high esteem. Any meeting held for the first time has to commence with getting fully acquainted with each other in a comfortable and informal way. A lot of time and resources are spent on getting to know other people well both personally and professionally. Socializing is highly valued and normally takes place during extended lunch or mid-morning breaks. Even in business meetings, informal discussions are common, especially at the beginning. They believe that close interpersonal relationships build trust and eliminate the chances of frustrations that can result from engaging in deals with strangers. It is uncommon for important matters to be discussed via telephone, letters, or email. Most Brazilian executives do not react positively to impromptu and infrequent visits by foreign sales representatives. They prefer to arrange a meeting a few days or weeks in advance. They are very casual about time and work. This means that punctuality is not strictly followed and instead it is considered good manners to report a few minutes late for an appointment.

Brazilians also place a high value on leisure especially those activities that will involve other people. This is contrary to Americans who carry out business matters first and then engage in leisure later. Brazilians find this tendency of placing a higher value on work and less on social relations to be rude and insulting. It is expected that embraces are exchanged after meeting a colleague for the second or consecutive times. Failure to give an embrace is considered insulting and may leave the Brazilian wondering what wrong he committed. As rule problems and subjects are advanced indirectly and tackled one at a time. Brazilians also love negotiating, and presentations are made with keenness.

Communication between Brazilians is often animated with interruptions made frequently. This shows that the people engaged in the conversation are enthusiastic about the topic of discussion. During conversations, steady eye contact is always maintained between the speaker and the listener as a sign of genuine interest, concentration, and honesty. Brazilians maintain a very short physical distance when talking to each other. Touching each other is very common while engaging in conversations. Brazilians also make judgments of other people based on their personal principles rather than on abstract things. They indeed view an ambitious person as one who is more interested in achieving material goals than in establishing and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships (Turner and Kleiner, 2001, p.75). Being a collectivist society, Brazil places a high value on the family and gives the family more attention than even the bottom line. It is therefore common to find several members of one family involved in one business. The extended family structure of Brazilians offers security and networking opportunities to Brazilians.

In addition to the acceptable and unacceptable topics of discussions, foreigners should also be aware of the non-verbal communication to use and avoid. The common hand gesture that is widely used to suggest that something is alright is perceived as rudeness in Brazil. Second, Brazilians pinch their earlobes with their thumb and forefingers to portray gratitude for something good done to them. Third, tapping one’s fingertips below the chin shows that one does not have a reply to a query. Lastly, Brazilians use the fig gesture (putting the thumb in the midst of the index and middle fingers while creating a fist) to summon fortune (Turner and Kleiner, 2001).

The Americans on the other hand are very task-oriented. They sacrifice their social relations for the sake of achieving a work-related goal. They avoid making idle conversations in meetings and instead focus the entire time talking about the business matter and nothing else. Americans also value preciseness and they hate it when someone beats around the bush for politeness’ sake. They value a person who is straight to the point than one who wastes time on many words. They value clarity and do not care whether it comes out rudely or not. Failure to be clear and precise could be perceived as impoliteness and dishonesty. Honesty is the best policy in the U.S. Americans value honest people and therefore hate bribes, kickbacks, and other illegal payoffs. It is indeed easier in the U.S. to get ahead playing by the rules than by breaking them. In the American world, logic rules over emotion. Americans hate people who are unable to make cold and hard decisions for the sake of others’ feelings (O’Keefe and O’Keefe, 2004). Respect for the senior managers is highly valued because of the amount of time and resources the seniors have spent building the organization. Sometimes it is wise – and respectable – for the subordinates to avoid speaking to the senior managers at all unless they are addressed first. Women are equal partners in the American business world. It is therefore respectable to treat the female partners with equal dignity as the male partners. Making inappropriate advances or suggestive remarks or actions should be avoided at all costs. While engaging in conversations with Americans, topics such as religion and politics should be avoided as they are sensitive topics and people have deep-rooted beliefs about them which cannot be changed. Americans enjoy topics such as wealth, sports, current events, business and market trends, and entertainment. These are safe topics that any foreigner can talk about with an American colleague comfortably (O’Keefe and O’Keefe, 2004).

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The Brazilian culture conflicts with the American culture in several ways. These differences are normally a great source of ethnocentrism, parochialism, and misunderstanding between people from these two countries. Americans value time and punctuality is a necessity to survive in the American business world. In fact, not arriving at the scheduled time could force an American counterpart to cancel the meeting altogether. On the other hand, Brazilians are relaxed with time. They argue that arriving a few minutes later than the scheduled time would provide the host with ample time to prepare adequately for the meeting. The Americans also conduct their meetings within the scheduled duration of time; if the meeting was to last one hour, it will last exactly one hour and not a minute earlier or later. On the other hand, the Brazilians are relaxed with the pace at which they conduct their business meetings. Due to their lack of sense of time, negotiations among Brazilians take longer than initially planned for.

The Brazilians also find it tolerable to call off or suspend appointments at the last minute without a forewarning. This is different from the American world whereby any cancellation or postponement plans have to be communicated to the concerned parties days or weeks in advance. Brazilians value courteousness more than Americans do. In Brazil, people use many words while trying to explain a point. If a person says something wrong, his colleague will not correct him in front of others. Instead, he will discuss the issue with him privately. This prevents shaming and embarrassing their colleagues. On the other hand, Americans value people who use few words to make a point. Rebuke is common in Americans’ conversations because they value preciseness more than saving faces. It is therefore common to hear the phrase, “get to the point” in American conversations (O’Keefe and O’Keefe, 2004).

The differences in the values, attributes and behaviors of the Brazilians and Americans can create cultural blinders as well as stereotypical and ethnocentric thoughts that can either hurt or promote one’s effectiveness. It is indeed enticing to arrive at generalized conclusions concerning other cultures especially if those cultures are not our own. This can happen on a large scale when, for instance, people make assumptions about a whole country or even a continent. It is common to hear people talking about the behaviors of the “Westerners” or “Asians.” Such references tend to imply that all people from different regions behave in a certain manner that can easily be identified due to their cultures. Using the examples of Americans and Brazilians, Americans can easily stereotype the Brazilians as “not serious, lazy and unable to tackle difficult issues” due to Brazilians relaxed attitude towards time and their over-reliance on others for sound decisions. Americans, on the other hand, view themselves as efficient, diligent, and capable of tackling difficult situations on their own. These stereotypes and ethnocentric attitudes can hurt Americans’ effectiveness because of their emphasis on achieving goals within a short time period and their individualistic nature which renders them able to make quick decisions on their own without caring about the impact of such decisions on others. On the other hand, the ease of Americans to stereotype Brazilians as “too friendly” results from the emphasis placed by Brazilians on interpersonal relationships even during business meetings (O’Keefe and O’Keefe, 2004, p.619). This stereotype can promote an American’s effectiveness because strong interpersonal relationships are important for the successful accomplishment of business tasks, particularly those involving culturally diverse teams.

Fostering synergy between the two cultures

Given the cultural differences discussed above, it is important for any management of a culturally diverse organization to foster synergy in the organization. Synergy can be fostered in different ways. First, the management should promote interdependence between the managers and the employees by creating more opportunities through which they can work together to achieve mutually desired objectives. Second, the management should promote adaptation which requires both the managers and the employees to adapt to the different cultures and the changing working environment. This would enable both the managers and the employees to be tolerable of each other’s differences. Third, the management should put in place different approaches to existing problems and goals by accommodating suggestions from employees irrespective of their cultural background. Most importantly, the management should put in place a feedback mechanism that would inform the employees of their performance progress and areas of improvement. Creating a culturally synergistic organization however requires that both the management and the employees should be culturally competent (Gudykunskt, 1997, p.331).

Cultural competency ensures that people from different cultures are knowledgeable about their cultural differences, appreciate these differences, and use them to build stronger teams. Because the aspect of time is one of the major cultural differences between Americans and Brazilians, and because time plays an important role in the American business world, American managers can foster synergy through time in several ways. First, both the American managers and the Brazilian employees need to sit down together and discuss their differences in the perceptions and utilization of time. This openness will minimize the possibility of one party having a misunderstanding towards the other party. Once this has been done, both parties should develop norms for their time-related behaviors. In this manner, the aspect of time is made to be part and parcel of the negotiation process and may necessitate both parties to make acceptable adjustments to their perceptions so as to accommodate each other as long as it does not negatively affect the organization’s goals. It is however important to note that synergy cannot be fostered if one party expects the other party to make all the adjustments solely. Both should make the efforts and should meet halfway (Macduff, 2006).

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Values orientation dimensions

The man-nature orientation is based on a human being’s relation to nature. The Brazilians believe that they should cohabit harmoniously with nature so as to reap mutual benefits. As a result, issues such as deforestation are very sensitive to Brazilians. Regarding activity and time orientations, Brazil is a past-oriented society that values past experiences, history, and traditions. The activities of Brazilians revolve around maintaining and nurturing relationships that have been built in the past. Time is not considered to be that important and hence Brazilians are hardly ever punctual for appointments. Rather than a sense of accomplishment, Brazilians highly value interpersonal relationships.

The human nature orientation deals with issues that concern the meaning of humanity and the attributes of being human. Contemporary beliefs are more along the lines that humans are born with a mixture of or the potential for both good and evil. Rationality also falls in this category and deals with the belief that humans are rational and act based on reason. The last factor relating to human nature is the idea that humans are subject to mutability, or subject to change. However, Brazilians are changed and risk-averse and prefer to follow long-held traditions that minimize uncertainty and risk. Relational orientation deals with the relationships of individuals to other people. The US is regarded as the most individualistic culture. The value of individualism in the U.S. is reflected in the belief that individuals should set their own goals and pursue them independently. This is contrary to Brazil which is a collectivist society. Brazilians value their relations with others and do their best to promote the well-being of themselves and of those around them.

Cultural dimensions

There are four cultural dimensions which include: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity/femininity, and individualism/collectivism orientation. O’Keefe and O’Keefe state that, “the power distance dimension can be viewed as the degree to which members of a society accept and acknowledge the hierarchical differences in that society,” (2004, p.619). The Brazilian culture is characterized by a high power distance. The gap between the rich and the poor is wide and continues to grow. In organizations, the high power distance is reflected in the way decisions are made and how people are addressed according to their ranks. Decisions are exclusively made by the top managers without the input of the junior employees. Titles are also very important and it is common for senior ranking officers to be addressed as “Your Excellency.” Uncertainty avoidance measures the degree to which people are willing to take and cope with risks. Brazil has strong uncertainty avoidance. Brazilians often premeditate on a wide range of solutions when faced with a problem. Decisions are also usually made after wide consultation with other people and only after trustworthy relationships have been built. The role of strong and healthy relationships in Brazilians is to avoid facing unexpected frustrations that can come about when dealing with strangers.

Masculinity exemplifies a focus on material things, such as money and success whereas femininity refers to a focus on the quality of life. Brazil is a feministic society. Stringent labor laws and regulations exist to protect the rights of the workers, for instance, the national minimum wage laws. Such laws also make it difficult for business organizations to lay off workers. Businesses are managed with two major objectives: the creation of jobs and sustenance of workers and profit-making. Work is also done to provide a source of livelihood to workers and their families. The working time schedule is also made flexible to enable workers to enjoy life through socialization. This is maternalistic because it emphasizes caring for the needs of the people (O’Keefe and O’Keefe, 2004, p.620). Individualism/collectivism measures the degree to which individuals relate with other members of society. Brazil is a collectivist society because it puts more emphasis on the family and interpersonal relationships than on the bottom line. Family is the center of the culture’s social structure. Many organizations are run and operated by various members of families. When it comes to corrective measures against a wrong committed by an individual, the family plays a crucial role. Sanctions are given privately through private family discussions rather than openly as is the case in American organizations (Adler, 2002, p.187).

Leadership style applicable to Brazilian employees

There are two leadership styles that are applicable to Brazilian employees: participative and people-oriented leadership styles. In participative style, the leader includes the employees in the decisions made for the organization. The employees freely make their suggestions about the problem at hand and how the suggestions can be implemented. However, the final decision is made by the leader after he reviews all the suggestions given by the employees. This leadership style is applicable to Brazilians because their relation with fellow employees and managers is enhanced by engaging them in the decision-making process. In addition, Brazilians look up to the top managers to make the final decision because of the vertical hierarchy structure of their organizations. Closely linked to the participative style is people-oriented leadership. This style is more concerned with creating harmonious relations among the employees by building strong and collaborative teams (Armstrong, 2001). This style is applicable to Brazilians because interpersonal relations are more important to them than the tasks at hand.

Motivation technique

Employees from Brazilian culture can be best motivated through the equity theory of motivation. “The equity theory of motivation is concerned with the perceptions people have about how they are being treated as compared with others, (Armstrong, 2001, p.163). Brazilians value personal relationships more than material things. To motivate such employees, the management should foster interpersonal relationships. This can be done by having the employees do their work as teams rather than as individuals, and increasing opportunities that build teamwork and relationships, for instance, by organizing team-building activities, group lunches, and outings. In addition, the employees should be treated in a consistent manner, should be given feedback concerning their performance, and should be involved in the decision-making process of the organization even if the final decision lies with the management. These strategies would promote social relations among the employees and would motivate them to achieve the set goals.

Ethical standards in American and Brazilian cultures

Ethical standards in Brazil differ from those of the United States because of the differences in the two countries’ cultures. The assessment of the differences in ethical standards between the two countries can be done through the principles of egoism and utilitarianism. According to egoism, the only valid standard of one’s behavior is one’s duty to improve one’s well-being above the welfare of others. Improvement of one’s own enduring concern is perceived as the only valuable purpose and the only determinant of whether an act is ethical or not. Nothing is owed to others or to the organization that one works in (Beekun, Stedham, and Yamamura, 2003). Those who conform to this principle of ethics strongly believe that all human attempts by others are really acts of self-promotion because a person has to help others so as to promote his/her own interests. Brazil is collectivistic whereas the U.S. is individualistic. As discussed earlier, individuals from an individualistic society underscore their families’ and their own interests. As a result, when applying the egoistic principle to determine the ethical standard of a deed or a decision, people from the U.S. are less likely than people from Brazil to view a decision as unethical.

Utilitarianism, on the other hand, “is the moral doctrine that we should always act to produce the greatest possible balance of good over bad for everyone affected by our action,” (Shaw, 1999, p. 49). Although utilitarians also assess action in terms of its outcome, a deed is ethical if it leads to the maximum benefit for the greatest number of people. Matters of self-interest are not relevant since actions are evaluated according to one basic standard: the general benefit. Utilitarianism has long been linked with social enhancement and the promotion of decisions that serve the best interest of society at large. Brazil is a collectivistic society. People from a collectivistic society make decisions that promote the greatest benefit for the majority of the members of the society. As a result, when using the utilitarian principle to evaluate the ethical matter of a deed, people from Brazil are less probable than people from the U.S. to perceive a decision as unethical. This evaluation however implies that when each ethical principle is assessed independently, individuals from diverse national cultures will differ in their judgment of the ethical matter of an action (Beekun, Stedham, and Yamamura, 2003).

References

  1. Adler, N. (2002). International dimensions of Organizational Behavior. Cincinnati, OH: South-western.
  2. Armstrong, M. (2001). A handbook of human resource management practice (8th ed.). London: Kogan Page Limited.
  3. Beekun, R.I., Stedham, Y. and Yamamura. (2003). Business ethics in Brazil and the U.S.: A comparative investigation. Journal of Business Ethics, 42(3), 267.
  4. Gudykunst, W.B. (1997). Cultural variability in communication: an introduction. Communication Research, 24, 327-348.
  5. Macduff, I. (2006). Your pace or mine? Culture, time and negotiation. Negotiation Journal, 22(1), 31-45.
  6. O’Keefe, H. and O’Keefe, W.M. (2004). Business behaviors in Brazil and the U.S.A: Understanding the gaps. International Journal of Social Economics, 31(5/6), 614.
  7. Shawn, W.H. (1999). Business ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
  8. Turner, W. and Kleiner, B.H. (2001). What managers must know to conduct business in Brazil. Management Research News, 24(3/4), 72-75.
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