Thursday, January 6, 2011

What is Bluntness, really...

I noticed, last night, a little difference in bluntness between Brazilians and Americans.

Now, I know I've been quoted as saying that Brazilians are passive aggressive when it comes to interactions with others. You can ask a Brazilian friend to come to your party and they will ALWAYS say yes, or some derivative of yes.  That does not mean, in any sense of the word, that they will actually show up. 

"Come to my party on Friday!" Brazilian answer: "Of course! That'll be great! Let's totally do that!  I do have to check with my husband but of course we will come. We may have a dinner at my parent's house but we could swing by afterward.  But sure! We'll be there!"  And then they never show up...

And it works with everything.  Brazilians hate the word no, so much so that it was actually suggested to me that I don't use the word no when disciplining my children.  I should rephrase everything because the word no would squash their little psyches. 

Yeah, I'm American. That's not going to fly. No comes out of me before I even consider the question. Once that no is stated, I have space in my little brain to consider the other options.  And if I am going to say something, it's going to flow out as blunt and disorganized as my thought process. 

I can't help it.  We Americans can be verbal vomiters.  We say what we think. If you invite us to a party and we don't want to go, we politely say 'No, I can't. I've had a hard week and need to rest.'  or 'Maybe we could get together next weekend.'  Don't get me wrong, we aren't rude about it. But we're also not leaving people waiting. That's because Americans will wait, will get pissed, and will call you out on it.  But then that's a whole different blog post.

But there is one area in which there is a switch.  A total trade in bluntness and directness between Americans and Brazilians.  It happens when discussing personal issues.  Take this situation for example:

My husband and I were at a street party with a group of his friends, my Mother-in-Law, and a couple of her friends. We were sitting around the table having beers. This was soon after my move to Brazil and I understood little to nothing of what was going on. 

That's when my husband's friend turned and asked me in his broken, yet very understandable English "So how are you feeling? Mr. Rant says that you have a bladder infection" 

Call me insecure but I was embarrassed at the time. If only I had half the indifference I do now, I would have replied "I'm doing well. My doctor suggested to stop having so much sex with my husband and to urinate afterward when we do."

Of course, the shock of the fact that they were all discussing my bladder infection over beers, right there at a street party, was a bit much for me. 

I just couldn't see that happening at home. 

And the Brazilian personal information bombs can happen at any time!  I have heard "We never have sex anymore." "I have this itch." "Do you think this is weird..." "It's just ______and he/she is so embarrassed by it." "Do you guys like anal?" "I think I'm going to leave him" etc etc

And this is not with close personal friends. Just people I know.  

Personal information overload. And personally, this does not help me at all. I already suffer from sharing Too Much Information.  Now, I'm just a walking billboard sharing anything and everything going on in my life.  Hell, I even have a blog.

And I love that.  I love that it's ok to actually tell people the nitty gritty. Heaven forbid you say you don't want to go to beers but you can bust out that you have to get your hemorrhoids cut out.  I bet who ever you tell will even visit you at the hospital. 

There's just something almost romantic about it.  Still playing hard to get and yet sharing at the same time. 

It's like the matrix of conversation. 


  1. This just left me laughing. I love this sort of story where you really get to understand or know something about another culture. As a matter of fact I sort of collect them, having lived in a number of foreign countries.

    Remember, even if you loosen up about exposing your personal tales in public in Brazil, be careful not to do it when you're back in the US !

  2. I don't know if I agree that Brazilians say "yes" when they mean "no" any more than Americans do. I think Americans are also pretty darn passive-aggressive when it comes to "no" in general, and turning down invitations, specifically.

    I will say that I see kind of extremes when it comes to customer service in Brazil. Like if I ask someone for information at a Brazilian business, and they don't know or the answer is "no", they'll either lie (to avoid saying "no"), or give me a very blunt "NÃO" and totally give up on the conversation. What you usually get in the US is "Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry, I have no idea, wish I could help!" and lots of extra and unnecessary apologies.

    But the personal information thing in Brazil is hard for me. I'm happy that you've embraced it, but I still get embarrassed. Now imagine being married to a doctor... people are no-holds-barred in conversations with the two of us (hello! free consult!).

    I've learned that the trick is to get people talking about themselves to avoid their asking very personal questions, if you don't want them.

    That's always really hard with the dead fish girls, however. You know the ones I'm talking about.

  3. I have to say, i heard of and experienced A LOT of the yes noes. Maybe it's a Rio thing. Same with he customer service. My experience is the opposite. They are more than happy to say no and then go away. Again, maybe it's Rio. Blame it on Rio ;)

    Footloose: glad you liked it! Will keep keep that in mind

  4. I definitely have had to get used to the yes (probably not) dynamic. It's within our circle of family and friends. I would not extrapolate to service workers - they are happy to say no-goodbye, IMHE

  5. I think you're right on this. After many years of being too direct (honest), and apparently coming off harsh, especially when family is concerned, I now say "vamos ver" or "talvez" even when I know it's an absolute "NO" for me. And I am so used to the "yes, we'll absolutely do that, we'll be there" and then the flake, many times even without a phone call to cancel..but on the flip side, I'm also used to the super-spontaneous, "hey, we're coming over", with 10 minutes to prepare for such visits (which are OFTEN!). All this terribly annoyed me several years ago but now, I am surprisingly flexible and up for it. Go figure. Rio has definitely made me more social, more patient and mostly a less uptight person. I don't really plan all that much, I just go with it, whatever it is. And it's usually quite fun.

  6. After reading all comments above I came to the conclusion that I am an uptight person. I lived in Rio until 8 y. old and then came back for my studies when I was 18. My parents/family are not from Rio, So I do not consider me that carioca either.
    Once I invited for my birthday a friend over the phone. She didn't want to answer with a "yes" or "no" to my invitation. Her explanation: "I do not know how my mood is going to be on that date. How can I know that ? Maybe I will have a date with a guy I have an eye on, maybe I will be too tired..." I replied, amused: "I will not be counting you then..." She got pissed off, because she insisted to have all option open.

  7. Is that a picture of Tom Waits?

  8. Being from Sao Paulo I haven't experienced the issue with the YES that actually means NO.
    We have one aunt that never comes to our parties...but we know her and she is absolutely the exception...
    Maybe this specific thing is a Rio thing...
    I also agree with Danielle, there are people in the US that are flakes as well...
    Paulistas are also a little bit more reserved about their personal information. I wouldn't say uptight because people are open among close friends and or family.
    About being personal regarding your own information I will tell you NEW ENGLANDERS are pretty open among close friends...SUPER open if you ask me...We were out a couple weeks ago and two of our neighbor/friends were talking about their husbands wanting less and less sex and one of them shared that the husband is having erection problems...We are NOT uptight up here, I will tell you that...both husbands were at the other end of the table...talking POLITICS...I was in the middle of the table and could hear the women openly discussing SEX while the men gladiated over Universal Health Care. Yes, we have one neighbor that watches Glen Beck all day and we are about the get him a straight jacket...
    Coincidentaly it's the same guy with erection issues...maybe you shouldn't watch too much Glen Beck or Fox News for that matter ;)
    I still think the YES when you mean NO is more of a Rio has to be, I have never heard of this in Sao Paulo...or Curitiba or Santa Catarina where I have many friends...


    Hope you are finding a way to keep warm and entertained with the kids ;)

  9. The Yes instead of No thing is one of my biggest pet peeves here.

    My husband does it ALL the time and it drives me nuts. If someone invites us somewhere and we already have plans my husband always replies "yes, of course! We'll see you there" even when he knows its 100% certain we won't be. (Ex. we went away for New Years but my husband accepted at least 15 different invitations for things in Rio that night).

    I also get really let down by it. You expect people to come over. You cook. You end up with an empty house.

    At least in Brazil the house never stays empty for long... Open the window, let the smell of food waft out and within 10minutes you have a bunch of neighbors inviting themselves in! :)

  10. People do this in Mexico, too, and it drives me CRAZY! I'm more aware of it now so sometimes I catch it, but frequently I forget, and then I get upset later. :-(