Traveling to Rio de Janeiro can be daunting. Beyond the language barrier (as Brazilians speak Portuguese), there are also cultural differences. Now that they’ve lifted the visa requirement for American travel to Brazil, perhaps more people will get to experience life there. And I hope these tips are helpful in interacting with Cariocas (people from Rio de Janeiro) and understanding Brazilian culture.
(1) A definitive “No” can be considered rude.
“We’ll see” and “Perhaps” are very common answers for questions when Cariocas don’t want to hurt your feelings or seem rude. Remember to always soften your no with grace. “Unfortunately, I don’t think I can…” Black women especially need to remember this particular social grace.
(2) Arriving early is rude (although being TOO late is rude too).
Rio time is super different than any other time. Its a version of casual lateness that is even wilder than CPT (google it). So when your friend invites you to a dinner party, do not arrive early “to help”, that is considered rude and tacky. But arriving right on time is not advised either. There is this weird balance that only they seem to understand about what time to arrive at things without being considered rude. Rio time.
(3) Smiling at strangers in passing is considered strange.
If I make eye contact with a stranger on the street in Atlanta it is super common to say “good morning” or simply to smile at them. This behavior is considered strange and can be a dead giveaway that you are a tourist. Cariocas will make eye contact, hold it for an uncomfortable amount of time and never crack a smile before directing their eyes somewhere else.
(4) Cariocas are forever unimpressed.
When I travel to Rio, I typically get really excited about samba classes, parading in carnaval, visiting some not-so-touristy locales. And I’m always deflated by Cariocas because they will nod and say “oh yes, you should enjoy that” or “that’s nice.” Even their wows or nossas seems lackluster. So no matter what you’re excited about, be prepared for a Carioca to nod in mock excitement. It doesn’t mean they aren’t happy for you to experience their city, they just don’t find the same things interesting.
(5) Not every Brazilian wants to move to America.
It is a common idea that everyone wants to move to the land of opportunity, but you’ll find in Rio that not everyone does. A lot of American men travel to Rio and they think EVERY woman who pays any attention to them is a gringo-hunter or after a green-card. But the reality you will find is that a lot of them want their American partners to move to Rio instead. It is no secret that life in America is all about working with a small amount of vacation. But in Rio, they understand a different quality of life can be achieved there.
(6) Small talk is super important.
Salutations and pleasantries are super important in this culture. In America, as long as you greet someone first, you can go directly into the business and particulars for your intended contact. In Rio, there will be a long surface-level conversation before they ever get around to asking about the business at hand. Even via text message this rule applies.
(7) Whatsapp is the only form of text message that matters.
Do not waste your time sending regular SMS texts in Rio, because unlike in America, SMS texting in Brazil is not free. So you’ll need to download WhatsApp if you want to text anyone anything. In fact, its the main mode of communication for Carnaval business. No one has websites or LinkedIn or business cards. And even if they have a business that is registered with google, the information will likely not be accurate. You can WhatsApp places for details about their business, but don’t forget to start with a pleasant salutation.
(8) The way you dress says a lot about your societal status.
Rio is a very casual place, but appearances are still very important. Not just your personal grooming and body fitness, but also your wardrobe. Even though no one ever REALLY dresses up, certain styles can make you look like you come from “the community” and others from “the asphalt”. The community is a polite way to say “favela”, which is largely a poor or working-class community started by squatters out of a need to live near their work. And saying “the asphalt” is a way to convey the idea that something or someone is not from or located in a favela. Just as a note: It is easier for me to spot a man from the favela than a woman. This could be a whole blog post in itself, but there are books that can describe this far better than I can.
(9) Thong bikinis and speedos are NOT considered racy.
Thong bikinis are standard in Rio de Janeiro. Anything else is considered a diaper. They aren’t just for young, sexy, fit models. Very young girls wear them, as do older women. EVERYONE wears them, even if they have a cover-up (a canga) over their bottom. While board shorts are becoming more popular, the male swimsuit (sunga) is pretty small also and very popular. Old and young alike wear these at the beach and no one is body-shamed.
(10) Sometimes the rudest behaviors are considered acceptable (if not polite).
As a Southerner (ATLien), saying “please” and “thank you” comes second nature. And when dealing with strangers, my level of politeness can be heightened, which is the norm in Atlanta. However, in Rio, saying to a stranger “would you mind…” before asking for some banal or simple task like passing a straw, will earn you a strange stare. In fact, by-and-large you will hear people use the command tense when asking for things. Give me a napkin. Grab that bag. Move out of the way. And the crazy thing for me is that it is not considered rude. Sometimes you’ll get a thank you after, most of the time not. And Cariocas don’t bat an eye. Pay attention to social queues.
None of these surprises should stop you from enjoying your time, but they might spark questions if no one talks to you about them. I always recommend making connections in Rio before you travel there to maximize your experience and have your questions answered about Brazilian culture. If you’d like to see more, share this blog post!