Cross-Cultural Communication in Brazil by William Smith

Did you have a hard time communicating with host country nationals when you arrived? Share an example. Did you adjust your communication strategies in response? How?

When I first arrived in São Paulo, everything was different- the time zone, the temperature, the altitude, and the language.  Despite the best wishes of the travel doctor that I visited prior to leaving for my semester abroad, I wasn’t able to sleep well on the plane.  By the time that my plane had landed at 5:00AM, I was tired and groggy, but nevertheless excited to take on my latest adventure.  All was going swimmingly at the airport and in the taxi ride to my apartment deep in the heart of São Paulo.  I had somehow figured out the correct bairro (neighborhood) where I was to live – Bela Vista- and I was already practicing my Portuguese with the cabbie who told me all about the three most important São Paulo football clubs – Corinthians, Palmeiras, and FC São Paulo, and I already began to feel like a local.

After my hour-long cab ride came to an end, I thanked him for his conversation and wished him well, and I exited with my four massive pieces of luggage that I was to use for my five months in Brazil.  In São Paulo, especially in the nicer neighborhoods, every high rise has a two-gate system, to keep out burglars, as well as a 24-hour guard on duty.  No matter the hour, you have to be buzzed in by the guard that sees you entering – no key, no fob, no scanner – just the guard.  As I prepared to walk up to the gate, at first I was confused by the 12-foot wrought-iron fence standing before me with no keyhole in sight.  I then saw a panel with a big large button, which I decided was what I needed to press.

After a few rings, I heard the voice of whom I presumed to be a middle-aged female guard, but I did not understand a word of what she was saying.  In reality, I had never practiced Portuguese outside of the United States, and I sometimes struggled with my listening comprehension.  At this point, 6:30AM on a Thursday morning, my brain wasn’t functioning on full sleep, and I honestly could not understand a word.  I tried my best to explain my situation and my living arrangements in the apartment complex, yet the guard simply couldn’t understand me.  The guard finally hung up the phone.  So, there I was, alone in a foreign world, already experiencing a dilemma.  Logically, I called back on the phone, and she picked up again, and I tried explaining to her my apartment number, and she put two and two together and called one of my new housemates, Monize, to come down and help out with translation.

Long story short, Monize, my wonderful Brazilian flatmate, used her limited English and my broken Portuguese to get me into the complex, and finally to bring my bags up to my new apartment.  What a first two hours in my new world! I was scared, nervous, cold, tired, and frankly confused.  Yet, my flatmate, one of three, was willing to help me out when I was in a tough spot.

Five months later, all of the security guards knew me by the name “O americano,” but I was able to converse with them and could understand them perfectly.  I spent four months working in a structured credit office where only Portuguese was spoken, and I felt comfortable maneuvering all around the second largest city in the Western Hemisphere.  Eventually, I even became the resident translator for some of my European friends at FGV.  At the end of the day, I learned so much about resilience, cultural differences, language barriers, and friendship.  When it was finally time to leave in December, Monize decided that it was time for her to tell me what the security guard had told her over the phone on my first day in Brazil: “Monize, please come down to translate for this poor boy at the gate.  I’m doing my best to understand him, but I’m fairly certain that he’s speaking in Greek.”


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