Despite overall growth stagnating in the country in recent years, Brazil is still one of the biggest economies in South America. The country's role as host of the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, along with policy changes, have resulted in a solid foundation for it to remain competitive in the future. As part of these changes, the state has especially focused on technological advancement, industrial development and creating a friendlier environment for expats doing business in Brazil.
Brazil did however do poorly in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020, ranking 124th out of 190 economies. In some sections, though, Brazil did achieve a respectable ranking, such as in enforcing contracts (58th), but expats should be aware that tax in Brazil can be difficult to navigate, with the country ranked at 184th when it comes to paying taxes.
Business hours are often from 8.30am to 5.30pm. However, executive staff tend to work from 9am or 10am until after 5.30pm. Most businesses close during holidays and festivities. This is especially the case for Carnival.
The business language in Brazil is Portuguese. It is worth noting that Brazilian Portuguese can differ significantly from the Portuguese spoken in Portugal, while differences in regional dialects within the country are minimal enough to be understood. Expats should consider using an interpreter for meetings.
Business attire in Brazil is generally formal and elegant. Appearances are important and are seen to convey a person’s self-worth, as well as how much respect one has for others. Overdressing is preferable to being too casual.
When invited to a colleague’s home, expats should bring flowers or a small gift for the hostess. Purple and black gifts should be avoided as they are traditionally mourning colours. Good quality alcohol is a safe bet, especially for dinners. Gifts are usually opened when they are received.
Traditional gender roles are still very prominent in Brazilian culture. Machismo is something that expat women will have to get used to, whether in a social or work environment. Women are under-represented in executive positions. While they are usually treated with respect, they will often have to work harder to maintain the respect of their colleagues and business associates.
Expats should greet their colleagues with a firm handshake and eye contact. Women should extend their hand first when wanting to shake hands with a man. Women generally air kiss when greeting each other, starting on the left.
Business culture in Brazil
Unsurprisingly, given its size, there are significant regional differences in Brazilian business culture that expats should be aware of. The business environment in São Paulo is known for being formal. Businesspeople from the region value objectivity, honesty and technical skills.
Attitude towards time
In some ways, Rio de Janeiro is known for being more relaxed, especially when it comes to punctuality. People from the city tend to be more image-conscious and focused on short-term results. These differences are somewhat muted at multinational companies which are more similar to European business environments.
Expats who want to get ahead in the Brazilian business world should make an effort to learn how to communicate at the level of locals. The language of business is Portuguese, which is spoken by most of the population. Non-verbal communication also plays an important role. Interactions are often full of gestures and can be very physical, accompanied by long, firm handshakes, air-kissing and slapping on the back. Personal space is not especially sacred. People who are overly reserved are likely to be seen as aloof or odd.
The physical nature of interactions in the Brazilian workplace has a lot to do with the emphasis on personal relationships in the national culture. A lot of value is placed on the traditional family structure and friendships, which has various effects on the business world.
It follows that Brazilian people usually prefer face-to-face meetings over phone calls and written communication. The emphasis on personal relationships, even in the business environment, also means business is often conducted through personal connections. As such, nepotism is an accepted reality that many expats will have to contend with.
Brazilian business tends to be hierarchical, with age, experience and etiquette all being highly respected. Expats would do well to avoid criticising others (especially senior figures) at meetings, which would cause them to lose face. Given that it is a culture that puts a high value on social groups, an expat’s outsider status is likely to come into sharp focus in conflict situations.
In contrast, building relationships and friendly communication are very important. People take precedence over appointments. This is not a licence to be late but it does mean that expats should greet their associates properly, be willing to engage in banter and allow their hosts to initiate talking business.
Dos and don’ts of business in Brazil
Do be on time but don’t get impatient with Brazilian associates who happen to run late
Do arrange meetings well in advance
Do try to speak some Portuguese – it will be well received by local associates
Don’t talk about the wealth gap or the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest
Do be informal but not overly familiar, especially at first and until trust has been built