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Small Courtesies

During a recent visit to Brazil with two colleagues, we noticed something interesting: Each time we entered a Sao Paulo taxi, the driver quickly tuned the radio to 101.7 FM.

This happened when our regular Brazilian long-distance driver, Silvano, picked us up for a 100-mile journey, but also whenever we hailed a cab on the street or used one that was flagged down by a hotel doorman. Silvano had already tuned the radio to 101.7 when we entered the car. The other drivers needed only a few minutes apiece before they did the same.

That particular station plays a steady diet of American pop music. The announcers speak Portuguese, but nearly all of the lyrics are English - which none of the drivers, except Silvano, happened to speak. Tuning the radio to an American-oriented station was not for their benefit; it was for ours.

It took some time for me to notice this was happening. When I finally recognized it for what it was, I was struck by how consistently the Brazilian drivers did this for us. You might have thought there was a municipal law requiring it, or that they were trying for an extra-large tip. But there is no such regulation in Sao Paulo, and taxi tipping in Brazil is not the big-ticket affair that it tends to be in places like New York. Even tips Americans view as standard tend to draw extravagant thanks.

This practice was nothing more than simple hospitality. I speak only a little Portuguese, and my accent probably has the pleasing tonal qualities of a cement mixer. Half the time I can’t make myself understood even when I use the proper words, because I mangle the pronunciation, the grammar or both. My traveling companions spoke even less Portuguese than I. It did not take any of the drivers very long to figure out where we came from.

Once I recognized what the drivers were doing. I understood that this was wholly in character with the Brazilian culture I have come to know. Despite my limited facility with the language, I have gone to Brazil nearly every year, and sometimes twice a year, for the past 17 years. Each business trip usually lasts four or five days, and there have also been a couple of two-week vacations. I have learned that Brazilians are typically warm, welcoming, friendly people, intensely focused on family. Every time I go there, I remind myself how much I enjoy the country and its populace.

This might surprise you if your only knowledge of Brazil comes from newscasts that emphasize crime, poverty, government corruption and street demonstrations. All of these are present, and they are difficult facts of life for Brazilians of all social classes. But Brazil is not a place where people huddle behind their doors, isolating themselves for protection. That is an American habit.

Brazilians go out and socialize. They go out a lot, and they go out late – ridiculously late, by our standards. At 10 p.m., roughly the hour I typically get ready to call it a night, Brazilian restaurants are just beginning their peak hours. Their dining areas are often open-air patios, cooled by gentle night breezes and full of lively conversation until the small hours of the morning. This is as true of upscale steakhouses as of tiny neighborhood snack bars (“lanchonetes” in local parlance, because in Brazil “lanch” means a snack, while the meal we call lunch is almoco).

Brazilians who know even a little English will try to use it with any American they meet, to be friendly as well as to practice. If you pause on the sidewalk in front of a shop window, a sales clerk is liable to come to the door to greet you. If you enter, even in a modest shop, you will likely be offered coffee and water, often served with a small cookie. It’s not meant as sales pressure, just as hospitality.

At the offices of any large Brazilian company there is likely to be someone - often but not always a woman - whose principal function is to circulate around the office, all day, offering refreshments to any staff member or visitor who might want some. In the U.S. some people would probably consider it demeaning to have an office job that mainly involves serving coffee (though at Starbucks, we call them baristas). It certainly would not make much economic sense. But the position that my friends and I call the “coffee lady” is a custom that lingers in Brazil.

Here in the States, the mostly Haitian taxi drivers near my Fort Lauderdale home tune to radio stations that broadcast in Creole, whether I am in the car or not. We mostly fix our own coffee in cups that are five times the size of the ones in Brazil, though Brazilian coffee is about five times as strong as ours and comes with a cookie. It was hard to get offered a cup of coffee in an American office anymore, at least until K-cups came into vogue.

Yet we have our own ways of extending small courtesies. In many places, we smile at strangers we meet on the street and say hello. (I had to adjust to this custom as a teenager when I moved from New York City, where this practice was unknown, to Montana, where it was expected.) We reserve the best parking spaces and subway seats for people who really need them. We don’t do well with foreign languages (except for our Spanish speakers), but if we see a stranger who is lost, most of us will go out of our way to see that they get where they need to be.

A few days ago my wife had to spend more than 30 minutes on hold to straighten out a billing issue with Bloomingdales. The customer service representative who finally helped her gave her the price adjustment she wanted, and then made an extra $60 reduction (it was a fairly expensive item) just to apologize for taking too much of her time.

She will remember that. Even I will remember that, and I’m not a big shopper, at Bloomingdales or anyplace else. When it comes to building goodwill with strangers, small courtesies can make a big difference.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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