by Craig Storti

“Brazil is the country of the future,” Charles degaulle once famously opined, “and always will be.” For years it has been Brazil’s future, in the form of its abundant and undeveloped natural resources, and not its presentin the form of political, social, and financial turmoil—that has interested keen Brazil-watchers. But now, in 2010, Brazil’s future may have arrived at last. A photo of Rio graces the cover of The Economist even as this column is being written, with a headline proclaiming “Brazil takes off.” Inside, the lead article announces that “sometime in the decade after 2014… Brazil is likely to become the world’s fifth-largest economy, overtaking Britain and France” [November 14th, p. 15].

There are many aspects of Brazil’s culture that outsiders need to be aware of if they seek smooth working relations and successful engagements with Brazilian colleagues and partners, but at the top of the list is surely the somewhat relaxed attitude toward time (sometimes called hora Latina in Spanish-speaking Latin America). While the laid-back Latin attitude toward time is something of a cliché, like all clichés, it contains a kernel of truth.

Attitudes toward time are influenced by a number of cultural factors, but there are two in particular to be aware of. The first is the concept of “locus of control” that we introduced two issues ago in our column on Russia. We noted at that time that one of the dimensions on which cultures differ widely is the notion of how much control individuals have over what happens in life. The two extremes between which all cultures fall are the “internalists” who believe that what happens in life is mostly up to us, and the “externalists” who believe that many things in life are beyond anyone’s control. Internalists believe people can control most outcomes; externalists believe that we should do all we can to control outcomes, but we won’t always succeed.

Needless to say, internalists (such as North Americans) and externalists (such as Brazilians) think about schedules and deadlines in different ways: internalists believe schedules and deadlines can always be met because whatever happens, we can control the circumstances, hence the outcome. Externalists likewise make schedules and set deadlines, but sometimes they have to be changed due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control; occasionally things “just happen.” North Americans get quite exercised when schedules have to be adjusted and deadlines pushed back because, from an internalist perspective, there’s really no reason that should ever happen.

A second key factor influencing attitudes toward time, especially the importance of staying on schedule, is the whole notion of how much time we have available to us. In North America we don’t have very much time; it’s quite sad, but all we get is 24 hours in any given day, and that’s not nearly enough time for all the things we have to do. As a result, we are obsessed with using the limited time we have as efficiently as possible, organizing it in tight schedules that must be adhered to, come hell or high water. This is why being late is so serious in north america, because it means wasting people’s time, of which they don’t have nearly enough to begin with.

“Internalists believe schedules and deadlines can always be met because whatever happens, we can control the circumstances, hence the outcome. Externalists likewise make schedules and set deadlines, but sometimes they have to be changed due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control; occasionally things “just happen.”

In Brazil (and much of Latin America), they have plenty of time. It’s the same solar system, of course, so as a matter of fact Brazilians only have 24 hours in their day too, but that’s not a problem because Brazil is what is called a “particularist” culture. Particularist cultures (as opposed to universalist cultures like the U.S.) divide the world into ingroup and outgroup, and they treat the former very differently from the latter. You have numerous obligations and responsibilities towards your ingroup—family, extended family, friends of family, and honorary “family,” such as trusted business associates—and no obligations or responsibilities whatsoever to the rest of the world, also known as the “outgroup,” who, of course, recognize no obligations or responsibilities to you.

One effect of this ingroup/outgroup distinction is that particularists feel they only owe their time to the limited circle of people belonging to their ingroup; they are dividing their time among a small subset of people, in other words, so it feels like they have more of it. Universalists, as the term is meant to imply, do not make clear ingroup/outgroup distinctions and believe you should treat everyone equally; in a universalist culture, therefore, everyone ultimately has a claim on your time (as you do on theirs), so you feel like you have much less time. Even universalists have a pecking order—there are some people you call back before others, some people you will arrange to meet with before others, some people who get more of your time than others—but there is no one who has no claim on your time.

So what’s a time-obsessed, time-strapped North American supposed to do? The first step is to understand where Brazilians are coming from, and this article can help you with that. That’s not to say that once you understand what’s behind the Brazilian view of time, you’ll suddenly calm down and no longer be bothered by it. You will still be bothered by it, still wish Brazilians didn’t act that way, but at least you will realize that they aren’t trying to bother you, that Brazilians have not deliberately adopted a different attitude toward time because they know it drives North Americans crazy. When you realize there is no intent behind behavior you find frustrating, it takes the sting out of the situation and helps you get over it more quickly.

Good. So now at least you’re not quite so upset. What next? you need to find ways to engage with Brazilians that somehow accommodate their time sense and still allow you to meet your deadline. Here are four suggestions:

  • Be sure to model the behavior you’re looking for. In all of your dealings with Brazilians, be sure to meet their deadlines.
  • Build some extra time into your schedule to begin with. If you really need the deliverable by the middle of the month, worst case, then tell Brazilians you need it by the first of the month.
  • Make sure Brazilians understand what the consequences of a missed deadline are in your culture. If you don’t, they’ll assume they know what a missed deadline means—i.e., what it means in Brazilian culture, which is, well…not very much, and, happens all the time. If Brazilians realize a missed deadline will be harmful to your best interests, they won’t want to cause trouble for you.
  • Make it clear you’ll do anything you can to help them meet your deadline. This is key, because when things happen that are beyond their control, you can step in and exert your control.

As we said at the outset, much has changed in Brazil just in the last decade, and one of those things is a significant increase in foreign investment and multi-national joint ventures. Many younger Brazilians are used to working with northern hemisphere types and understand the time issue. So take everything we have said above with a grain of salt. Some Brazilians will have a “problem” with time, and others will be as time-conscious as any North American. In the end, deal with the Brazilians who are standing in front of you, not the ones you read about in places like this.

Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together with North Americans and western Europeans. He can be contacted at: [email protected].