Culture vs Bad Behavior: An Expat in Brazil Wonders Where The Line is Drawn

the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social action
the total range of activities and ideas of a group of people with shared traditions, which are transmitted and reinforced by members of the group: the Mayan culture 

I imagine that one’s own culture will always be a sensitive topic when outsiders decide to comment on it. It’s like having a complete stranger walk into your house and give you an assessment of what is working and not working in your living arrangements. The phrase, “Who asked you?” is not totally unwarranted.

That said, I think there are exceptions to this rule which do permit someone who is an outsider to give their opinions.

First, if you are having to co-inhabit a space over an extended period of time then you have every right to express what you think needs improvement. Your life is being directly affected by the decisions of the original inhabitant.

Second, even if you aren’t co-inhabiting the same space but it is being managed in such a way that makes it nearly impossible to ignore, you have the right to speak up. Think of a neighbor who has used their front yard to set up the most beautiful garden you have ever seen, or the neighbor who uses their front yard as a makeshift trash dump. At some point, your impulse will be to comment on both.

Finally, and the most obvious, I believe an opinion is warranted if you are specifically asked to give one. Whoever asked must be prepared to get the good news with the bad though.

I follow these simple rules of thumb when talking about Brazil. I say good things, I say bad things, and I feel no shame in doing either because I would expect the same criteria to be followed if someone were talking about me or my culture.

That brings me to a conversation I had with an American and his Brazilian companion a little while back. She asked me directly what I thought of Brazil. This is usually a danger zone area, so I tried to be as polite as possible but at the same time tell her how I actually felt.

“There are good points but there are also some definite bad points – the sort of things which I have never seen before in my life,” I said.

This led to a healthy debate about whether or not I was trying to impose my cultural values (coming from America) on a nation, and whether that attitude was imperialistic.


I thought that was a valid critique on her part. After all, I was only born here, but I did not grow up here and my view of the world was formed by my American upbringing. It is nearly impossible to not have some American bias when expressing my feelings on how Brazil should be run. However, this led me to think about something completely different: Where does one draw the line between “culture” and “bad behavior?” Furthermore, if one insists that the bad behavior is part of the culture, than is it fair to say that that person or nation has bad cultural parameters. And lastly, where does Brazil fall in that equation: is it their behavior or their culture which is bad.

To be clear, I define bad behavior as anything that causes direct or indirect measurable harm to either another person, society at large, and the environment. Littering, stealing, lying, abuse of authority, and other things of that nature fall into my definition of bad behavior. I can say in good faith that it is bad behavior and not culture, because many nations have moved past some of these behaviors while still maintaining the best of their culture.

First I thought of other expats whom I have had contact with down here to gauge their thoughts on the matter and make sure that I wasn’t alone in thinking some of the behavior here is outrageous. Then I spoke to other Brazilians to see how they felt about their own country. By and large, they said nearly the same thing, “The country is nice but ethics isn’t really a word that’s thrown around a lot.”

All these people had appreciate the positives of living in Brazil but can’t comprehend why so many people act the way that they do here. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a pedestrian who refuses to throw trash in the bin and other times it’s the Brazilian obsession with trying to find shortcuts where there are none, eventually creating bigger problems (or even tragedies) for someone else down the line.

The list of negative things that Brazilians do feels so endless that the question lingered:

“Is it possible that this bad behavior is part of Brazilian culture?”

Well, to start, I do come away with the feeling that Brazil does indeed have a lot of great culture. There is wonderful music, food, architecture, art, and folklore to explore. The problem is that Brazil also has a lot of bad behavior that is excused in the name of culture and to be sensitive to the feelings of a whole nation, no one who wasn’t born and raised here wants to say anything about. This attitude needs to change if we truly want to see change.

Being raised in The United States, I feel embarrassed by American travelers who run around the world thinking they own a place and talking down to people. That isn’t “American culture” – that is bad American behavior. It doesn’t offend me one bit if someone calls it out.

I also know very well that my city of Philadelphia is a bit rough around the edges. So, I don’t get upset when people talk about how fat we are or that we booed Santa Claus – that’s bad behavior. The thing with about behavior, though, is that it can be altered while maintaining the wonderful culture and history of location.

Likewise, I can look at some nations I have never been to that subjugate women, kill homosexuals, persecute people of other faiths, and can say without wavering, “That is bad behavior.” And if a nation’s goal is to truly infuse this bad behavior into ones culture and transmit it from generation to generation then I have no qualms (nor fear of the PC brigade) to call it bad culture.

So, yes, Brazil, you either have a case of really bad behavioral norms or your culture is just bad. It’s up to you to decide what it’s going to be because your future depends on it.

Personally, I tend to believe it’s the former, as I meet plenty of Brazilians everyday who are wonderful people and who really represent the best in Brazilian culture. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of other out there who a good friend of mine likes to describe as having a “weak moral fiber.” They are like dung atop a Monet, painting a negative picture of the country where there could be plenty of positives.  

There has to come a time when Brazilians must look themselves in the mirror and ask whether it’s really worth the hassle doing some of the things that they do, and think about the consequences of those actions on other people and the country as a whole.

Is it really worth the extra bucks to pull one over on a friend? Is it worth the damage to the environment to keep littering? Is it worth some government aid to keep electing people who rob you in plain sight? Is it worth the enjoyment to blast your music for the whole neighborhood to hear when a mother who has worked all day to feed her kids can’t sleep because of your noise? Is it worth your time to not read books or to not stop to think about the affect of your actions ten years down the line? Is it worth any of it to act like life is just a game where you must come out the winner at all costs – even if the gains, like in any gambling sport, are short-lived.

Brazil has a lot going for it. It was dubbed, “The country of the future,” many years ago, but it seems to never get its act together long enough to ever reach that gloried future.

Brazilian like Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sonia Braga, Kobra, Milton Nascimento, and Vik Muniz have traveled the world and stood side by side with some of the world’s greatest in their respective fields. Brazilian scientists have worked at NASA and some of the medical discoveries here are potentially world changing. Brazilian dance and cuisine is known far and wide. Oscar Niemeyer and Lina Bo Bardi are globally recognized as some of the greatest architects to ever live. Brazilian works of literature have also been translated into hundreds of languages and enjoyed by millions. In short, Brazil does not lack in the culture department.

What holds the country back is its inability to take itself seriously and to constantly blame others for its woes. It’s this inability that makes one look at a polluted river and only blame the government but not see where their own actions had an effect. It’s this inability that allows for some in the country to never choose the long hard road but instead choose to trod listlessly down the “Brazilian way”. Here is my hope that Brazil does better in the years to come and that when they ask “What do you think of Brazil?” to a foreigner, they are willing to accept the positives as well as the criticisms in earnest.

Phil Ray

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