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Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Just say 'no'

just say no

I was reading an article this morning on Gringoes.com, a site for foreigners living in Brazil. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject:

By Simone Costa ErikssonApril 16, 2009

As a Brazilian working for the international community, I am very often asked ‘why can Brazilians not be trusted?‘. In general, when attempting to interpret any cultural behavior, the first and most advisable approach would be to avoid generalization, but what if it happens too often, especially, through the eyes of foreigners? In that case, the safest explanation must be based on well-known intercultural theories: the concepts of contextualization and communication style as well as the cultural meaning of trust.

Nothing better than to start with a real & sincere testimonial from a reader:

"I am an American who has been very involved with the Brazilian community in the Boston area for 10 years (my husband is Brazilian, as are many of my friends). I really love the warmth of the Brazilian people, but there is one thing that always makes me sad: when my Brazilian friends make plans with me and then cancel at the last minute (or when so many of them promised to come to our wedding and then didn't show up!).

I don't understand why they agree to plans if there is a possibility that they won't be able to make it; if I make plans with someone, I will turn down all other offers that arise later, because I have already made plans; I will make sure I have already done everything else I need to do that day so I will be available for my friend.

But my friends will often cancel at the last minute with excuses like, "sorry, I have to work," or "sorry, it is my father's birthday." If I had to work or it was my father's birthday, I wouldn't make plans for that day in the first place! This hurts my feelings every time -- it seems that my friends don't value or respect my time or my friendship.

What can I do besides stopping to be friends with these people?"


This case exemplifies the focus of our discussion as being only and restrictedly referring to social behaviors and circumstances where people could perfectly say ‘no, thanks‘, but deliberately postponed the ‘no‘ answered until the last absolute minute, but still could not say ‘no‘, instead, chose to give an excuse. If you come from typical western societies (North America, North Europe & Australia), you would probably sympathize with our reader and ask ‘Why, on earth, couldn't these Brazilian people just say ‘no‘ and avoid hunting her feelings, right?

Wrong. In collectivist cultures, people have a hard time to say ‘no‘, because a ‘no‘ means almost a ‘bad word‘ socially speaking; giving an excuse sounds almost better than to say ‘no‘ (believe it or not!); it is ‘too direct‘ for those people raised to value preserving social relations above all. For the Brazilian ears, if someone is postponing giving an answer, they are probably doing the best they can, not to say a direct ‘no‘, and it might even mean they have tried and considered attending the wedding until the last minute. The intercultural term used here would be direct/indirect communication style.

Another explanation would be: while trying not to say ‘no‘, they have given ‘hints‘ or early justifications which already signed that the answer would be a ‘no‘ (that probably only another Brazilian would have understood). Something contextual, a non-verbal & unspoken message was probably given to suggest that the answer was going to be a ‘no‘. However, for a Brazilian way of reasoning, unless someone says ‘yes‘ there is no commitment, the fact of being invited does not necessarily mean a commitment. In this case, the intercultural dimension would be low/high context culture.

In case the explanation above seemed too theoretical and unreasonably, a more practical way to deal with this kind of intercultural misunderstandings are:

- All intercultural communications involve unspoken social rules and meanings, so never assume nor interpret someone from another culture based on your own cultural values. In other words, whatever it is obvious in one culture doesn't mean it is obvious in another culture.- Before making any interpretation, conclusions & judgments in an intercultural situation, you must always confirm and clarify the intentions and values behind it. That is, stop being friends only with those that intentionally mean to disrespect or not value your friendship.

The funniest thing, about this discussing on intercultural differences, was to be told by a foreigner: ‘foreigners living in Brazil seem to adopt this same characteristic of cancelling or not showing up (after they have lived here a while). My opinion on this is that there is so much happening here all the time that it is difficult to keep track of all your commitments...‘ . Or maybe, cultures slowly change the meanings and values of social behaviors!

This article confused me. I can understand why Brazilians would avoid saying 'no', but there are many polite ways to refuse without saying 'no'. For example, "I'm so sorry. I'd love to attend the wedding, but it is my father's birthday on that day." Closer to the event, a simple, "I'm sorry. It slipped my mind that my father's birthday is on the same day. In the end, we're living in a global society where intercultural communications can be a minefield. We, as foreigners need to adapt to the local way of working, but at the same time, Brazilians need to adapt too, as they deal with overseas clients and employers on a regular basis in business. In general, it is up to all of us to be clear and concise in our dealings with people who aren't of our culture to lessen the possibility of misunderstanding.

What do you think?

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  1. Depending on how far in advance an invitation is given, the appropiate thing is to at least verify your schedule to see if anything else coflicts with the invitation. If it does, then common decency would say, notify the people who extended the invitation, and let them know of the conflict. I think people get appropiately upset if they incur additional expenses on such invitations.

  2. If expense is involved, it is definitely something worth getting a little miffed over. The incidences I hear about most are simply where one has been kept waiting for your non-arriving friend or colleague. I get that quite a lot as a private teacher.


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