Latin America

A Tour Of Language And Customs In Brazil

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While in Brazil this week, Melissa Block has heard our local fixer Catherine Osborn use all kinds of greetings and salutations in conversations with people throughout the day. Osborn walks us through some of the customs of everyday interactions in Rio.


My co-host Melissa Block has been reporting from Brazil all this week and now, she brings us a chat about language and customs.


And with me here, in Rio de Janeiro, is our interpreter, Catherine Osborn. Catherine, hi.


BLOCK: And I've been noticing something you do all this week at the beginning and at the end of conversations. You toss in this kind of filigree of flowery language. What's going on there?

OSBORN: That is something Brazilians call gentileza, or gentility. To get anything done in the city, you have to have relationships with people, and so you quickly refer to people extra-affectionately soon after you meet them. To get a sense of what I'm talking about, I recorded some typical greetings and goodbyes this week.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language).

(Speaking foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language).

BLOCK: And Catherine, I'm hearing a lot of beautiful, hugs, kisses in there.

OSBORN: They were saying goodbye. You say beijos - kisses, maybe throw in a via com Deus - go with God; or if it's more professional, you leave it at abracos - hugs. And this goes all the way up to a more casual use of first names for politicians, like Lula and Dilma for the last two presidents, who are referred to that way even in newspapers, TV, everywhere.

BLOCK: And Catherine, is this just here in Rio, or is it all over Brazil?

OSBORN: In Sao Paulo, it's one kiss on the cheek when you greet someone; Rio, it's two; Minas Gerais, it's three. So of course, this leads to a lot of stereotyping about how much more polite you are than people from other states. One time I was riding the bus, and an elderly woman was standing, and a young kid wouldn't give up his seat for the elderly woman. And a passenger got very angry at the bus driver and said, you think you're acting like a bus driver from Rio right now because you're acting like a bus driver from Sao Paulo.

BLOCK: (Laughter) So some regional rivalry over kindness there. I'm reminded, Catherine, of something we heard earlier on this trip from a pair of traffic clowns, and it was the phrase gentileza gera gentileza - kindness breeds kindness. But you do wonder whether this is just the language that's used and actually, actions are very different.

OSBORN: Yeah, I mean, some of the reporting this week has been about how people do not have fair and compassionate treatment all the time by people, by organizations. And so then you have this other vocabulary of words for somebody who has taken advantage of somebody else, which isn't quite appropriate for the radio.

But at the end of the day, in everyday life and especially when things are difficult, I would much rather have people refer to each other with gentility, and it's fun to hear what people come up with. If you're ever having a tough spot, you can throw in a por gentileza - for the sake of gentility.

BLOCK: OK, Catherine, thanks so much.

OSBORN: Muito obrigada!

BLOCK: That's our interpreter helping us out in Rio all this week, Catherine Osborn. I'm Melissa Block.

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