My quest to Understand Why Brazilians are so Happy

When I came to Brazil I was struck by how the people are so warm and friendly. I’ve never experienced people being so inquisitive – not necessarily about your social status, but just to really get to know you (or as my DesignThinkers’ associate Simone says ‘to really get to feel you’!) Maybe sometimes Brazilians can be a bit too inquisitive, like always asking how old you are (to which my response is now Portuguese for “NEVER ASK A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN HER AGE”).

Last week I started to get really homesick after getting food poisoning – I was really craving a Sunday lunch or a fry-up, as I’m living with vegetarians! But also I was really missing my friends and family back home.

Simone’s advice for my homesickness was: first, eat lots of Brazilian chocolate. Second, realize that the people at home are missing you more than you miss them. Third, it’s really important at this stage to laugh at yourself. And fourth, realize that you will make friends for life here. I thought that Simone must have been on to something when I was in Amsterdam and she told me about the W Curve, or the stages of culture shock. I didn’t really experience homesickness while I was in Amsterdam – I didn’t really get the chance! As my family and friends kept coming out to see me and I knew I could just get on a plane back home very easily.

The W Curve begins when you are very excited about the new culture, and also very naïve. You think everything is wonderful because it’s so different. For example, the bins here are raised off the ground and look to me more like postal boxes or basketball hoops! Things like this can fascinate you, but then you hear about parts of the culture that you don’t really like or understand or things that don’t go with your values. After you experience some of that you start to feel homesick, because you’re so out of your normal environment culture is affecting your behaviour. You’re now at the first dip of the W, and at that point you have to really start understanding the culture. Researching the W Curve led me to tweet a quote I’d found by Gandhi:

“Let my house not be walled on four sides, let all the windows be open, let all the cultures blow in, but let no culture blow me off my feet.”

I know a lot about European and US history but very little about Latin American history. After visiting Ouro Preto I saw two sides of things: really beautiful buildings but, under each building, a place for the slaves to live. I decided to buy a book called ‘The Open Veins of Latin America’ by Eduardo Galeano. After reading this book I have come to understand the country has, over the years, been overwhelmed by people coming in and taking their resources away to Europe and the USA. My question was: how can these people be so happy, given this history? My only perception is that they are really happy and friendly people, much more so than Europeans. When you have a business meeting in Europe it’s always ‘Hi, how are you?’ and then down to business. But here in Brazil there’s much more focus on talking about yourself and understanding each other’s personal lives. I know that bringing emotion into business makes it difficult for companies who come into the area for commercial reasons. This also relates to how Brazilians go about solving problems – they’ve always had limited resources because other countries have taken them away, and they’ve always had to fix things that other people have broken and find creative ways to do this with those limited resources. A lot of the time Brazilians will say ‘Oh we’ll fix it, it’s okay, no problem’ – they’re relaxed about solving problems because they’ve had a long history of problems to solve. They’re really proud of their attitude of ‘jeitinho’, which Wikipedia describes as:

Jeitinho: Brazilian expression for an informal mode of action widely accepted, that relies on improvisation, flexibility, creativity, intuition, etc.

I think there’s a relationship between innovation, and the history of how people in a country have solved their problems. For example Finnish people, who tend to live in isolated areas, typically solve problems on their own. They don’t like to give feedback, and they don’t like to criticize – they’re used to being self sufficient due to their geographic isolation, and so the idea of sharing isn’t really in their culture. I’ve found that people in Norway are embarrassed to share their ideas – innovation rooms are locked away with no windows, as if they feel exposed when they share ideas. The people of Amsterdam like to solve problems collaboratively, possibly because they’ve had to collaborate to create their physical landscape. I’ve heard that the people of India just tend to go ahead and do things – it may cause chaos on the way, but they try and solve their problems quickly through prototyping. I’m quite excited about my upcoming visit to India and the possibility of experiencing some of these rapid prototyping techniques, and I think the culture there may have developed in a similar way to the ‘let’s try and fix it’ attitude I’ve found here in Brazil.

When chaos is there all the time, as it is in Brazil, you can’t really plan because things change so you have to live more and more in the moment. When you have such limited resources, all that you really have is the relationships and emotions that you share with people. You don’t get distracted by material things like iPhones and laptops. When I went home after working in Amsterdam, I actually felt overwhelmed by the amount of belongings I had, and felt the urge to have a big clear out! Right now I only have one suitcase of belongings with me, and I am finding that I actually feel more happy with less stuff. Below is a picture taken last week on the same street as Voel – lot of cable that have been legally placed and had falling down, to illustrate how I see lots of chaos on a day to day basics.

One worry I have is that I see the American culture making its way into Brazil a lot, even though America has already taken so much from the country. I wonder if this culture coming in will change the way Brazilians are. I hope that they can maintain their sense of warmth when other countries are becoming more interested in their land. I feel that its important that people find ways to maintain their culture and values while taking part of other cultures on. This in mind I have been advise to read ‘The new Capitalism Manifesto‘ by Umair Haque,  that talk about understand the new values in future Capitalism society. At DesignThinkers I had a question, realtioning to this, that would be a bit off point, but would like to share it with you:

‘What if shopping street and big stores understand that is it about delivering really value that really to human needs and dreams?, What would it look like, and what would the experience be?’

No sure at the moment – but still thinking about this question.

Below is a picture taken on my iPhone of a place we went to drink in Belo Horizonte that reminded me so much of America.

I think my experience of homesickness has really kickstarted my learning process on a different level. Since completing my PhD I didn’t really want to engage in so much information, although I always have to remember that learning, and sharing that learning, is the big ‘why’ behind my International Design Walkabout.

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