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The Zen of Brazil

Brazilian Zen It’s a cliché to say it takes longer to get things done in Brazil. Everyone knows life moves a little more slowly in the developing world than in developed countries. From an American perspective, Brazilians are never in a hurry, and conveniently, it’s impossible to be late in Brazil.

The irony of clichés, of course, is they state the obvious, so people tend to forget them. However, there is something in this cliché – the ability of Brazilians to face schedules and deadlines with a less-than-rigid attitude – worth remembering.

There is a depth and history here that goes beyond cliché. Brazilians have an inherent faith that everything will work out in the end, one way or another, even if it’s not as planned. And if things do not work out in the end, it’s because you haven’t yet reached the end, so just be patient.

The relaxed Brazilian approach to time management is an old and honest story, much deeper than a cliché, more like a myth. As with many myths, there’s an important, hidden message, like Moses parting the Red Sea. (This is in contrast to the unimportant myths, like when your mother tells you to wear a scarf in the winter or you’ll catch a cold.)

The travel guides to Brazil and other developing countries warn Americans to expect delays because life is less organized, less structured. For example, don’t expect too much help from the authorities, whether those authorities are the police or the ushers at the movie theater.

Also, tourists should always be prepared for insurmountable and incomprehensible bureaucracy, and the requisite long lines and frustration that accompany it.

Some Americans view Brazilians as lacking organizational skills because of this fact. Likewise, some Brazilians envy life in the more organized, fast-paced developed world.

So why does life moves more slowly in Brazil than in the US or  Europe? When I pose this question to Brazilians, I get varying responses.

My mother-in-law, who just turned 81 last week, grew up in a small town on the coast of Paraná called Antonina. Now she lives in Curitiba, and she can’t comprehend how life could possibly be any faster than it is already.

She says it’s my imagination when I tell her Brazil is slower than the US, and she blames my distorted perspective on homesickness.

Other people I’ve asked think warmer weather encourages slowness. There are  Brazilians who honestly believe that warm weather is essential to happiness.

I  overheard a Brazilian girl in her twenties, who had been living in Paris and was asked about her life there, reply, “Paris is cold and gray in the winter. Many people commit suicide because of the melancholy caused by the cold weather.”

The theory of warm-weather slowness could apply to the north of Brazil and its equatorial regions, but what about the south, where temperatures reach freezing, or Chile and Argentina, where it snows and people enjoy skiing?

I propose that life moves more slowly in developing countries for another reason, which has nothing to do with the weather. My theory is that all people, from all over the world, prefer to move slowly.

What rational human being welcomes stress, hassle, and frustration, or the anxiety of trying to navigate through rush-hour traffic?

People who are forced to deal with constant stress, which could possibly blossom into a life-threatening disease, are those who have no choice. They accept anxiety and excessive speed in their lives as an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence of living in a developed country.

Another way to look at it is people in countries like Brazil move more slowly because they, too, have no choice.

There are the long lines at the supermarket and the lottery ticket office. The paperwork involved in getting a driver’s license or opening a business is complicated.

Thus, someone who grows up in Brazil is accustomed to delays and circuitous routes to completion. Patience is learned at an early age, even by children, who must wait an entire year now before they can enjoy their favorite panettone next Christmas.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Portuguese language fits perfectly with the Brazilian relaxed approach to life. It takes longer to say something in Portuguese than it does in English because English is more precise and has more words.

Additionally, it’s rude for a Brazilian to address a subject directly. His words will dance around the topic, so even if his language is precise, he will inevitably take longer to say it.

Does the structure of the Portuguese language reflect a slower culture, or is Brazil a slower culture because the language necessitates it?

Whatever the answer, the myth is still intact. Whether it’s the weather, the language, the lines at the supermarket, or the natural rhythm of humanity, life is slower in Brazil.

However, as far as I’m concerned, the important message behind the myth is that the slow lane is the fast lane to happiness – less speed means less stress, and that means more time for fun and relaxation.

Enjoying one day at a time, with less focus on schedules, is the Brazilian way. I view it as Brazil’s version of Zen, or “being in the moment.” Living each day with patience and sincerity is more than enough for me.

Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba. He welcomes comments at rubin.brazil@gmail.com.

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