« Brazilian Bureaucracy | Main | Flashback: Rio, 2006 »

April 08, 2009



Excellent insight!!!

Now I'd like to know your opinion about it. Are American friendships governed by institutions rather than by personal relationships?

Nice post!



Excellent post! I eagerly await the continuation ...


"I still don't get it. Did I do something wrong?" So true. I'm an American and often puzzle over friendships that I've enjoyed and seem just to fizzle out. Maybe I'm kind of Brazilian without realizing it (but then there's the lack of jeito on the dance floor and not being able to smile from the inside out in photos...).


"Are American friendships governed by institutions rather than by personal relationships?"

Absolutely. When Americans are involved in an institution (college, hobby, career) they throw themselves into it completely. We tend to be workaholics. As a result, we quickly form "working" friendships with those around us. When we move on to the next institution, its on to new "friends".

I've had four major "institutions" in my life. College, an 8 year career as a science teacher, 10 yrs with a company as a computer programmer, and 3 yrs with my current employer. I have some contact with 1 friend from college, no one from teaching, 2 people from my previous job. If I left here, there is probably no one I'd stay in touch with.

In part its my personality. I form good friendships, but I'm terible at maintaining them. I get to tied up with what's going on now. When I think of those people I do get "nostalgic", but I just don't dwell on them. I can think of 5-10 people from those previous stages of life that I would like to run into and go out to dinner with, and in a few cases start regular contact again. Oddly, I still consider them friends.

Maybe this is why so many Americans dread retiremnet. They've never formed lasting friendships.


Rachel, why don't you engage in a graduate programm under his supervision? For a global world, the job you try to do, approaching cultures, etc... wouldn't be a bad way to work and live, and learn more...
Very Good Post!

Derrick Chase

I can always count on you for a daily dose and insight into brazilianess. I am living in Rio vicariously through you ! Keep up the great posts !


I can't wait for the next posts about it.


Very interesting post!

It’s very strange how friendships can operate here in the U.S. Oddly enough (or maybe not so odd) I have maintained better friendships with my friends abroad than with those that live in New York. I guess it’s because with my foreign friends the friendship seems effortless. Both parties involved seem to want to make it last so we find ways to do so, no questions asked.

Unlike Brazilians, I do think Americans are reactive when dealing with friends in the long term. They call when they've been called, they invite when they've been invited, etc. Gestures seem to be reciprocated out of obligation. That’s why making friendships work here can at times be like pulling teeth.

Thaddeus Blanchette

First of all, let me state that I love Roberto DaMatta.

Professionally, he's had an enormous influence on my life. I would have never gone to the Museu for post-grad, for example, if Da Matta hadn't personally suggested it (and he IS a real mensch, too: I called him up completely out of the blue asking for his advice regarding post-grad programs and he gave it to me, no fuss, even though he'd never met me before).

There's only one major problem with his comparative analyses: he really hasn't STUDIED U.S. history and culture to the depth that he should have. In particular, he's avoided looking at the vast and diverse multitude of sub-cultures, counter-cultures and ethnic cultures which, in final analysis, are really the warp and woof of anything that could be considered to be "American culture".

Much of DaMatta's work postulates an ideal-typical and homogenous U.S. culture. He simply ignores the bits and pieces of the States that don't fit into his theories and this means. ultimately, that 80% of U.S. culture is left by the wayside in his analysis. DaMatta can be accused of doing the same thing with Brazil, of course, but I think he shows a much better and deeper grasp of Brazilian cultural varieties (witness his classic analysis of the malandro/Caxias dichotomy, for example) than he does of American.

Unfortunately, too often DaMatta makes prejudice stand in for knowledge when he talks about the U.S. Let me give an example...

A few years back I was at one of his lectures and he claimed that one could understand American and Brazilian views regarding social union and diversity on a national level by looking at two songs: Ary Barroso's "Aquarela do Brasil" and Frank Sinatra's "On the Street Where you Live". Well, why those two songs? He could have chosen, for example, Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" for the American pole of his analysis. Why was Frank's song any more paradigmatic of America that Woody's? I asked DaMatta and his answer was "Marginal music played by communists and counter-cultural people is not really American".

Well, look... Woody may have been a by-gosh commie, but at least when I was growing up, all of us kids had to sing "This Land is Your Land" in grade-school choir, not "On the Street Where You Live". The song's been proposed as an alternative national anthem for the U.S., ferchrissake! I'm sure the Americans reading this can bear me out on this one: commie or no, Woody wrote a song that is much more well-known among Americans of all ages and generations than "On the Street Where You Live". In fact, I'd lay money that if we were to get a hundred randomly chosen Americans, far many more would know the words to "This Land is Your Land" than "On the Street Where You Live" (though "New York, New York" might beat out both).

So what authorized DaMatta to choose the one song and not the other for his analysis? What was his logic? AFAICS, it was simply the fact that Da Matta is a Sinatra fan, knew nothing about Guthrie and so simply raised the one to utlimate American icon and pigeonholed the other as basically irrelevant.

DaMatta's anthropological analysis is sort of like impressionist art: he gets the basic forms and colors down on canvas better than anyone and, when you squint or look at what he does from a distance, it looks absolutely real and correct. It's when you open your eyes wide and get in close that little of what he's doing makes sense.

A friend of mine used to say "Roberto DaMatta is like a stopped clock: twice a day he's inevitably correct". The older I get, however, and the more I learn about anthropology, the more I'm able to appreciate that this comment is really a left-handed compliment. After all, Roberto's an old-school analogue clock. When he gets it right, it's right on the money. Too many of today's anthropologists (and perhaps even myself) are digital clocks: when everything functions correctly, we work fine - maybe far better than anthros of DaMatta's generation could ever have hoped to work. But when things go pear-shaped, we just sit there blinking gibberish, more often than not.


Let me chime in on the "saudades" debate because I consider this to be a great example of the romantic bullshit that so very often clouds pondered comparative analysis of the U.S. and Brazil and which DaMatta uses to excess.

Vinicius de Moraes once claimed that "saudades" couldn't be translated and ever since then, it's been an article of faith among Brazilians and Brazilianists that this is so.


I'm a translator by trade and training and when I see "saudades" in a text, I have no problem whatsoever translating it. There are several perfectly good English terms and words which can be slotted in depending on the context: longing, missing, desire. English, in fact, has a wider range of words to cover different emotional nuances which Brazilians generally just gloss with "saudades". English is thus more precise in its meanings on this point and there's no deep Brazilian sentiment expressed by "saudades" which can't be translated in English.

So while the exact word "saudades" might not exist (and, in fact, I'd argue that that in and of itself is somewhat false, because I can't think of a use of "saudades" which can't be adequately glossed by "to long for" or "longing"), the range of emotions covered by the word certainly do exist in the U.S. and are quite easily and adequately expressable.

Now, if you want to get into mystical rigamarole, you could claim that the PRECISE emotion expressed by "saudades" doesn't have a PRECISE, one word English translation and yadayadayada, neener, neener, neerer, ad nauseaum.

OK, fine. Be that way. If you want to fly off into post-modern linguistic hand-wavery, I can make the exact same argument about "comer" and "to eat". I can make the exact same argument, in fact, about almost ANY pair of words at all. After all, who's to say that "water" really captures the essence of what Brazilians mean when they say "água"? Or how about "ceiling" and "roof"? Can a "telhado" REALLY be a "roof" if it isn't made out of "telhas"? You see, Portuguese just doesn't have an adequate translation for "roof"... [Roll eyes, slap face]

The fact of the matter is - and I'm sure that Rachel and the other translators here can attest to this - there are little to no problems translating "saudades". Want a difficult translation? Try "eventually". Better yet, try explaining "ser" and "estar" in English. Try explaining the difference between "to leak" and "to drain" in Portuguese. Shit, try explaining the difference between "for" and "to".

To me, the whole "saudades" thing is a classic example of what's wrong with the state of Brazilian/American comparative studies: we've let prejudice and recieved wisdom stand in for observation, analysis and real study. We repeat what other generations said just because they've said it and because it sounds cool over the bar table. We never ask if what we're saying is true or not even when it's OBVIOUSLY not true, as we ourselves can easily attest to if we were to just look at the question objectively and honestly.

There are PLENTY of translations for "saudades" in English, Roberto and Vinicius' "just so" story about the word notwithstanding. That Roberto doesn't realize this after 20 years of living in the U.S. is a good indication of the care one needs to take when using his work to analyze Brazil and the States comparatively.

That said, however, DaMatta is an absolutely essential foundational author for this sort of endeavor, especially with regards to what he says about the Brazilian side of the comparative axis.

Thaddeus Blanchette

Today's (8/4/2009) "xkcd" regarding ten year anniversary of "The Matrix" kind of encapsulates how I feel about the whole "saudades" thing (well, the first 4 boxes of the strip, at least):


(Plus, it's a gratuitous way to turn people on to the funniest science webcomic on the net...)


Absolutely loved your post - especially the part about saudades. Bang on ! I'm so sick of reading the tripe about the untranslatability of that mystical word.


Oh, my God... I agree with Thaddeus. I had an intense debate with a Brazilian friend over the alleged untranslatability of "saudades," and now he doesn't speak with me anymore. I guess proving DaMatta wrong in that Brazilians don't abruptly end friendships?

To me, Brazilian friendships seem more superficial and dishonest, often borne out of a sense of obligation rather than any deep connection (speaking in generalities). At least you know where you stand with Americans most of the time. It might seem harsh or rude that a friendship ends when there's no longer a common connection (e.g., work or school), but who wants to maintain a friendship without substance? Is it even a friendship at that point?

There's also more reciprocity with my American friends when it comes to returning calls, etc. My Brazilian friends often expected me to drop everything when they needed something, but it was rare when they'd do the same for me. The worst example of it is what led me to leave Brazil.

Even though I'd been there for friends through their trials and tribulations because I cared about them, when I was sick with pneumonia over a prolonged holiday weekend, not one of them offered to stay with me in Sao Paulo to ensure, you know, I didn't die. They all went to the beach instead. Hell, even my alleged "best friend" decided that was the perfect weekend to leave his wife and take a vacation with his new girlfriend.

I figured, at that point, I'd take my chances with dying on the plane home if it meant I'd be greeted by people who cared about me on the other end.

Now that I no longer live in Brazil, I'm not really seeing this "make an effort to maintain old friendships" aspect of the culture. Sure, I hear from my Brazilian friends when they need their resume translated or their father is in the hospital and they know I'll be more genuinely sympathetic than their other friends, but it's rare to just hear an "oi." It's an "Oi" followed by "Vc pode me ajudar?"

And I think that's often the difference between American and Brazilian friendships. Americans generally expect friendships to be meaningful and to serve a deeper purpose and if they don't, you end them or relegate them to the acquaintance pile. Sure, we "use" our friends from time to time, but we recognize there's something distasteful about it if we don't treat it as a two-way street.

Brazilians generally expect friendships to be a vast network you can tap into when you want or need something, so ending one means losing potentially useful contacts. Even if someone uses you and does nothing in return, you tolerate it because maybe he really can help you someday or because it'll rock the boat too much.

It's the difference between being a means to an end and the end in itself.

Why, yes, yes, I am a little bitter.

Rio Gringa


Ok, if you're going to skewer anyone about this "saudades" controversy, skewer me: Roberto was referring to the actual saudades, not the translation of the word. I just added that in for good measure, which apparently was a mistake.


Rachel, very good post.

Jen, I think you went a little too far on the bitter side.

Why do we like to generalize so much?? Brazilians, Americas, Canadians, Italians.. everywhere there will be people who have deeper meaning friendships, and people with lot of acquaintances that don't really care for anything.

I've met wonderful people in the US and in Canada that I call friends. People that I'd be there for, and I know they'd be there for me. That is one of the reasons why I'll never say North American's are "cold." I just think some people are more open to new friends than others. I do think after school (easiest place to form friendships, no competition) it is harder to meet people and develop into a life-long friendship.

What happens with Brazilians is that most people know so many people in their communities that they have some friends, and lots of acquaintances, but in the informal Brazilian style, everything gets mixed up. Not everyone is "best friends." And I do agree when you say that some of these friendships can't be trusted, well.. maybe because they weren't friendships anyway... there's a "camaradagem" culture in Brazil, that makes you talk and keep connections with people you seldom meet.

That said, of course there are intrigues, false friends, and similar situation. That goes back to what Rachel said about few Brazilians who would confront a situation. That's why it is easier to say I'll call, and forget, leave it for another day.. when you do remember to call.

Something that I felt when I moved to another country is that no matter how close you are to some people, only your closest and deepest friends will remain the same. I mean those friends that you've known forever, and you might even not speak to them constantly, but when you do, it's like no time has passed. Life gets busy, and to be able to keep up with all the connections of my new city + the one I grew up in, I'd be on the computer/phone forever.

I've been leaving abroad for 3 years straight now. I can count how many calls, emails I got from my brazilian acquaintances.. My friends i usually chat on msn/skype but not as often as I wanted.

Saudades..I like the sound of it. I'm not getting into the discussion though..
sigh. I miss my family

Thaddeus Blanchette

Rachel, I'm not skewering you, believe me. This "saudades" thing has been an old and long debate between me and the DaMattaists and you most certainly didn't portray his position incorrectly. As far as I understand him, DaMatta is a structuralist and he firmly believes that lack of a word in a language means lack of the underlying mental and emotional structures which make that word possible. So his belief that there's no corresponding emotion for "saudades" is the same exact thing as the belief that there's no word and in both instances he's simply wrong. You got DaMatta's beliefs down correctly: it's not your fault he believes this, but his. :-)

And you DID get the most important thing about DaMatta right: agree with him or not, I have to say the guy's one of the few all around gentlemen it's been my pleasure to meet in this world (anmd a damned good writer to boot). He really cares about teaching and about students in general - not just his - which is as rare as rare can be in academia. And there's no way in hell I'd even be thinking about the stuff I think about now if it wasn't for the fact that DaMatta started thinking about it some 40 odd years ago. If my generation sees farther in comparative sociology, it's because we're on his generation's shoulders. I only hope our students will say the same thing about us.

"Saudades" just happens to be a real personal stick in my craw because it's one of DaMatta's (and Vinicuis') comments which has passed into popular knowledge and acceptance. As Anonymous points out, you can't talk comparisons between Brazil and the U.S. today without some half-bright, usually drunk person bringing that old saw up as if it were some sort of deep insight. That's not DaMatta's fault either, but the concept that "saudades" is untranslatable in English and that the emotion doesn't exist among Americans and other anglofalantes is simply for shit and that needs to be said.

No offense meant to anyone by syaing that, though, and certainly not to you or DaMatta (though I personally believe Roberto should know better by now).

Marcio E. Goncalves

"To me, Brazilian friendships seem more superficial and dishonest, often borne out of a sense of obligation rather than any deep connection (speaking in generalities)."

Jen, where did you live in Brazil?

I'm from Curitiba (but now living in San Francisco). Well, as a "curitibano" I feel the same way you feel, but about "cariocas" and some other brazilians, not everyone.

"Curitibanos" are very cold and unfriendly, but when you have a friendship there, is a very strong one, not superficial like a carioca would have (half of my family is carioca, so I know a little bit about Rio...).

Anyway, the point is that Brazil is too vast and with too many different local cultures to be generalized like that.

P.S. The same applies to the USA.


Reading the American friends comments, it was clear for me that they really don’t understand the emotion that the word Saudade transmits.
I have no doubt that saudade is untranslatable in English. Da Matta is right.

Thaddeus Blanchette

Yeah, Marcio. And so is "roof". ;-)

Thaddeus Blanchette

But OK, Marcio, I'll bite: give me a phrase with "saudades" and I'll translate it.

The only problem with this, of course, is that "saudades" is an emotion and thus subjective. There is no way of objectively comparing subjectivities so ANY translation of an emotion - even in the same language - is open to the accusation that the word really doesn't express whatever's being felt.

It seems to me, Márcio, that it's an article of faith to you that "saudades" can't be translated so anything I come up with will be niggled to death as "not quite it".

But that's OK: give me a use of "saudades", I'll translate it, and then you can do your best to objectively explain to us WHY the translation is any more inherently a betrayal of the original meaning than, say "roof/telhado".

This should be fun!

Oh, btw, that "bittersweet" adjective everyone tosses on "saudades" that supposedly makes it different from "longing"? No dice: "longing" can also be bittersweet, no problem at all with that. It's obvious from the context.

Actually, as I said above, English is more PRECISE with regards to the emotions that Brazilians globally label with "saudades". Enlgish has specific terms for longing for one's home and familiar surroundings, for deep-felt, bittersweet longing for things of the past, for superficial longing for things and people... About the only difference in terminology that I can see that could cause problems in a translation is a poetic use of "saudades" that plays with the word's essential ambiguity. So if we ARE talking about a fundamental difference in mentalities here, as expressed in language, it has to do with our good old friend, Brazilian ambiguity versus Anglo-American need for definition.

But following DaMatta's brand of structuralism (which I don't agree with, but what the fuck), the fact that English-speakers have a range of words to cover the sentiments expressed by one word in Portuguese ipso fato means that English-speakers are more emotionally sensitive to these nuances than Portuguese speakers. That's what a structuralist SHOULD be saying, anyhow.

Marcio E. Goncalves

Are you crazy Thaddeus? I didn't say a word about saudade.

I do agree with you that is silly to say that's impossible to translate it.

I think you're confusing my message with Marcelo's.

Thaddeus Blanchette

Sigh. Marcelo, then. Sorry. Once again, I'm used to seeing posters' names at the top of their posts, not under the line following them.



The word saudade is special in complexity. In English some words have similar meanings, but only concern to one aspect of “saudade", for that reason you can find a specific word to substitute saudade but only when the word is at a specific context because none of them really means saudade when isolated.

Eu sinto a tua falta / eu tenho saudades tuas

As you probably know in Portuguese these two statements carry very different sentiments in Portuguese. So please translate then.


wow! first of all good article, and you're a good writer (i'm thoroughly enjoying your blog). i've noticed the same things about American culture. in fact, especially at work. in a lot of jobs, the company actually provides you a "script" - how to talk to people, what to say, and a code of conduct in situations.

Thaddeus Blanchette


"Saudades" is not at all complex, just much more general than comparable English terms. It covers a variety of states while its English counterparts do not. That does not make it a sublime, complicated or untranslateable emotion, however.

Cracking open my Aurelio here, I note the following definitions for "saudades":

"1) Lembrança nostalgica e suave de pessoa ou coisa distante ou extinta. 2) Pesar pela ausência de alguém que nos é querido."

Not exactly a deep or complicated emotion, is it? The first one is "missing" and the second is "longing", generally speaking.

"Eu sinto a tua falta / eu tenho saudades tuas"

"I miss you" for both UNLESS the feeling is intense, in that case, the second phrase could be translated as "I long for you" or "I long for your presence." One could also go with "I feel your absense" for the first but the second would almost certainly be "I miss you" in almost any context other than an intense feeling of separation.

Can you think of a context where either "I miss you" or "I long for you" WOULDN'T cover the sentiment?

The only reason this looks somewhat complex to a Brazilian is that "saudades" is somewhat general, standing in for both the feeling of missing as well as longing for that which is absent. An English speaker has quite specific terms for both states.

And those two statements are not necessarily radically different in Portuguese, Marcelo and I'm surprised that you think that they are. How do you see them as being necessarily very different?


After reading Rachel's wonderful post and the comments specially from Jen, Patricia and Marcio I think I have come to finally be able to put it in words some type of unconscious awareness with regards to friendship and different cultures.

My little two cents... :)

I am a Brazilian (from Rio) living abroad for the past 5 years, 3.5 of them in the US (NJ) and 1.5 in Germany (Erlangen). I agree with Patricia, and believe people have different levels of friendship independent of the culture.

I would argue in general people have few true friends, some close friends, a higher amount of "friends" (acquaintances?) that one really likes but for some reason don't become close friends, and some more acquaintances that we are friendly with (sorry for the "categorization", it sounds a little engineered, but I hope you get the idea :).

I believe it is just impossible to be close friends with everybody you know, the same way that knowing a lot of people and not being close to anyone can be pretty lonely.

It seems to me that the key difference is how those different levels of friendships are carried out (for lack of better word) in different cultures. And once one is immersed in a different culture, some clashes about friendship expectations can happen.

For example, Brazilians tend to be pretty friendly. But in Brazil, being friendly with someone doesn't mean you are close friends. For an European (more specifically a German), that level of friendliness is reserved only for close friends (Marcio, it is definitely speculation, but I wonder if the higher density of European ascendancy has anything to do with how curitibanos approach friendships).

So, maybe what a Brazilian interprets from his Americans friends to be a sign of true friendship, an American would know it is an "institutional friendship".

The comments to this entry are closed.