‘We really don’t mean that!’

David Shepherd poses a very difficult question in his article ‘Are Brazilians aggressive and demanding?’ He argues that most of the perceived aggressive behaviour of Brazilian speakers is due to natural features of Brazilian spoken Portuguese such as rising pitch, equal syllable stress, absence of modality and an embarrassing disregard for the words please and thank you –  ‘We really don’t mean that, you know.’ 

However, I have noticed that people in Brazil do tend to use lower pitches, modals, thanks and please, when they are in more formal situations or when they want to use it for their own advantage. I would argue that the most determinant factor that makes most Brazilians sound impolite is perhaps a lack of awareness of the standard levels of politeness necessary to deal with people in English in everyday situations.  

It seems to me that Brazilians tend to feel more comfortable, and consequently switch to a more informal mode of interaction, much easier and much earlier than English native speakers usually do. What’s more, Brazilians tend to establish informal relationships in situations in which English native speakers would hardly ever do so. In Brazil, any shop assistant, conductor, waiter, bank manager or even doctor with whom you exchange a couple of remarks is soon labelled your acquaintance, if not your friend (!). You don’t normally use over polite language with your friends, even if you were born English. At least, I haven’t seen my English friends doing that, unless they are a bit upset with me. Then they have a tendency to use politeness to reset the boundaries of our relationship. 

A typical example is the ELT classroom. If you could record the first lessons of a teacher with a new group of adult students in the south of Brazil – where I live – you would probably see both parts using quite a lot of modals, less gesturing, and a good amount of thanks and pleases. It usually takes a week to have this scenario changed. You will soon see teachers and students speaking in a higher pitch, using an astonishing number of imperatives and the please being substituted by a slight change in intonation and facial expressions.  

So, I completely agree with David when he says that there ‘is the need for awareness-raising’. What I’d say though is that what is needed is not just an awareness of the phonological, grammatical and lexical elements of English and Brazilian Portuguese, but also an awareness of the contrasting social, cultural and interpersonal nature of relationships normally established by speakers of both languages.