Tuesday, June 28, 2005



Jamie recently put up a post on Japanese kinesthetics, by which he means the postures and gestures that constitute extra-verbal communication in Japan. This has inspired me to do a similar post on Brazil.

Let's start with greetings. The standard male/female greeting is the beijinho, or "little kiss." There is some regional variation (São Paulo, for instance, does one cheek only) but in Rio, as in most of the country, it's a two-cheeker. The key is it's not actually a kiss. Rather, you place your cheek against your friend's cheek and emit a kiss sound, vaguely in the region of the ear. Then repeat on the other side. Female/female meetings are quite the same, but male/male pairs favor the abraço, or hug. This, similarly, is usually not a hug but a handshake accompanied by a back-patting reach-around. Particularly close male friends will usually bump collarbones, while people who have never met may well leave each other at an arm's length.

It is worth noting that these are such common forms of greeting and leavetaking that they have spilled over into writing and telephone. The common email or text message signoff when writing girl-girl or boy-girl is "beijos", often abreviated "bjs," which every time makes me think unsettlingly of blowjobs. With guys it's often "abçs" or "abs". On the phone you say bye by saying "um beijo" or "um abraço."

Speaking of kissing, the negative connotation of PDAs (public displays of affection) does not exist here. To the contrary, it is considered rude to your companion if you are unwilling to make out with him or her on the street. It's like saying you don't want to be seen with them. Some people have made a big deal about different concepts of personal space, and tell stories of gringos at parties being backed around the room by Brazilians who talk too close. I haven't seen much of this myself. I think perhaps some overeager amateur social anthropologist (like moi?) saw one socially awkward dude and drew a few too many conclusions.

Moving on, the "come hither" gesture seems to be identical in Japan and Brazil, a outstretched arm with fingers flapping down as if scooping sand toward oneself. Another common gesture is the finger wag. Index finger extended, the hand windshield-wipers back and forth while the head shakes a sad, slow "no." This gesture looks very grave, like you are reprimanding a youngster for supergluing the cat to the TV screen, but it reality it's a pretty light negatory. Like no, I don't want another beer yet.

Yet another thing you can do with your hands is to make one into a fist and then smack the top of that fist with an open palm. This means "fucked!" As in, "you ought to be fucked!" but more commonly the less-confrontational "man, am I fucked!" Thumb and index making a circle, with palm facing the body, is another possibly rude gesture. It means "ass," as in "go take it in the ass!"

One gesture that confused me for many months, but that now I find myself doing involuntarily, is the following: two hands face each other fingertip to fingertip, palms in. Then the hands begin to wave forward and back, fingers smacking into each other like a set of ill-fitting saloon doors. This means, roughly, "it doesn't matter" or "there was nothing I could do." It's sort of a resignation gesture, somewhat akin to a shoulder shrug.

There are myriad minor strange ones. An earlobe is often tugged when describing a tasty food. Snapping can mean "it took a long time," whereas a thumb and forefinger held an half-inch apart means "just a moment." I've never actually seen this, but my dinner companion tonight (a native) swore that rubbing one's elbow and forearm is code for "heartbroken."

Then there is the Special Brazilian Snap Action, which people do whenever they get excited for whatever reason. It's not snapping like we know it in the US; rather, the index finger goes limp and, by whipping the arm, is snapped against the thumb and middle finger. Seemingly all Brazilians can do this at will, at high volume, and many times in rapid succession. After several months of practice I have about a 20% success rate, and only perhaps a third of those reach a satisfying volume. If I ever become truly proficient I'll know I have finally arrived.

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