Cultural Relativism: Jeitinho Brasileiro

A practical and effective cultural relativism would start with the premise that if people are doing something for a long time, they must have a reason. It does not suppose that the reason is a good one or that it remains valid. Many parts of culture become fossilized.  People continue to do things that were once useful and adaptive but are no longer. This has been most tragically-comic and obvious in military affairs, where warriors often continue to use weapons and techniques made obsolete by advancing technologies. A Samurai warrior, all decked out in his panoply of armor and edged weapons is a wonder to behold, but he is no match for a kid with a pistol. The Japanese, BTW, addressed this cultural problem by banning firearms (as European knights had tried to ban longbows and crossbows) and managed to hold technological progress at bay for a couple centuries. 

You must acknowledge that the cultural trait is done for a reason and has/had value.  After that you try to put the trait in context. This helps understand the culture. Seek first to understand before trying to be understood. But at some point soon after that, you have to start making judgments and choices.

I have been trying to brush up on my things Brazilian. I have a favorable attitude toward the place and a general affection for the people left over from when I lived there twenty-five years ago.  But I recognize that there are challenges. I just finished reading a book on sociology called “A Cabeca do Brasileiro” (the mind of the Brazilian) and I have been watching Globo (Brazilian TV) every day on the Internet.  All this reminds me of things I liked about the place and some things I didn’t like.   It is condescending to talk about only the good things and churlish to emphasize only the bad.  Anyway, many of the traits have aspects of both.

The author, Alberto Carlos Almeida, devotes his first chapter to “jeitinho brasileiro.” I don’t know how to explain what that is to an American reader and it is obviously hard even for Brazilians to explain it to each other if the guy writes a whole chapter about it.  Suffice to say that it lies in the twilight zone between a favor and corruption.  The jeitinho is a way around something, often a way around a regulation or procedure that everybody knows doesn’t make sense. One of the things I loved about Brazilians was/is their cleverness and flexibly. They can always think of a way to get something or get something done. You can easily see how this “good” trait could cut both ways.

So should we accept, celebrate or condemn the jeitinho? You really cannot ignore it because people will be asking you for it and doing it for you even if you don’t ask. Would you be an “ugly American” if you insisted that you – as an American – don’t do Jeito? Or would you be an even uglier American if you took advantage of it?