São Paulo, Brazil / October 5-8
Hotel Tivoli

One Should Be Spicy: The Delights of Research in Brazil

by Patricia Sunderland, CRAstudio: Cultural Research & Analysis, Inc

Sure, this post is a thinly veiled attempt to convince readers to attend EPIC2015 in São Paulo in October. It’s also as an argument for why we should all be reincarnated as Brazilian.

Last fall, Rita Denny and I conducted an international project. We started the research together in the US and then split up, each of us going to three different countries to carry out the same research protocol. I was lucky enough to go to São Paulo. In each country we were looking for the culturally salient differences that had an impact on how our client’s products and services were utilized in this location versus the other locations in our study.

sunderland1In São Paulo, the constellation of salient differences made the research an absolute delight to do, and also made me return to the US with the concept of reincarnation in mind. For our client, we framed the salient story for Brazil as one of combining and sharing.* For me, the combining and sharing of 1) cleverness and creativity and 2) the mind, body, and emotion were particularly striking.

The cultural value placed on cleverness and creativity is perhaps the easiest to explain as well as appreciate. In São Paulo I worked with Karina Prince and Verônica Paiva, Karina carrying out the interviews and Verônica translating. They were both my cultural interlocutors and delighted in telling and showing me how demonstrations of cleverness and creativity were seen as a crucial aspect of what it means to be human. Life is supposed to be lived with panache and pizazz.

A prime example, I was told, was the difference between American football and Brazilian soccer. If American football is about the relatively straightforward objective of getting a ball to a goal, the Brazilian way of playing soccer is about getting the ball down the field with style while showing your own style—your cleverness and creativity. Being spicy is also a value. To be without spice or salt —“saltless,” boring, bland, plain and not standing out at all from the crowd—are not good things. One should be spicy.

Sunderland3The cultural value of spiciness, of cleverness and creativity, made research enjoyable to do in Brazil. But the story of combined and shared mind, body, and emotion also made it intensely interesting and often fun. The prime comparisons here are the general Western tendency to separate mind and body and the Anglo-Saxon tradition of downplaying open demonstration of emotion. By contrast, in Brazil, thought, emotion, and sensation are seen as all intertwined and inextricable. Moreover, the expression of emotion and sensation is highly prized: it’s good to be emotionally touched, to have tears in your eyes, to get “goose bumps.” Like creativity and cleverness, it’s about being human. It’s not good to be a robot, whether that’s acting unfeelingly or thoughtlessly following rules. A spontaneous, thinking, creative, clever, emotional person is prized.

Sunderland4This was brought home to me so clearly when Verônica would point out to me the goosebumps she was getting from things people were saying during interviews, or when she would turn to let me see the tears in her eyes. In our other research locations, when people we interviewed told similarly touching stories, such outward expressions of emotion by the research team did not happen. Verônica and Karina and I also shared many laughs, both during and between interviews—the kind of laughter that is difficult to stop.

Relationships with others are at the heart of these Brazilian senses of being human. In fact, the interchange and interaction of people is seen as a prime creator of energy, much like the image of rubbing two stones together to make fire (interesting; in the US we would invoke two sticks being rubbed together). Family is crucial, but relationships with other people matter too. Relationships are seen to help—along with your cleverness and creativity—to find “the little way around things,” or jeitinho, also seen as so necessary. In Brazil, the social world is framed as operating simultaneously on formal (or official) channels as well as informal ones—you must be able to navigate both. And once again, being able to combine the formal and informal with cleverness and creativity is often prized, a way of being and demonstrating your human-ness.

Finally, Brazilians prides themselves on being a mélange of African, Portuguese, and Indigenous peoples, and maintain a notable syncretism in religious practices. There are many different forms of Christianity, with some (Kardecism/Spiritism) that mix Christianity with other spiritual ideas and traditions, including reincarnation. My argument that we should all be reincarnated as Brazilians has roots.

Of course, there are problematic sides of Brazil—most glaringly, the history of an almost caste notion of social class in which different classes have clearly different roles to play in social interaction and relatively circumcised expectations in terms of social mobility for lower classes. Much has been written about favelas, for example, including by EPIC people.

But for me, the combining and sharing aspects of São Paulo cultural life, and an incredible collaboration with wonderful Brazilian colleagues, made for a fascinating visit, one I recommend to all of my friends. As Rita Denny and I have argued elsewhere, a salient muse of the ethnographic enterprise in business is human connection—with those we study as well as clients and fellow team members.** Ethnographic work has the combining and sharing of human-ness is at its heart.

For the ethnographically inclined, it is all worth experiencing. Treat yourself. Go to Brazil.


* Note also Roberto DaMatta’s, O Que Faz O Brasil, Brasil? (“What makes Brazil, Brazil?”) Rio de Janeiro, Editora Rocco, 1984.


** See “Introduction” to Muses for Engagement, Section V, Handbook of Anthropology in Business, Walnut Creek, CA, Left Coast Press, Inc., 2014

patricia sunderlandPatricia Sunderland, based in New York City, is a founding partner of Practica Group LLC, a consumer research and strategic consultancy. She is co-author, with Rita Denny, of Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research and co-editor of Handbook of Anthropology in Business. Recently she’s been delighting in the mannequins of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.