Book Review: They Don't Speak Spanish in Brazil / by Mark Langevin

  They Don’t Speak Spanish in Brazil:

A Guide to Life, Management, and Taxes for Doing Business in Brazil

By Joseph H. Low III and Cláudia Brito Low

The Don’t Speak Spanish in Brazil is really two books in one, and both are worth the read for different reasons.  The first eight chapters are really a cross-cultural guide to understanding and appreciating Brazil while sidestepping some of its apparent disadvantages. Chapters nine through sixteen along with the appendix and glossary is a well-written second book, more serious than the first, but a readable guide to those exploring the possibility of doing business in Brazil.  Both are worth the read, but it is the second that distinguishes They Don’t Speak Spanish in Brazil from a growing list of “brazil for beginners” type of books and business guides.

In 1987 when I first travelled to Brazil, many in my family assumed that Brazilians spoke Spanish as the authors imply. Today, more and more North Americans know more about Brazil than my parents did, and U.S. citizens are now the second largest group of foreign nationals that travel to Brazil, next to the Argentines.  So, while this book’s title may no longer apply to most readers in English, the thoughtful explanations, vivid reportings, and insightful teachings more than make up for the old school title.

The book is a long brew of all the complicated ingredients that make up what all of us experience as Brazil.  Yet, the authors pull together their experience and insight in chapter one to provide in a nutshell what they then go on to crack open in the following pages and chapters,

“Think of it in terms of a poker game. The Brazilian government is the dealer and they will always-always-have all the cards. If you want a seat at the table, you have to play by their rules and pay the buy in. If you’re going to stay, you have to commit.”

It is this insight and entertaining explanation of experience that makes the first book in They Don’t Speak Spanish in Brazil a fast read, especially for those already planning their trip to one of Brazil’s distinct destinations-like my favorite Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais. This first book works as a collage of the authors’ experiences woven through their cross-cultural sensitivity; and the methodology is as refreshing as an iced caipirinha on a blistering hot day in Cuiabá where I often work.  The authors draw a conclusion about Brazil and then tell a story or two to deliver it up to their readers in the most quenching way.  For example, on page 41 the Lows  explain,

“But here’s the more cultural point: nobody---and I mean nobody-eats lunch at their workstation. A desk and lunch is to a Brazilian what oil and water are to each other—they don’t mix.  Let me relate a story that shows you how important this lesson is.”

I won’t recount the story, but I recommend that you do because it reveals some of the fundamental cultural differences that distinguish Brazilians from North Americans, but in a way that invites adventure and eases the cross-cultural submersion into the delight that Brazil can be.

The Lows certainly highlight the best of Brazil, but don’t shy away from the ugly side either.  They note that Brazil does have a lot of crime, and much of it is horrifyingly violent.  Rather than simply dismissing crime or damning Brazil, the Lows report and then recommend,

“the police note that theives target trade shows, expos, convention centers, and the like because there are plenty of naïve, distracted foreigners carrying laptop bags and presentation equipment. The answer isn’t to avoid the expo altogether. You should take proper precautions. Don't travel by yourself. Be vigilant about your surroundings. Don’t go into dark alleys. Stay in well-lit areas. Do your best not to appear too much like the tourist you actually are.”

Yes, the first book-the first eight chapters offer a great deal of insight and experience nicely packaged like one of Brazil’s giant chocolate easter eggs made for children and the sweet toothed adult-wow that even works as a metaphor for Brazil too!

The second book, chapters nine through sixteen, are the most readable treatise on Brazilian taxation and corporate structure that I have come across in past years.  There are dozens of guides on Brazilian taxation, from KPMG to Ernst and Young, but They Don’t Speak Spanish in Brazil is the only one that doesn’t require a tank of coffee or an afternoon nap to get through, seriously!  First off, the chapters are focused, well framed and essentially short… a key to high readability on anything that relates to taxation—especially in Brazil where it can get downright complex and confusing even for a tax professional.  I recommend this second book, this collection of chapters to those executives I work with that need to know, but won’t fall asleep trying to understand the decisions they need to make to work in Brazil.  So, for those of you have placed Brazilian taxation and corporate structure on your reading list, but are procrastinating; wait no longer.

Lastly, don’t just skim over the appendix and glossary, these are valuable tools for all of us, even the most experienced brazilianist can learn a thing or two from an appendix that spells out the major business incentives in every state of Brazil’s federated union as well as the glossary of terms-a concise short cut to weaving your way through the myraid of acronyms and terms that any Brazilian business must navigate.

Even if you’re an experienced traveler to Brazil, or often pass through São Paulo for a meeting or two, the book is worth the read; yes you may occasionally disagree with the author’s conclusions taken from their own experiences as reported in the first eight chapters.  For example, on page 88 the authors state the claim that Brazilians “turn off” during holidays and paid time off. Yes, most Brazilians do and for all the right reasons, but Brazilian business people do not always disengage… they all have smart phones and skype, so if you are engaged in a business transaction or activity; don’t be surprized to find your Brazilian counterpart trying to skype you over a matter of business while he or she is on the beach in Guarapari or trading e-mails with you in the airport waiting for a flight to Orlando.  Brazilian business folks now speak English and often know more about ourselves as North Americans than any of us would care to admit.  So read They Don’t Speak Spanish in Brazil, you will learn a lot about Brazil and yourself; a credit to the authors and their subject.


Review the book’s website here.