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  • Water Production Connections

Postcard from the Field: “Behaving Brazilian”

By Rachel Dubbs

Rachel Dubbs holding an orange she just picked from a tree while at a farmer’s house in Ariquemes, Rondonia.
Rachel picked an orange from a farmer’s tree in Ariquemes.

The Connections between Water and Rural Production project (CAP) investigates whether and which farmers adapt their production systems when they experience changes in rainfall, what adaptations they make, and whether these adaptations reduce income losses expected when drying occurs. Improved understanding of these responses will inform efforts by government agencies and civil society to help farmers adjust to changes in water availability. As an environmental studies and political science major at Salisbury University, I followed the researchers and recorded my observations.

My preparation for travel to Rondônia included reading Behaving Brazilian, a book that describes typical Brazilian customs, manners, and etiquette. I was skeptical that the book would be useful as it was published almost forty years ago. However, I found certain Brazilian mannerisms noted to be interesting.

For example, in Brazil it is almost always rude to eat with your hands, the “OK” signal is an offensive gesture, and the way you dress portrays your socioeconomic status.

My skepticism of the book began to dissipate as soon as I touched down in Brazil. It was then that I noticed the Manaus airport was full of people sporting designer handbags and high heels. Suddenly, I felt very out of place in my grey sweatpants and worn out book bag.

After landing in Porto Velho and joining the team, my observations of this culture continued when I accompanied students who were surveying local farmers. The long drive to the farms allowed me to reflect upon Behaving Brazilian and the passages that described what is expected of the host upon arrival of a guest. I understood that Brazilians supposedly were warmer and more welcoming than Americans, but when I found out that we were showing up unannounced to the farmers’ homes with hundreds of survey questions, I thought we would be turned away at every single one.

Rachel, a student interviewer, and a farmer sitting on a low bench under a tree.
Rachel observes a household survey in Ariquemes.

Once again, I learned that the cultural norms outlined in Behaving Brazilian were correct. Gilberto de Assis Miranda had an established cheese business called Queijo 4 Cachoeiras (“Cheese 4 Waterfalls”). Gilberto opened his home to the survey team and me, and gave us a tour of his farm. As we sat down with him, he picked a fresh papaya from his tree and cut it up for us to eat. Later he plucked another unusual fruit from its branch and sent me home with “cupaçu,” a unique indigenous fruit unlike anything I’d had before.

I found him to be someone of what I thought was rare selflessness, a trait I thought we’d never encounter again. That was until I met Clara. Her land was vast, but her home was small with only a kitchen and a few extra bedrooms for 13 people. As she spoke with us, I noticed she was signaling toward my shoulders and my face.

Thais, a bilingual Brazilian postdoctoral student, began laughing and told me that Clara wanted to know why my shoulders were so broad, skin was so fair and face was sunburnt. Thais communicated to her that I was an American. Clara gasped and said, “Un Americana em minha casa!” She rushed over to me and began pinching my face and ears, and taking the hair out of my ponytail. She told Thais that it had always been her dream to go to America, but she had never met an American. The experience brought Thais and me to tears.

 Rachel and Clara standing together with arms around each other in front of a wooden building on Clara’s property.
Rachel and Clara. Ariquemes, Rondonia.

It was difficult to say goodbye to farmers like Gilberto and Clara. I was not sure I would ever experience such warm and welcoming behavior again. I will always remember when I was offered fresh papaya, bread, coffee and bananas, when the Brazilian students purchased English translation books to communicate better with me, and when the students all got together and began to sing and dance with each other when we had dinner.

There is something so genuine, honest, and lively about Brazilian culture… even a book as accurate as Behaving Brazilian could not have prepared me for it.


Harrison, Phyllis A. Behaving Brazilian: A Comparison of Brazilian and North American SocialBehavior. Newbury House Publishers, 1983.


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