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Communicating in Brazil: Professor’s New Book Promotes Understanding Across Cultures

Orlando Kelm (center) in a jam session on the streets of Rio de Janeiro

When doing business abroad, communicating clearly with your foreign colleagues is a necessity.

Orlando Kelm, associate director of business language education for The University of Texas at Austin, has more than four decades of experience in Brazil. After doing missionary work there in the 1970s, he returned to the country numerous times as both an academic and business professional. His new book, "The Seven Keys to Communicating in Brazil: An Intercultural Approach," co-authored by David Victor and published by Georgetown University Press, uses a reader-friendly, non-academic style and around 60 photographs to illustrate cultural differences.

Following the book's launch, Kelm recently described his approach to cross-cultural communication in Brazil and beyond. 

What are the keys to intercultural communication?

We use the LESCANT approach, which is an acronym for seven areas where cultural exchanges get messed up. "L" is for language. "E" is for the environment, meaning physical things around us that are different. "S" stands for social organization, or how society is put together. That might be school, education, religion, and the role of women. "C" stands for context. Is it a high context culture or a low context culture? Is your behavior determined by rules or by what's around you? "A" stands for authority. Who has power? How is it enforced? How is it shared? "N" stands for nonverbal communication, which could be clothing, colors, and gestures. "T" stands for time. How do you divide up your time? How do you schedule your time? How many things you do at once? Are deadlines a really big deal?

How does the new book apply LESCANT?

We teach people how to observe things around them. Our general tendency is we don’t really observe, so we don't catch things that are different.

A few years ago, during my first time in Japan, I wanted to soak in everything. I had a little notebook. The first two weeks, I was just crazily writing down everything I could see, forcing myself to look for stuff. Because if you don't do it those first couple of weeks, you lose that ability to sense what's new. 

This is what the book does. I hope it does a good job of saying, "Notice the way Brazilian society is put together. Notice the physical things that are different. Notice how people have authority and power and the reactions to them."

How do the photos support that approach?  

There's a picture I took at a construction site that reads, "You are very important to your family. Don't get into an accident." An American sign would say "Caution" or something similar. Brazilians don't just give you the rule. They give you the reason because they're more of a high context culture.

There is a picture of a cosmetics factory in Brazil, but nobody is there because it's lunchtime. Unlike factories in America or most of the world that have a first and second shift to keep things going, they close down for about two hours. To them, the quality of life is important. They're saying, "Even if it costs us more money, we want to provide our employees with a break in the middle of the day."

Have you applied this approach with McCombs students?

When I take MBA students on Global Connections trips — I've gone to Brazil, Chile, Colombia, China, and this year I'm leading the South Africa trip — I've taught the LESCANT approach before we go. While we're on our trip, I have them take photographs for each topic.

Last year, we took students on a tour of a neighborhood in Medellin, Colombia, which historically was pretty rough, with a lot of drug influence. The government has done an incredible job of adding new infrastructure to that area. Because it's so steep and hilly, they put in escalators. Now people have a way of getting up and down. Our bus drops us off and we take the escalators up the hill. The escalators stop running at, let's say, 8:00 p.m. We were scheduled to be back at the bottom to get our bus back to the hotel, but we’re having a great time in the neighborhood. People are singing, dancing, and showing us their artwork. Little kids are coming out, and we're playing with them.

We're going to have to walk down the hill. A bunch of my students caught on to this. If we had been on a tour in the United States, they'd cut it short because we have to get back to the bus at 'x' time. But because we're here, the students are going, "We're having a good time, learning a lot, and interacting with the community. If we have to walk down the hill and take the bus late, it's no big deal." I was really proud of them. This is something they would not have noticed otherwise: A typical feature of Colombian culture is the event is more important than the clock. 

"The Seven Keys to Communicating in Brazil" book coverWhat are some examples of communication challenges in Brazil?

Once, I was doing a consulting gig helping some Americans with negotiations in Brazil. One of the Americans spoke a little Portuguese, but she had an American intonation. Americans raise and lower our voices, we emphasize our words. She imposed that on her Portuguese without even knowing it. The Brazilians would ask me, "Why is she so mad at us?" and I'd go, "I don’t think she's angry with you." They'd say, "Well, she seems upset all the time."

When it comes to turn taking in a conversation, if I pause at some point, then you jump in. Brazilians don't do that: The second person starts talking before the first one's done. So two things happen: One, the American never knows when to jump in. Two, you get the impression that the Brazilians are talking on top of other people, which seems almost rude. But when you learn that, you start getting more accustomed to it. "This is not rude behavior and I should do the same thing."

Can you talk about how time and scheduling differs? 

When The University of Texas at Austin won the national football championship years ago, we had a celebration at the Erwin Center. The coach and team walk in and everyone starts cheering. When they got off stage, we all stopped cheering and left. I've been in Brazil when a big soccer game happens and people take to the streets, dancing, celebrating, and hugging everyone, and the buses don't even go on their routes any more.

The idea that even our cheering was manipulated with time is really weird for Brazilians. They will often tell me, "I got this invitation for a birthday party from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. I understand how you know when a party begins, but how do you know when it ends?" But we will stop a party because it's time to stop a party.

In Brazil, it took me many years to figure out when a business meeting was over. You think it's over, but they keep on talking. So how do they magically know, all of a sudden, when to leave? A friend in Rio finally pointed it out to me. She said, "Look at the person in charge." At some point, he does a little hand movement. We don't have that movement, but when Brazilians do it everybody stands up and moves away.

You're currently writing a series using the LESCANT approach. What countries will be the focus of your next books?

We just finished our Japan book, and it will probably come out next summer. The next one will be about Mexico, and we're just starting to write it. The publisher said they'd like India to be the one after that.

The plan is the two of us will always co-author and then we’ll have a guest author from that country to make sure we're not saying anything crazy. In this case, I know enough about Brazil that I didn’t feel like we needed a guest author. It's fun that it's taken off with the idea that this will be applicable to a whole bunch of other countries.

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