I think that I am the world’s greatest expert on meetings. Put me in a meeting in a strange country and nine times out of ten I can tell you where I am.
For example, the Dutch will turn up as casually dressed as possible and then spend most of the time discussing the coffee, the Japanese will sit silently with their eyes closed and say nothing, the Chinese will spend most of their time clearing their throats, or if you are lucky enough to be in China, spitting into the ashtray, their pockets or the bin, the English will turn up punctually nod meaningfully occasionally and then disappear off to the pub where the real work is done. The Danes, well to be honest the last time I went to a meeting in Denmark it was sponsored by a brewery and I remember little about the trip – except that perhaps it would not be a good idea for me to go back so soon.
The Brazilians have a totally different view of meetings. From my limited experience of dragging myself round a few dozen companies and trying to sort my own research group out, it seems to involve everyone shouting at once, everyone making as many complex hand gestures as possible and no one really listening to what anyone else is saying.
Of course, in any other country this would drive me to distraction but for some reason I just find it amusing here. One minute you are discussing a complex purchasing agreement then the next all hell breaks loose as someone suggests that the latest twist in one of the many soaps is not quite what it seems. It can be both amusing and very tiring.
Well, at least this was my experience one Friday afternoon a few weeks ago. I knew things weren’t going well when my friend, who had agreed to translate for me (regular readers will not be surprised by the necessity of this), began to argue with one of the students. When I asked him what they were shouting about my translator told me they were arguing about a certain chemical reaction we had been thinking about. I reminded him that he was in fact an economist and knew nothing about chemistry. ‘Ah well, chemistry, economics it’s all much the same thing – I think he is wrong anyway’.
I gave up and made my excuses and left. The meeting had reached critical mass anyway, and would keep going for a good few more hours yet. I was still chuckling away to myself when I bumped into a colleague in the corridor. He laughed and told me to go home and pack – ‘life is more than work’ were his parting words. Early the next morning we were rolling out of Fortaleza on a nearly deserted road laughing still about the difficulty of working here.
I don’t think I will ever tire of this city however much it frustrates and antagonises me. Just a few kilometres outside of Fortaleza and we were already rolling through dense countryside. The sun was just beginning to burn off the night’s rain and a thin mist was rising over the flooded fields. For someone who has wasted far too much time watching films, it was, and will always be to me, pure Jurassic Park country. I half expected a rogue tyrannosaurus or velociraptor to spring out and devour us, but we rolled on uninterrupted.
The quiet morning and the gentle throb of the tires on the perfect road gave me time for reflection. I made a mental list of what I love most about Brazil. Top of my list was the way the people, in particular my harassed travel agent, stretch ‘pode’ (meaning ‘yes you may’) into infinity. I just love the way that after every impossible request: ‘Dona Luciana, I just have to go to Malawi next week via Amsterdam. Can I get a cheap deal on the Tuesday flight?’, the person concerned will give you a long warm look like you have just asked something really obvious (will the sun shine today?) and say ‘pode’ making the last syllables stretch sometime into next week.
It sounds so warm and inviting – like most of the things the Brazilians do and say. If you listen carefully you will notice the Brazilians slipping the odd extra syllables into any number of words. It’s like the way Brazilians pronounce my name with a couple of extra “e” sounds on the end, turning plain boring Philip into Philipeee, which I am convinced makes me sound a lot more dashing.
VASP (Brazilian airlines) becomes Vaspeee and TAP (Portuguese Airlines) becomes Tapeee. I now find myself flying only on these airlines, not because they are the cheapest, but because I love to hear the stewardess announce “Welcome to tapeeee”. I also love the way any strange or exotic words (such as foreign names) are instantly Brazillianised. For example, they way the guards on my building ask me each day if I have had any news from Dona Sasha (my girlfriend). Her name isn’t actually Sasha, its nothing like it, but she feels deeply honoured to be given a name of a revered local saint.