Small Talk

Author’s note:I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m an improbable carioca(local term for a citizen of Rio de Janeiro). I can sunburn in 15 minutes flat, for one thing. But bear with me.I’m a junior at Princeton, studying Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American Studies and Brazilian Studies. Over the course of my first two years in college I fell in love with Rio from afar through scratchy samba recordings and in 2011, I finally found my way to the city for a semester abroad. It was hyperbolic – the city both was and wasn’t what I’d dreamed, and I spent a lot of my six months chasing after the ghosts of my favourite writers and musicians.I wrote something every day while I was in Rio, trying to leave a record of my time there. This is a kind of diary, so read with caution.

One thing that continues to startle me (and when I say “startle”, I mean it caused me to delicately raise an eyebrow) is the Brazilian ease of conversation. That’s not really the best way of putting it – it’s the Brazilian propensity for small talk, period.

In the U.S., interactions with strangers are premeditated and only used sparingly, as necessary.  But here, the activation energy for a conversation is vastly lower. (Lest anyone doubt: I did learn something in Chem.)

Back in May, I was catching a train from Washington to Princeton which managed to misplace first its engine and then its crew, and so there was a line of passengers waiting to board that snaked out of the waiting area and down the corridor.  My mother and I waited for an hour and a half, or maybe more, and exchanged perhaps half a dozen words with the people next to us. Even then, it was only because we were all trying to figure out exactly what the loudspeakers were saying.  The conversations went something like this:

Announcer: mumblemumblemumble

Man: Was that for train #186?

Mom: I think so.

[Resume silence.]

I don’t know what to chalk it up to – the fact that we’ve been told since preschool not to talk to strangers, a certain social inertia, or what.

Conversations are isolated social interactions; you initiate them with people you know, and they stay closed. But here the padrão is vastly different. On Sunday I was walking through a park with some Brazilian friends, commenting on the spectacular uprooting of a massive tree (it’d ripped up a part of the pavement and nearly crushed the aquarium), and a park guard overheard us and burst in – or at least by my cultural standards, she burst in.

“We have to hire a separate contractor to get that taken care of, you know.”

“I like it,” said one of my friends. “I think it’s a testament to the power of nature!  They should leave it like that forever.”

Suddenly the four of us were chatting, the guard walking alongside us. By the time we parted ways, it was with a cheery “Tchau tchau!

Minor, I know, but symptomatic. Social interactions here seem more fluid, on the whole; there are fewer barriers to interaction. When I caught the bus last night, I saw that most of the seats were taken and stood by the door, holding onto a handrail to steady myself. Suddenly I felt a tap on my hand, and saw that a woman was gesturing for me to take the seat next to hers. On the subway in New York, or on the bus in Miami, that would be unthinkable. First of all, if a person wants to stand and be uncomfortable, that’s their God-given, Constitution-guaranteed right and one should respect that liberty. Second of all, if you invite a person to sit next to you on public transit, you’re probably the Craigslist Killer. Here in Rio, it’s just a nice gesture.

Of course it makes total sense. Why would you let a person be jostled around standing if there’s still a seat left? Why shouldn’t you be allowed to talk with other people about the massive uprooted tree that’s right in front of all of you? But those walls are pretty damn firm in American society. And I’ll be frank, they tend to suit my introversion just fine.

When I was getting ready to leave for Brazil, a friend warned me very seriously that if I wasn’t incredibly outgoing people would think I didn’t like them. 

But there have to be some introverts in Brazil.

He pondered this for a very long time, and then shook his head.

Of course there are, but I guess that American social introversion takes it to a new level. In the U.S., I think strangers tend to interact most when they’re sharing a common inconvenience (waiting in line, say), because then there’s something safe you can complain about together. But it is fun to be able to talk about things with Brazilian strangers that aren’t the delay on #186 or where the hell did the barista go. When I work up the courage, that is.

Flora's Rio diary was hosted by the Rio-based culture magazine Piauí, who has kindly allowed us to republish a selection of her posts here on Litro.

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