10 Things that Might Shock You in São Paulo

For more lists of 10 and insights into Sao Paulo, see American Exbrat in São Paulo.

The term “culture-shock” wasn’t coined for nothing. I know for a fact that there are many things that shock Brazilians when they visit the States. Here are a few tendencies that might make the foreigners in São Paulo somewhat astonished.

1. The Kiss Greeting

Yes, everyone greets with a kiss. However, it is more of an air-kiss/cheek-bounce than a real smacker. Word of warning, paulistanos kiss-greet only on the right side, but cariocas do their greeting with two kisses, one on each cheek. This was difficult for me to get in the beginning, because most of my kiss greeting experience had been in Rio de Janeiro. So I’d automatically go for that second kiss, causing the paulistano to pull back in surprise. Awkward. Eventually I learned to pause after the first kiss and let the other person initiate the second if necessary, because you often don’t get a chance to inquire about a person’s birthplace before they go for the beijo. Be warned, the Brazilian might also grab your shoulder to get in at a good angle.

2. Pedestrians Do Not Have the Right of Way


Crosswalks in São Paulo are mostly for decoration. Do NOT assume that a driver will stop, or even pause, because there is a crosswalk painted on the road. And just because a stop sign stands next to it doesn’t mean that is going to make someone stop. There is a citywide initiative to reduce the number of cars that hit people, as well as curb pedestrians from taking certain risks crossing the roads. However, I’ve only seen the advocates of this campaign on streets that don’t need them, ones with stoplights and crossing signals, not on the neighborhood streets with limited signage where it is all a roll of the dice.

3. Pizza


I must admit, São Paulo pizza is darn good, maybe even the best I’ve had (please don’t tell my New York and Chicago friends). That is shocking in itself, but what made me look twice is that paulistanos will pour olive oil on top of the already slippery dish. I guess you just can’t get enough of the good stuff. What’s more, if you are dining with a carioca, they might just add some mayonnaise and ketchup to the mix. My friends and family still talk about the evening when they were served pizza in a parlor in Rio, complete with packages of the condiments for their enjoyment. Of course, as Americans they didn’t indulge, but I did on one occasion just to see what the fuss was about. Still, not sure how I feel about it.

4. Tardiness

Brazilians like to be late, even the ones in São Paulo who hold themselves up to a higher standard of business and social etiquette. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, sometime even thirty is perfectly acceptable in São Paulo social circles. But once you find yourself still waiting at the one-hour mark, it’s time to go home. Some Brazilians also agree to social engagements that they never intend on attending, a form of their amenable, yet noncommittal culture.

5. Plastic Surgery

While statistics still say that the US of A is the plastic surgery capital of the world, you may question those numbers walking the streets of São Paulo. Not only might you encounter a person with some obvious work done, but also because the surgeries have been more common in the country for many more years, you see a lot of repeat processes and fix-ups. Cosmetic surgery is also a common topic of discussion. No one denies they’ve gotten work done and they won’t deny you their opinion of what procedures you should schedule.

6. Manicures and Pedicures


If your manicurist suddenly splatters nail polish all over your digits, she isn’t seizing into an epileptic fit. That’s just how they do it here. Covering the tip of your finger in color and then wipes all the extra away is the standard procedure. I feel this represents the “throw it against the wall and see what sticks, then clean up the mess” attitude of a country with a history of chaos. But don’t worry. Just like everything else in Brazil, it all works out in the end. And FYI – there will be no nice chair that gives you a back massage while your feet soak in warm water. You’ll need to awkwardly adjust your limbs to accommodate the technicians sitting in front of or next to you.

7. Price of Children’s Toys

Ever pay US$125 for a Barbie doll? Sure, maybe if it was rare, antique collector’s item that Queen Elizabeth played with. How about US$7 for a box of 24 Crayola crayons?  No? Well, if you are shopping for toys and art supplies in São Paulo, you are in for some sticker shock. Thanks to duties and demand, these items get an incredible mark-up. Even if you don’t have kids, expats in Brazil will most likely find themselves purchasing a toy at some point for a Brazilian Birthday Bash. And let me tell you, it’s painful to shell out R$90 for something you can get at Walmart for a quarter of the price.

8. Parking People

You park on the street and suddenly a man appears next to your car. He will either want to sell you a parking ticket, often without a price on the actual paper, or he will offer to “protect” your car for a small fee. He may have even just assisted you in parking or directed you to a spot and wants to get paid for this service as well. Sounds like highway robbery? Not quite. He is a flanelinha. Let’s just say that Brazilians are an entrepreneurial lot and unfortunately, it is part of what makes the economy move. This unregulated enterprise will usually only cost you a couple bucks. Unless, that is, you are parking for a futebol game. Then it could be closer to a couple hundred.

9. Traffic

Driving is a trick in itself, but once you hit some of São Paulo’s notorious traffic, you’ll wish you were one of the Brazillionaires with a helicopter of your own. Depending on the time of day, and the weather, getting to a destination can take 15 minutes or two hours. If you have some flexibility in your schedule, avoid the commuter hours, and at all costs, the holiday travel times of a long weekend.

10. Pollution

What do you get when you mix a population sitting across a number of basins with a bunch of factories and seven million cars? Pollution. Those coaxing you to the city will probably leave out this critical fact. But if there are any respiratory issues in your crew, including asthma, you may want to negotiate your travel allowance for more trips home per year for fresher air.  Or budget some extra getaways for an occasional breather.

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18 Responses to 10 Things that Might Shock You in São Paulo

  1. Excellent post, thanks, spot on.
    Didn’t know they did different kissing that would mess with me. Crossing a road is always fun in Saquarema we have lots of bikes and the occasional horse, they all drive on either side and go either way, crazy time. I have to try this pizza, better NYC?

    • I’ve gotta say – the pizza here is damn good. I dare to say it might be better. Much different than Chicago style pizza, but pretty similar to the NYC. Try it and let me know what you think. Yeah, I sometime go for that extra kiss with an unsuspecting Brazilian and hit a body part I’m not supposed it. Awkward.

  2. Good post. Spot on regarding the amenable yet noncommittal cultural thing.

  3. The Rider says:

    So Sao Paulo off the Bucket List?

  4. That picture of the nail polish is giving me heart palpitations. As an ex-manicure/pedicurist, I can’t even stand looking at it! lol

    And I totally agree with your asessment of the “throw it against the wall and see what sticks, then clean up the mess” attitude! As far as we can tell, that’s just how things are done, no matter if it’s nail polish, wall painting or road building.

  5. Andrew Francis says:

    You’re right about #2, of course, but after reading this sad news I think that maybe Sao Paulo isn’t so shocking if you come from Oregon:


  6. Katie says:

    Great, 100% accurate post!

    FYI: in Brasilia pedestrians are the priority!! It’s like no other place in Brazil!!! Amazing!

    And “Some Brazilians also agree to social engagements that they never intend on attending, a form of their amenable, yet noncommittal culture.” — this drives me up the wall to no end!! haha Even after 10 years here… I still believe people when they claim they will come visit us. (they never do). ha!

  7. Loved your post! Having lived in a number of (very) foreign countries, I enjoy reading stories about the differences in culture and attitudes you find around the world. I must say, I’m quite culture shocked seeing the photo of those lavishly painted toenails 😉

  8. Pingback: Culture shock in Brazil. | Brazil, not only football.

  9. Giulia says:

    Hello! I am from São Paulo and just came back from spending a year in Wisconsin USA. I like your post it’s interesting to know what foreigners think about our culture. I totally agree with the pizza thing! We have the Italian pizza style and I just love it, also we have so many options!
    About getting mani and pedis], you should have posted a picture after it’s all done. Nothing different from the result you would get in the USA, also compare the price range, we don’t need to get massage, we just need our nails done. In Brazil you can get it done for 8 dollars!
    Also you can be late when you have something social, but workaholics as we are we could never be a minute late for business.
    I hope you enjoyed São Paulo as much as we enjoy “gringos” haha!

  10. Andrea says:

    I liked this published so much.

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