Wandering Thoughts

May 3, 2009


Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 8:58 pm
Tags: , ,

I work in international development. Corruption is something development types take seriously – it gets in the way of markets and stops governments from doing good things like providing health care or building schools.  In general, it’s a bad thing. So bad in fact that, as an idealistic younger man, I travelled to Brazil to study something called the Orcamento Participativo, a system of municipal governance which, among other successes to its name, was credited with reducing corruption in the cities where it ran.

Unlike corruption, tipping, on the other hand, isn’t something development types think so much about. It doesn’t lead to war, or stagnation, or disease. It’s not without its challenges though. Especially as no two countries have exactly the same approach to it. In New Zealand you don’t have to tip at restaurants and you’d be thought of as positively odd if you tried to tip anywhere else. In New York, on the other hand, not only do you need to tip restaurant staff even if the service is poor, but you also need to tip bar tenders and hairdressers. In other countries like England and Spain the norms are different again.

Having muddled my way around the globe’s tipping norms, by the time I got to Brazil for my masters research I figured I’d stop guessing and simply ask. Sure, there was the risk that the porter, or waiter or whoever, might say yes even when a tip wasn’t necessary but I figured they were poorly paid service workers in a third world country. If I ended up giving them a few extra dollars when it wasn’t really necessary, what was the harm.

The only real problem I had was that I didn’t actually know the Portuguese word for ‘tip’. Not such a big problem though, I decided I’d just use the Spanish word – propina – instead. Often-enough Spanish and Portuguese words are interchangeable. And in the South of Brazil, where I was, the local vernacular had a stronger than usual Spanish influence.

And so it was that I spent my first few days dealing with my tip uncertainty in a straight-up manner. I asked the nice old guy who carried my bags at the hotel if it was “normal dar uma propina” for his services. He looked at me a little funny – probably struggling with my accent or grammar – but took the change I gave him. The same thing happened with the waitress at the vegetarian restaurant, the guy at the café and the woman at the hairdressers. (Although, she started with a puzzled ‘no’ before changing her answer to ‘yes’). I was a bit suspicious, no one ever really turned my offer of a tip down, but in general the process seemed to be working. I was being straight up, and practicing my Portuguese to boot. Something that, from the strange looks I was receiving, I really did need to work on.

Despite all this, when the chance arose, I did take the opportunity to get independent verification of local tipping norms, and of my use of the word ‘propina’. My chance for this came through Yamil, a friend of a friend, who I went and stayed with in Gramado. He spoke perfect English, had travelled a lot, and aided whenever he could during my stay in Brazil.

And so, one afternoon, I explained to him what I’d been doing and asked whether ‘propina’ was indeed the right word.

His reply started with a laugh.

“No in Portuguese the word is Gorgetta. And here in the south of Brazil the word ‘propina’ means something like a bribe.”

So there I was – student of anti-corruption measures, spending my first few days in Brazil wandering about, trying desperately to bribe my way through its service industry. No wonder they kept giving me strange looks.



  1. In late 2001 I travelled around the Riviera and Provence with a friend. When people asked us where we were from, I explained that “nous sommes Néo-Zelandais, mais il habite à Londres and je le visite.” We’re New Zealanders but he lives in London and I’m visiting him: this is what I thought I said, although I was puzzled by the long blink with which it was usually greeted.

    It wasn’t until about four years later that a young French woman at the Alliance here told me that “visiter” when used of people has what she called “les connotations sexuelles”. What I had said was therefore something like “I am visiting myself upon him”. This is why I call the intermediate command of a language the ability to make embarrassing mistakes fluently.

    Comment by harvestbird — May 4, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  2. doh :)

    Comment by terence — May 4, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

  3. […] @ 8:19 pm Tags: learning portuguese Hah. Under my post on corruption, Harvest Bird offers an even better tale of the perils hidden between the words of other people’s […]

    Pingback by Maybe I should of used a dictionary afterall « Wandering Thoughts — May 4, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

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