Opinion, by Sam Flowers

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – One stereotype that Brazilians themselves will acknowledge is pretty accurate, is their habit of arriving late for any occasion. When you come from other cultures where “time is money,” this tardiness habit is intensely irritating.

Sam Flowers, owner of the Gringo Café.
Sam Flowers, owner of the Gringo Café.

Most people suggest you “get used to it” and I agree, it’s wise to adjust your expectations a bit or you will feel constantly frustrated. That said, in some situations there are creative ways to get Brazilians to respect time.

I was encouraged when I noticed that Brazilians do arrive on time for some key occasions. They seem to have no trouble arriving on time to see a movie, to catch an international flight for vacation or to buy a lottery ticket in time to qualify for the latest giant jackpot. It appears that if the incentive is right, Brazilians will be prompt.

So what is the right incentive? Clearly this depends on the situation but I have had good success with financial incentives. I also try to apply one of the more famous lessons of behavioral economists known as “loss aversion.” Studies of “loss aversion” demonstrate that people work much harder to avoid a loss than they do to achieve a gain. Losing can be a more powerful motivator than winning.

In my restaurant I must have staff arrive on time, so I devised an incentive system to motivate punctual behavior. When a staff member arrives late with no prior warning I reduce their commission and divide it amongst the rest of the staff with an on time record.

This has proven effective in two ways. First, the person who is late losses a valuable sum and tries to arrive on time in the future. Second, the system is self-policing since the staff members that arrive on time (and benefit from others who are late), are happy to report when a colleague fails to arrive on schedule.

Not all my strategies to improve punctuality have worked, so I try to focus my efforts on the one or two situations where time is most critical. For the other situations I adapt my expectations and my schedule.

As you adapt to life and work in Brazil you are likely to adopt some local customs, and overall this is a good thing. Just be aware that when it comes to time management you may start to relax your standards more than you would like. I am terribly embarrassed to admit for example that I missed the original deadline to submit this article.

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Sam Flowers is an American living in Rio de Janeiro who created and founded the Gringo Café in Ipanema in 2010. A former executive and consultant with twenty years experience in Corporate Strategy, Brand Marketing and Finance, Sam also offers consulting services to foreign businesses and people entering or adapting to Brazil. Contact Sam at sam@gringocafe.com.

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