I was getting out of the lift in my Rio de Janeiro apartment building when the random Brazilian guy riding alongside me gave me a hug goodbye.
I’d never met him before. Even more strangely he was with his wife at the time who just smiled like it was totally normal. But it wasn’t a hug hug, like the wrap your arms around the person variety you’re probably thinking of, it was a Brazilian Portuguese hug from his mouth to my ears. It was classic Carioca warmth with him saying to me with a big smile on his face “tchau tchau, abraços”, meaning “buy buy, hugs”.
I had heard this before from Brazilian friends in text messages, but never from a stranger said in total nonchalant sincerity after we’d just passed a lift ride you could count in seconds. “That’s Rio for you,” I laughed to myself as I put the key into my apartment door, repeating the encounter to Facebook moments later to brighten up everyone else’s day as much as it had done mine.
Could I imagine macho Aussie blokes grunting “see ya mate, hugs” to another guy in the lift, let alone to their friends in a text? No chance. But in Brazil, and Rio especially, the affection of the language they speak with shows the warmth of their spirit.
I quickly realised riding the lifts in Rio was a lot different to back home. Almost without fail when the lift screeches to a halt and someone steps in they say “bom dia”, “boa tarde” or “boa noite” for good morning, good afternoon and good evening, likewise getting out. Not just “ola” or “oi” for hello and hi, but the polite, time-of-day specific greeting which you never really hear back in Australia except for people paid to kiss your ass.
But even in Australia it's probably a stretch to get that except for in the finest of fine establishments, we're too laidback for that - why use three or four syllables when we can use one or two.
Being outgoing I got into the swing of this say-hello-to-everyone thing pretty easily, seeing it as an extension of my natural self but which had been held back up until now by that stuffy inherited British cultural mindset of giving people some space, and where do you need to give someone space more so than in a tiny-ass lift? But touchy-feely Brazilian culture doesn’t care so much for personal space.
It reminded me of the time I spent a week working in a country NSW town doing door-to-door sales when I was 17 and still too young to get a bar job, and everyone I passed in the street would say g'day. As a city kid this was different - "Strangers? Acknowledging? Me?" But with good old-fashioned country hospitality everyone in those wide, empty streets passes each other with a smile and a greeting because with hardly a soul around it would be rude not to.
This however is all but dead in crowded cities like Sydney where in some paradoxical way we become less open and sociable to strangers with the more people we have around us. There simply ain't enough time to be saying hello to everyone in the big smoke like Crocodile Dundee.
"New York City, Mr. Dundee. Home to seven million people."
"That's incredible. Imagine seven million people all wanting to live together. Yeah, New York must be the friendliest place on earth."
Maybe there’s a half-smile and nod in a lift, but a greeting and a goodbye sprinkled with some hugs is so far beyond what’s expected that people might think you’re crazy or up to something to actually turn your body, look them in the eye and acknowledge them, not once, but two whole times - that’s if they haven’t struck up conversation with you in-between which happens to me here.
But in Rio it's not crazy to be like this. Rio I realised is like a big country town. I even once got a job interview via a woman I met in the lift. Back home we're like Don Draper, but here they're like Will Ferrell (that was the best representation I could find for this in GIF form).
I started raving to one of my Brazilian friends about how much I loved this part of my new life.
“Oh, I hate that,” she said wearily. “I just want to go to my apartment without having to interact with anyone, I hate that that’s expected.”
Needless to say, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s pretty close. She considers herself introverted, but by Rio standards an introvert is still more outgoing than most everyone else on the planet. As friends from other parts of Brazil have said to me, they feel ‘cold’ compared to the warmth of the people of Rio, and these people are by no means reserved themselves.
These language hugs have come again and again, from the street vender I buy my fruit from, from Uber drivers, and I’ve even heard news presenters saying it to each other too which makes hearing about death and destruction just a little more sunny.
Brazilians also love to say “tchau tchau, beijos” for kisses, usually with people they know. I’m still yet to have a stranger give me some spoken kisses, but it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if it happens in this city.