I still cringe when I remember the evening I arrived on time to a house party in Rio de Janeiro.
Three months after I moved to Rio from Manchester, I was invited to a Saturday night churrasco – an informal barbecue – by a casual acquaintance with whom I’d crossed paths socially enough times that a friendship had begun to develop. But when I turned up on her doorstep a couple of minutes after the time she’d told me to arrive, my new friend looked so startled I thought I’d got the wrong day.
Wrapped in a towel and dripping wet from the shower, she gestured at the living room full of bags of food shopping and piles of possible outfits, and half-jokingly said, “Ainda nao estou pronta!” – “I’m not ready yet!”
Arriving on time would be almost as awkward as turning up to a party when you weren’t invited at all
My attempts to make myself useful proved fruitless; as a vegetarian at a barbecue, with no caipirinha-making skills, I was of limited practical value. She switched on the television for me, and I pretended to be engrossed in a gaudy gameshow as she flitted in and out of the living room, beautifying both herself and the party space. Around 40 minutes later I was beginning to worry that nobody else would show up, but my host looked entirely unconcerned and, indeed, around an hour after the 20:30 ‘start time’, guests began to trickle in. Around three hours later there was a full house.
By turning up virtually on time, I had made a grave social faux pas. In a country with a famously relaxed approach to time-keeping, the residents of Rio are known as the least punctual of the lot.
View image of In Brazil, it is considered rude to be on time to a party (Credit: Credit: Daniel J Hoffman)
You may also be interested in:
• The confusing way Mexicans tell time
• Why Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish
• The strange reason why Spaniards eat late
“Turning up on time to a party would be awkward anywhere in the country, but especially so in Rio,” explained Dr Jaqueline Bohn Donada, professor of English literature at the Technological Federal University of Paraná’s Curitiba campus in southern Brazil. “It would be almost as awkward as turning up to a party when you weren’t invited at all!”
A combination of the city’s unhurried ‘life’s a beach’ attitude and day-to-day delays caused by traffic or just bumping into an old friend on the street mean that Cariocas (Rio locals) have learned neither to expect nor appreciate punctuality in a social setting. The best-laid plans frequently go awry in Rio, and it is polite to allow for the fact that a party host may well be running late themselves.
“The unspoken rule is that the host waits until the time the party is supposed to start, and only then begins to think about having a shower,” explained Fiona Roy, a Portuguese-English translator originally from the UK who lived in Rio de Janeiro for six years.
View image of The city’s ‘life’s a beach’ attitude and day-to-day delays mean the best-laid plans frequently go awry in Rio (Credit: Credit: Ben Fisher/Alamy)
The Brazilian-Portuguese language reflects this, with time-specific words that lack direct translations in English. The verb ‘atrasar’ can be interpreted as ‘to be late’ or ‘to cause lateness’, while demorar is a verb that loosely means ‘take a long time’. A person who is muito enrolado/a (literally, ‘very tangled’) is likely to demorar or atrasar a great deal. A problem that will take a while to resolve is an ‘abacaxi’ or ‘pineapple’ (so called due to the thorny issue of removing the fruit from its spiky skin).
Those who arrive on time, however, adhere to ‘hora inglesa’, literally ‘English Time’ – a nod to the importance of punctuality in many English-speaking countries like the UK and the US.
Another mistake that I made during those first few months in Rio was to take locals too literally. After a number of painfully long waits (including waiting in a bar for more than two hours for a first date), I learned that the phrase estou chegando (‘I’m arriving’), should never be taken at face value. Rather than signifying imminent arrival, ‘estou chegando’ simply means that someone plans to turn up at some point – whether that’s in five minutes or two hours.
“Lateness is a national trait but it’s definitely more pronounced in Rio than elsewhere,” Dr Bohn Donada explained. “In Rio, if someone says ‘estou chegando’, nobody takes it literally. I used to have a boss that would call us from home saying he was caught in traffic but would be there soon, but we could actually hear his shower running! Here in the south that made us angry, but in Rio it would be perfectly acceptable.”
View image of In Brazil, it is polite to allow for the fact that your host may be running late themselves (Credit: Credit: dbimages/Alamy)
This casual approach to punctuality is nothing new. In his 1933 book Brazilian Adventure: A Journey Into the Heart of the Brazilian Amazon, author Peter Fleming succinctly observed that ‘a man in a hurry will be miserable in Brazil’.
It is not without good reason that this observation is made in the book’s chapter on Rio, in which Fleming also notes: “Delay in Brazil is a climate. You live in it, you can’t get away from it. There is nothing to be done about it. It should, I think, be a source of pride to the Brazilians that they possess a natural characteristic that is absolutely impossible to ignore. No other country can make this boast.”
Simone Fonseca Marrek, a Carioca who now lives in Germany, admits that adjusting to Germans’ less-flexible work schedules took some practice. “Once I arrived a couple of minutes early for a presentation with a company I had just started working for. There were about 20 people waiting for me, and although I was not late, I felt like I was because they were all ready and waiting for the clock to hit the appointed time,” she said.
View image of Despite meaning ‘I’m arriving’, ‘estou chegando’ simply means that someone plans to turn up at some point (Credit: Credit: Y.Levy/Alamy)
As Fleming addressed in his book, it’s pointless to react to Cariocas’ lateness with anger, as it will achieve nothing except a permanent state of frustration. Rio’s allure lies not in any attempts at orderliness but rather in its laid-back pace of life.
“I think we are usually late because we are optimists,” Fonseca Marrek said. We think we can do loads of things and still have time to get to appointments – and if we don’t, then that’s OK too.”
Delay in Brazil is a climate – you live in it, you can’t get away from it
But even Cariocas draw the line somewhere, and there are natural (if unspoken) limits to just how late one should be. “I loved the relaxed approach to time-keeping and not being pressured to be somewhere on time,” Roy said. “But once it was my birthday and some friends had organised a party in a bar. I spent all day and half the evening icing cakes and getting ready, and eventually turned up so late that the bar was almost closing. I took it too far that time.”
Fonseca Marrek says that while Cariocas will at least attempt to be punctual for business meetings, it is not the case for social events. “We can arrive whenever we want, but definitely not less than 30 minutes after the scheduled start time.”
View image of Simone Fonseca Marrek: “I think we are usually late because we are optimists” (Credit: Credit: Intersection Photos/Alamy)
It is a lesson I learned the socially awkward way at that first churrasco, and it is one I never forgot during my nine years in Rio. In fact, I soon became a dab hand at arriving fashionably late, to the extent that I would frequently arrive later than my Carioca friends, who would tap their wrists in pretend annoyance and say “virou Brasileira” – “you’ve turned Brazilian”.
Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called «If You Only Read 6 Things This Week». A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Travel, Capital, Culture, Earth and Future, delivered to your inbox every Friday.