The website I use to get my local news has a fun little feature: a running tally of how many people have been murdered in Caxias this year. So far, that number stands at 42—a little less than two murders a week. (The other fun fact is that so far, only 17% of those cases have been resolved.)
I’ve had different reactions when talking to people about safety in Caxias. People who are used to living in bigger cities, like nearby capital Porto Alegre, say Caxias is relatively safe: gang violence isn’t as much of a thing here, and I get the impression that drug use isn’t quite as bad, either. But when I talk to some of my students who come from small towns—like, where it’s not uncommon to leave doors unlocked—they tell me Caxias is definitely dangerous.
It’s not hard to see what’s happening in these conversations. We each have our own experiences that determine what we see as normal. We then compare our current situation to our established baselines and form judgements based on the differences. It’s how we make sense of the world.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been reading Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, a book that was originally on the syllabus for my Intercultural Communication class at UCS. I’ve actually been blown away by its insight—and that’s coming from someone who’s spent nearly a third of his life living, working, and traveling across some two-dozen countries. I think it does a great job of laying out the roots of cultural differences (in myriad dimensions) and explaining how they might influence people’s behaviors, values, and thoughts.
For me, the central assumption underpinning the book is that people have learned to behave in a way that works in their context. It’s easy to dismiss other people as stupid, but it’s harder to understand the context in which their behavior makes sense. That’s a good reminder for me in Brazil, where things can seem needlessly difficult or opaque—but I also think it’s a good approach to life. And if you may allow me to step up onto a soapbox for a second, I think this attitude is sorely needed in political conversations in the US as well.
Looking at Caxias’s 2018 murder rate, I can see why people tell me Caxias isn’t safe. I get why people don’t stop at red lights at night, and I understand why every house here has some sort of fence surrounding it. On a deeper level, I can better appreciate the malaise, frustration, and insecurity that many Brazilians (not just those in Caxias) seem to feel. And when murders are rarely solved—including the high-profile death of Rio de Jainero councilwoman Marielle Franco, which officially remains unsolved two months later—I get why so many people feel angry and pessimistic about the chances of justice being delivered in their country.
Anyway, if you want to read Cultures and Organizations, some kind soul posted a pdf of the full text online. I highly recommend it if you’re looking to learn about different ways of making sense of the world, or if you just want to realize how deep your own cultural programming runs. As I’m reading, I’m routinely surprised by how many of my own values and beliefs I take for granted—like how differences in individualism vs. collectivism, for example, can explain some of the tension we ETAs are experiencing in Brazil.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep trying my best to approach other people and cultures with humility and openness. I’ll also do my best not to get mugged—and admittedly breathe a sigh of relief when I get to spend some time in a city that’s a little safer than Caxias.