I got into a heated debate on Facebook yesterday about Brazil and the US. I took issue with a Brazilian who criticized ‘expansionist’ US foreign policy and suggested that she might be better off criticising and resolving her own country’s problems first (or looking at China, which is arguably a bigger future threat.)

In her defence, she has criticised Brazilian institutions as well, and a lively discussion ensued.

To me, such debates are part and parcel of life. You talk, you discuss, you disagree (or agree) and if you’re lucky you might learn something.

The problem in Brazil is that to disagree or challenge someone is seen as rude. This happened yesterday, when Brazilians monitoring the debate waded in calling me names because I didn’t agree that the United States is the Great Satan and because I dared suggest that Brazilians should be concentrating on their own problems.

As Sergio Buarque de Holanda put it in his classic book Raizes do Brasil, Brazil is a society that puts cordiality above almost everything else. You can’t question anything here, especially not people, without being called rude, bad mannered or aggressive.

It is a major pain because it means you have to measure every word and in many cases either lie or omit. At best, you need to put caveats on everything you say so as not to hurt people’s feelings. Telling it like it is is often not an option. The slightest thing can provoke slights, as I noted here in a previous post.

This is becoming increasingly relevant to Brazil as a country.

I spoke the week before last with Oliver Stuenkel for this piece about Brazil’s emergence as a world player. Stuenkel, who is a visiting professor at the USP, pointed out that Brazil was still not used to being criticized.

As a nation, Brazil wants more of a say but it hasn’t yet grasped that with more responsibility comes more attention. As Stuenkel said, if Brazil wants to be a player, it has to develop a thicker skin.

“Brazil doesn’t like to offend anyone,” Stuenkel said. “In taking important decisions you often offend someone. And that is a process that most of the countries – and Brazil especially – has to learn.

“They want to be at the centre but a lot of people here aren’t aware that being one of the 10 most powerful countries in the world will cause a lot of criticism. Brazil is also torn between who it is going to defend. That is an important transition of identity that the country is going through. It is getting used to what it means to be engaged in major policy making.”

“Right now it is like the kid in the back of the car throwing popcorn.”