Bureaucracy & Belonging (Audio Available)

Big Booth Words is now available in AUDIO! Click to listen along!



          There’s a telltale sign I’ve made it, truly made it, here in Brazil. It’s sublime in its unadorned simplicity. Others don’t see it. Foreigners at home in their own foreign lands don’t see it. Locals don’t see it, and those who are directed to it fail to grasp what massive hurdle I’ve laboriously scaled and finally conquered: good old, home-grown bureaucracy. I’ve walked in, dodged the security guard telling me it’s five minutes to closing, made it through five, six, ten lines on three or four separate occasions, argued with the paper-pusher at the local Department of Motor Vehicles and worked my accent-filled charm into a spirited conversation with the scowling civil servant at the office of the notary public more than once, and emerged triumphant – that paper in hand, the residency card now tucked into my wallet, that one last stamp or signature I needed for some now-forgotten reason right there for all to see in clear, blue ink – the indelible mark of localness sambaing through my veins.

          Far more than this country’s healthcare or some random company’s products, what is genuinely cradle-to-grave here is the bureaucracy. If I want to make it here (literally, like if I want to actually have the papers I need to live and work here legally; and figuratively, like if I want to grasp the subtleties of attitude and action so I can interact with Brazilians, not just ex-pats), this is one thing I absolutely need to understand.  It is not enough to just navigate the system or call upon some inner alternate mellow me to keep from blowing up at the guy who keeps writing my name down as a coffee filter brand – Melita, although these are essential skills. If I want the stamps, the papers, and the visa, and if I want it all without a headache or complaining of time lost, and if I want it all without looking disparagingly at the country that has generously taken me in, and if I want to feel genuine gratitude in the process and product, making it means facing the most basic idiosyncrasies of Brazil to the point that I no longer see them as idiosyncrasies (or at least bearable ones). Making it means whittling down my own cultural judgments, smiling as the unassuming guy in the snaking line next to me whistles and my instantly recognizing the tune as the iconic Samba de Uma Nota Só – One Note Samba. Making it means coming home and laughing appreciatively at my most recent, three-hour, exhausting government-office adventure as I ferociously type out how strangely part of my adopted country it made me feel.

          After fifteen years, I guess I really do belong. And if I had any musical skill at all, now is probably when I’d score my Samba de Uma Gringa Só – One Gringa Samba.

Happy words,

* Lest you walk away thinking I have overlooked the universal pervasiveness of bureaucracy, and to catch the five words I will use in next month’s post, read “Bureaucracy Must Die” by Gary Hamel for the Harvard Business Review:


16 thoughts on “Bureaucracy & Belonging (Audio Available)

  1. Ulisses Carvalho says:

    Only you can put that kind of spin and make bureaucracy look not so bad. Brilliant!

    1. Melissa Mann says:

      Rir para não chorar, né?! Thank you, Ulisses 🙂

  2. Thank you, Melissa. Receiving postings by e-mail makes my studies easier. You are helping a lot this way, me, and maybe many others Thanks a lot..

  3. LOVE it! You are a survivor

  4. Ronnie Cortex says:

    Hi, Melissa
    I really appreciate your sending me this material of great value for my learning Englist as well as it brings us an important issue for reflection on this subject. And you did it in a smooth way.
    I can only agree with your thoughts as the same way I agree with Mr. Hamel when he points out a lot of disavantages of a bureaucratic mindset that causes troubles in a chain reaction
    As federal civil servant, I must confess that many times I got ashamed of this cradle-to-grave problem. It really is a kind of an infamous tradition that historians say came from the portugueses. Not sure about it. Though “power trikles down” and we have a bunch of rules, I think it is imperative for anybody that works for the public to use common sense and always have a polite desmeanor.
    Though I’d liked the Samba de Uma Nota Só metaphor, I think it’s more to a Ravel’s Bolero scenario.
    Thank you
    Sorry for being long
    Stay safe.

    1. Melissa Mann says:

      Ah, Ronnie, fret not; I have indeed crossed paths with many a pleasant civil servant in my days. It’s the institution I take a subtle stab at, not the people (ok, maybe 1 or 2 of the really sour-faced ones). Ravel’s Bolero would definitely be an apt metaphor for the full-on-Brazilian-bureaucracy experience. Fortunately, for my sanity, the guy in line was humming something much less likely to induce death by endless lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

  5. Gilson Mattos says:

    Bravo! I just love your texts. They’re so deftly written. Oh, and the rhythm and melody you put into your readings are like a lullaby to the ears and mind. Bureaucracy had never been so easeful until now.

    1. Melissa Mann says:

      Thank you, Gilson. I work hard to bring out the humor in bureaucracy. 🙂

  6. Carlos Levenstein says:

    Way to go! You only have two choices: complain or get the best out of it – happy people always take the second one!

    1. Melissa Mann says:

      You nailed it, Carlos. 🙂

  7. Melissaaaaa! Wow! I’ve just watched the video you recorded with Ulisses and… I was so impressed! Além de ser super simpática, seu Português é perfeito (até o Espanhol que você mandou, sem querer, saiu perfeito). Parabéns! Ganhou um fã.

    1. Melissa Mann says:

      Obrigada, Dhalton!

  8. Hi! I just discovered Big Booth Words and I really appreciated it. It will help me so much. Hope you can teach us more about how to deal with our own bureaucracy, because sometimes it’s hard for brazilians too. Thank you, Melissa!

    1. Melissa Mann says:

      Thank you! hahaha… dealing with bureaucracy is often about just going with the flow and listening to some music in the process.

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