It is fairly common for young children in Brazil (or at least in Rio de Janeiro, the part of the country I know better) to call adults “uncle” or “aunt”. My closest friends’ children call me uncle and I’m totally ok with that. I do see them as my nephews and nieces. That also happens in schools: children up to 11 or 12 call the teachers “aunt”. Some people think that this is normal or even cute. However, I studied in a school that strictly forbid children to call the teachers aunt. The teachers were supposed to be called simply “teacher”. One interchange became folkloric in my house: “Am I your father’s sister? Am I your mother’s sister? Am I married to your uncle? Then I’m not your aunt.” Ouch! As gruff as it might sound, that’s the mentality I grew up with. My mother was also never totally comfortable with some of my friends calling her “aunt”.
One of my favorite interpretations of Brazil came from Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1902-1982). In his book Raízes do Brasil (Brazil roots, 1936) he made an analysis of the country, saying that the problem with Brazilians is that they are cordial. Using Max Weber’s categories, Holanda said that Brazilians don’t know how to conduct formal, impersonal relationships. It is really hard for them (or I should say, for us) to understand that the guy in office is the guy in office and not our friend.
I would say that many times I saw Holanda’s interpretation in action. Students who thought they were my friends and that because of that I would go easy on their exams. Colleagues who thought I wouldn’t fine them when I was working in the library. People I barely knew, who were friends of my friends, who thought I would give them answers for the exams. I managed to be friends of some students, but that was the exception. Most students had a hard time distinguishing between “Bruno, my friend” and “Bruno, my professor”. Worse, some, I don’t know how, came to the conclusion that I was their friend.
Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president, presented himself as a father. He introduced Dilma Rousseff, his successor, as a mother. Getúlio Vargas, the horrendous dictator from the 1930s was widely known as “the father of the poor”. I’m sad to say that Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current and supposedly right-wing president, doesn’t really scape this logic. It may be nice and cute when little children call adults aunt or uncle, but it sickens me when grownups use this language. Even more so, when they use it to people they don’t even know!
Sergio Buarque de Holanda is one of the few things from college I profited from reading. It helped me to escape the Marxist bog that is much of Brazilian humanities academia. Years later I read Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism and I discovered that Brazil was not alone. That is the problem with many so-called capitalist countries that still lag behind. They are not really capitalist in the sense that the US, much of Western Europe or Japan and other Asian countries are, and one of the main reasons for that is that people don’t know how to conduct impersonal, formal relationships. The teacher is not your aunt, and the country is not a big family.