Tipping, fraud, and shop etiquette
The short version is that tipping does not exist in Brazil. You should not tip except in exceptional cases. Nicer restaurants add a 10% service fee to the bill (which rarely goes to your waiter). Everyday places like a padaria (literally "bakery", but better described as a coffee shop) or a lanchonete (diner) do not tack on a 10% service fee, and you should not pay extra.
The service fee when added is still considered optional. However, Brazilians do always pay it — except when the service was poor. If the service was poor, all you have to say is Eu não vou pagar esse (I will not pay that) pointing at the service fee, and then pay just the base amount. I've seen Brazilians do exactly that when the service was bad and it didn't cause a scene.
Summary: Pay the 10% service fee if added to the bill, but if no service fee was added, don't pay extra.
Despite thousands of cash transactions over a period of several years in Sao Paulo, I've almost never been cheated, overcharged, short-changed, or tricked at restaurants, shops, and taxis — even though the merchant can always tell that I am not a native Brazilian. This includes touristy places, cheap places, and expensive places everywhere in the city of Sao Paulo. Retail transactions in Sao Paulo are safe and honest to the same level as the US and Canada.
Note that I'm speaking about Sao Paulo specifically. You don't have to worry too much in Rio de Janeiro either. But you need to be on your guard in small beach cities. I don't mean small cities in general (which are often just as straightforward as Sao Paulo), but small beach cities — there the taxi driver might take the long route or a merchant may quote double the price that it says right on the sign.
Other things that are not significant problems in Sao Paulo:
- Panhandlers. Brazilians don't give money to able-bodied persons. Fewer people ask for money on the streets of Sao Paulo than in cities like New York or Toronto.
- Counterfeit currency. To my knowledge, I've never received any false bills despite using cash for most transactions. Merchants do carefully check all large bills so presumably there is some counterfeit currency in circulation.
- Bribes. I've never been asked for tips or bribes nor felt that it would have helped any day-to-day situation I've encountered had I offered it.
- Bureaucracy. A tourist or business visitor will encounter very little bureaucracy despite Brazil's reputation for it. A notable exception is getting cell phone service (discussed elsewhere on this site). Passing through customs and immigration is hassle-free.
Usually you cannot return merchandise to stores unless it is defective, and sometimes not even then. Clothing stores will usually allow an exchange for a different size of the same model of clothes, but not a return.
In North America, you take your merchandise to the counter to pay for it. The merchant says, "That's all?". You say, "Yes". The merchant says "$3.15".
In Brazil, you take your merchandise to the counter. The merchant says nothing. Puzzled by the silence you finally say, "How much?" (Quanto custa?). The merchant says "R$3.15".
I've observed this odd difference in protocol at some shops in Brazil. It doesn't happen all the time. It doesn't happen at busy checkouts like supermarkets and pharmacies. But it does happen occasionally and I still haven't figured out why the merchant waits for the customer to speak first.
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