I’ve always been a devotee of the truth. When someone asked me, “How are you?” I would tell them exactly how I was. “I didn’t sleep that well last night,” or “alright,” and occasionally. if I felt spritely, I would say “good.” “Great” was reserved for occasions when I truly felt ecstatic. It occurred to me sometime last year that I could be burdening people out with my blow-by-blow accounts of my health and moods. Maybe advertising myself as “doing well” would actually make me feel lighter and happier and be less oppressive to my friends and family. Because really, in the grand scheme of things, I am doing well most of the time. My life is in order. I have friends. My health is good. I am good, goshdarnit!
Brazil came at just the right time for me as I thought about the ways we italk about our daily existences to each other. In Brazil, no matter how little sleep you got the night before (or how hungover you are), or how little money you have to buy dinner, things are always “tudo bem,” all good. It’s as if the entire country got a memo telling them to never say that all is not well. It all boils down to the way that Brazilians greet each other. They don’t ask, “How are you?”, or “Como esta?”, open-ended questions that invites all sorts of responses: good, bad, neutral. They don’t ask “Ca va?”, the French equivalent, which means “Does it go?” And French people certainly sometimes respond “Non.” They ask “Tudo bem?” And there are really only three responses: “Tudo bem.” “Tudo!”, and “Mais o menos,” a gentle euphemism for “bad,” still allowing the possibility that some phoenix might arise out of the ashes of a bad day.
When I was traveling in Northeastern Brazil, I ate at a beachside restaurant in a miniscule town with a motto painted on its walls and on the shirts of its staff with a saying, “If your star isn’t shining don’t put mine out.” I asked the manager why. She said to support the staff. And it seems part of the Brazilian social contract: let’s all be as positive as possible to grease the wheels of life.
I’ve asked Brazilian friends if they ever feel oppressed by “Tudo bem?” In a sense, the question demands one answer. Do they feel like they have to lie about how they are doing? They don’t really seem to get the question.They don’t realize that their language system is unique, or at least, unique among romance languages. They must imagine that the rest of us are as positive as they are.
I just watched the movie The Invention of Lying, a recent movie about a world in which no one knows how to lie. The words “lie” and “untrue” don’t even exist in people’s minds. Everyone blurts out their not-so-secret judgments. “No, I would never be attracted to you, so don’t bother talking to me.” “How are you? How was your night?” “Oh, I stayed in and researched suffocation suicide.” In the Invention of Lying, it’s a bleak world indeed. If you believe the premise, most of what we think can be awfully petty, competitive, and pessimistic, and we are all obligated to share it, the unvarnished truth. The movie’s world struck me as the inverse of Brazil. The words we use shape our daily experience of reality and that Brazilians really have something going on with their language. They may be lying, to say that all is well, but who’s to say they are? The person who has no money and just lost his job might have had some troubles, but, at the end of the day, if he still has his health, then maybe tudo is really bem.
I’m certainly a more cheerful version of myself in Brazil. When someone asks me “Tudo bem?” (or bom, that’s also acceptable, good rather than well), i enjoy saying “tudo!” emphatically, even if I spent the previous half hour gritting my teeth over a phone that suddenly broke, or some existential doubt about whether I am doing the right thing by traveling. With good friends, I do get into the nitty-gritty, and the problems. But it’s not the first thing we talk about. Because that is the truth–all really is well. And if I don’t believe it now, maybe I will believe if it repeat it. Fake it until you make it. Tudo might just be bem if you say it is.