I've been thinking about this post for a while. I may be speaking in generalizations, but I would say that Brazil has a very relational culture. People tend to be very social, like to talk, and share information through relationships and verbal communication. The best way to find out information is word of mouth. It's kind of like driving: the maps are outdated, there are no street signs, and google maps frequently is inaccurate. But you can always ask people for directions. And that's what Brazilians do. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked, "where's Rua Herval?" or "Where's the hospital?" It's all about getting information through verbal communication in a relationship, even if it's a 2 minute relationship you have with a stranger while talking on the sidewalk.
So, if you want to find a barber/pediatrician/vetrinarian/nanny, you gotta ask around. When we hired our first empregada, we knew that this was the case, but we kind of got ourselves into a bind. We were desperate, and we'd asked everybody we knew, and ended up asking the woman who cleans our apartment building. She is a wonderful woman, and I like her a lot. But she didn't really know of anyone, and suggested her neighbor who was unemployed. I interviewed the neighbor, and hired her on the spot because she was available and seemed fine with what I was asking of her. Later I learned that she didn't really understand anything I said. Essentially, I had hired someone with very little work experience, and I needed to do on-the-job training with her. Except I didn't know that. Until she got bleach on the curtains, wax on the sofa, ruined several towels and bathmats and started using our washing machine for her own laundry. She was a nice person, and it ended up that we wanted someone who could do more caring for the children than cooking/cleaning/ironing, and she wasn't able to do that.
But this time, I decided that I was ONLY going to hire someone that came recommended by a previous employer. I sent out emails, called practically everyone I knew, and even resorted to asking some parents from school that I didn't really know very well! A friend left suddenly, and her house cleaner had become available. It turned out that we were able to talk to the woman who had this empregada as a baba (nanny) when she was a child, and had worked for other foreigners before. We tested her out for a week or so, and like our new person very much. And Beatrice regularly asks, "Is Irene coming today?" which to me says that we've got a keeper. References made a HUGE difference!
Another way I learned this through an experience with a certain medical professional. I met a doctor through a connection, and he was a good person. He said that I should come see him. I thought, "sure, he's a nice enough person!" Unfortunately, he misdiagnosed a problem and I was TOTALLY grossed out by how dirty his office was. I ended up never following up, and it's been a bit awkward when I've run into him, but I'd rather have awkward that sub par care.
I think that recommendations and references are just as important in the US, but you can find them other ways. When I moved from Oregon to Arizona and was looking for a Pediatrician, I just went to an online forum, posted my question and got a recommendation that ended up being great. Here, it's through your circles and networks. This definitely benefits those who are in the "right" circles who have access to the good information (which is why parents want their kids to get into certain schools, so the children and the family can get the right kind of connections). And those of us who stumble through the language and are outsiders to the culture, or those who don't have the money are left to try to figure it out themselves. Thankfully, we've been pretty lucky so far. And I will admit that there have been some bad references (like where to buy good quality shoes for the son). But once I realized that it's so much better to go with someone or a service that is recommended rather than what seems convenient, life got a little bit smoother for us.
11 months ago