Spanish Culture: What You Need to Know

Diving headfirst into a foreign culture can bet pretty crazy. Fortunately, I’ve devised a bottom-line collection of the basics of Spanish culture. In this post you’ll touch the tip of the iceberg; in others you can learn things like how to dress, how to eat, and what to love about the Spanish culture.  Welcome to Spanish Culture 101!

Greetings in the Spanish culture

If you put your trust in Google, you’ll learn that in the Spanish culture, you greet everybody with a kiss on each cheek. This is true. What threw me through a loop, though, was the verbal greeting. The Spanish are really very informal (despite the fact that the usted conjugation is an entirely different set of language meant for formal situations), and a friend, coworker, and even strangers on the street will call you things like hombre (man) and guapa (pretty). Women in the US know all too well the struggle of being cat-called when walking down the street, so imagine my reaction when some guy called me guapa instead of the señora (miss) I would have otherwise expected.

It’s important to be aware that this greeting is not meant to be condescending or even really a compliment – it’s just Spanish culture!

When do the Spanish eat?

The Spanish are on a completely different food schedule than the rest of the world. Be prepared, because if you visit Spain, you won’t be eating lunch until 3:00 at the earliest. No, you won’t starve, but yes, it will absolutely feel like it. My first few days in Spain were orientation, when my schedule was totally controlled and I depended on a hotel for food. Mix not being able to eat for hours with jet lag and you have a cranky Jamie.

After a late lunch, Spaniards follow with a late dinner. The Spanish won’t eat dinner until 9 or 10. Think you’re fat because you ate dinner after 8:00? I have an entire country who would disagree!

Work schedules

The Spanish culture is not only informal, but also relaxed. While the US follows a strict 9-5 business day, Spain will close down from 3-6 for lunch. Yeah, siesta is a thing that really exists in this culture. If you want to go shopping or run errands, wait until 6:15 or so, because nothing will be open.

Spanish time is also slow and late, to match the relaxed Spanish culture. If you show up at 6:00 on the dot to run some errands, be prepared to sit and wait a while. In Spain, 6:00 means 6:15 or 6:30.

Personal space

The Spanish have a very physically affectionate culture. I’m an introvert, so I was quickly made very aware of how much smaller my personal bubble has to be while in Spain in order to not be constantly irritated. Especially in Madrid, where there are mass amounts of people everywhere you go, you have to be okay with being bumped, knocked, and touched.

Even if you’re not physically touched, Spaniards have no problem getting close to you. On the metro, for example, it’s pretty usual for a stranger to be so close they could kiss you, and yet completely avoid eye contact.

Working with bureaucracy

I only assume dealing with bureaucracy is difficult and frustrating in every country. However, Spanish bureaucracy is in its own class of stress. It’s just as informal as the people and culture it represents, which means there never seems to be any major source of information. Have some paperwork to do? Go to the right office, and ask reception. You’ll probably find you’re in the wrong office, so you´ll ask where the right office is. Go to that office – that’s not the right one, either. You´ll eventually find the right office, maybe at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, when, of course, the office is closed. Plus, that office will be closed the next day as well because it’s a bank holiday. What’s the holiday for? They don’t know, but they don’t have to work!

It’s frustrating and stressful and it’ll happen in situations from buying a SIM card to boarding a flight at the airport. However, the Spanish culture is a beautiful one, and they combat this drawback with an unwavering belief that it will all work out in the end. And you know what? It always does.

Comments

  1. I’d also add that if you go to Barcelona, it’s good to at least learn the basics in Catalan (the local dialect of Barcelona) such as ‘excuse me, good morning, hello, thank you and please’ and from there you can segue into Castellano (the dialect more broadly spoken throughout Spain). The Catalans are very proud of their culture and language and while they don’t expect visiting tourists to speak their dialect, if you use just a few words and then revert back to Castellano, you can have an even nicer experience in Barcelona.

    • Good point! Learning the local language is always important, especially when you’re more aware of a country’s history and culture. I’m sure many tourists aren’t aware that Spaniards speak more than one language, depending on where you go, so making the extra effort is definitely a bonus!

    • Very true! They’ll love that. Just make sure you don’t call their language a ‘dialect’ when you are there, or they won’t be happy 😛 Catalan is a completely separate language from Spanish with its own grammar and vocabulary, just like French or Italian.

  2. Hi Jamie, I am from Spain, Madrid, and I must say that there are a couple of things that are nor true at all.
    First of all, our lunch is around 2.30, not always at 3.00 pm. Secondly, not all Spaniards are unpunctual. And finally, during our working hours we do not spend three hours having lunch or doing siesta. If you live in a big city, like Madrid, you don’t have enough time to go home, eat lunch and take a nap, or siesta. And no, the shops are never closed from 3 until 6. Maybe some small shops, but definitely not until 6, probably from 2 until 4 pm.

    • From what I can tell, both from my own experience and what others have said, it really depends. Of course, not everybody in Spain eats lunch at 3, and not all Spaniards tend to be late – these are generalizations about your culture and it would be wrong to claim all Spaniards are exactly the same. Keep in mind that this is coming from an American perspective, so when some Spaniards act in ways that are wildly different than an American would, it’s much more noticeable to me than it might be to you. That being said, I may very well be wrong in some instances. This post is simply a report of my observations.

      Thank you for your input! It’s important to hear from those actually from the Spanish culture, not just tourists or expats 🙂

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