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!
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.
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.