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Cultural facts about Spain
So you’re going to Spain. While Spain is a Western country, so it’s not such a radical difference as going to Africa or something, there are some quirks that can trip you up. If you know a few of these cultural facts about Spain, you can hopefully ease your way into the Spanish lifestyle.
We’ll talk about everything from how to greet people in the street to the subject of religion to when to invest in the lottery (yeah, that’s a thing).
First and foremost, Spanish greetings. Spanish greetings are important because that’s what you’ll do. A lot. Once you figure out how to greet in Spanish, you’ll sound like and feel like you kind of belong there.
Spanish greetings: strangers
Greetings from Spain are common and generic. Don’t go in with hola; I mean, you can, but it’s not a word that you’ll get back. If you’re walking down the street (and if you’re comfortable with it), you can acknowledge someone passing you by with “hombre” if they’re male, and “guapa” if they’re female. You’ll probably get the same every once in a while. This is how to greet in Spanish when coming across a fellow pedestrian.
If you’re female, don’t get nervous about being called “guapa”. I know that the word means “pretty”, but nobody’s hitting on you. They’re literally just acknowledging that you’re there, and the word has nothing to do with whether they think you’re pretty or not. If they are hitting on you, they’ll make it obvious, with something more like “ayyyyyyy mamiiiiiiii!”. So no, the old man walking down the street isn’t trying to pick you up, don’t worry.
In Spain, everybody greets everybody. It’s not necessarily rude or impolite if you don’t, but it’s very common to acknowledge a stranger’s presence. Spanish culture is very very social, and they’re not afraid to make friends with the guy sitting next to them.
Another generic Spanish greeting is a simple “
Yeah, I know, the Spanish language has an entire conjugation reserved for formal interactions (the usted form). But you know what? It’s rare that you’ll ever use it – the Spanish are very friendly and informal, even with strangers!
Spanish greetings: friends and family
With people you know personally, you can also use those greetings, and you can also, I don’t know, use their name? Just like anywhere else, once you have a rapport with someone, you don’t have to be so concerned over what word you’re using. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
The difference, however, is in the kisses. Greetings from Spain include cheek kisses for known friends and family. This is one kiss on each cheek, starting from the left (which means your right cheeks will touch, followed by your left cheeks), and this is both for hello and goodbye.
And if you’re freaking out about a moment that might just be a little too intimate for you, it’s not as big of a deal as it sounds. It’s like kissing your aunt or your grandma – it’s more of a “cheeks touching
Men tend to greet each other with a simple, firm handshake, unless they’re relatives. With Western cultures generally comes the need to remind everybody that men are, in fact, men, so men usually won’t be as physically intimate with other men as they are with women. They are more physically intimate than American men are, though, so just because two men are being friendly (and super pretty, as Spaniards are), doesn’t mean they’re gay.
Spanish culture facts
Like I said, Spanish culture isn’t a huge leap from American culture, but there are definitely a couple differences in the way that Spaniards live. A lot of these differences can be explained by each country’s history. For example Spain’s had to deal with a dictatorship, while America was free to grow as the most powerful country in the world!
It’s amazing how what happened in the past affects our day-to-day lives. These Spanish culture quirks could have been part of American culture if we had a different history, so living in Spanish culture is definitely something to think about.
Spanish traditions: fúbol
If you have any interest in connecting with most Spanish males, ask them about fúbol; even if they’re not too into it, they can probably tell you about the most famous players, or how often they win. Keep a lookout for a Real Madrid jersey, and feel free to strike up conversation. Spaniards are social, and they go hard for their fúbol. Plus, it’s a great way to get to know Spanish culture.
Spanish traditions: la lotería
Another unofficial Spanish holiday is la lotería, or the lottery. La lotería is played during Christmastime, and is a really important way for Spaniards to bond with their families, friends, and coworkers. It’s completely normal for group of people to pool their money together for la lotería and split any earnings. That being said, this is also a really great opportunity for you to bond with any Spaniards you see regularly.
My personal favorite part of la lotería is the lines…and not waiting in them. If you walk around an area where there’s a vendor for la lotería, the closer you get to Christmas, the longer the lines get. The Spanish treat it like Americans treat Black Friday or the new iPhone. It’s a big big deal, and honestly, it’s just a few euros, so I definitely suggest bonding with your friends or coworkers more.
Spanish traditions: local fiestas
If you like to party, you’ll feel right at home in Spain. A lot of Spanish traditions involve partying, and they do it well. In fact, every little village has their own local fiesta, mostly just for the purpose of taking some time off work or school and having some fun. One thing to know about the Spanish, if anything, is that they really know how to enjoy life.
Local fiestas are usually a huge party in the streets! People dress up, dance around, march in a parade, play music, wave flags, hand out drinks, and just be merry for no reason at all except because life should be fun. These parties are one of the best perks of living in a pueblo as opposed to a big city, but if that’s just not your jam, you can always just take a bus. Most expat programs will also host a trip to a local fiesta to offer you this opportunity, as well.
Working expats also love this because of how often Spaniards get long weekends or puentes. It happens incredibly often, and depending on your place of work, you might not even be expected to work the extra hours to make up the time. ¡Disfruta la fiesta!
Spain family traditions
If you’re staying with a host family during your trip to Spain, definitely be prepared for some Spain family traditions, because you will be treated like family whether you like it or not! In all seriousness, the hospitality that Spanish families offer strangers is wonderful, but you should definitely know what to expect.
Not to say that not acting like a Spaniard in the home would be impolite, but you don’t want to miss out on bonding with your host or roommates. It’s a great way to learn more facts about Spain and/or wherever your home family is from, as well as to improve your Spanish. I tell ya, trying to communicate with a Spaniard who knows diddly squat English can be
Smaller living spaces
Americans are used to living big, big, big: big TV, big house, big rooms, big yard, big truck, etc. We have this cultural tendency to be the biggest, loudest, and best there is. Coming from this and going into Spain is definitely something that requires effort. Learning to live small after enjoying the big life can be more stress on top of the already stressful “being in a new country” thing.
Personal bathrooms? Not really. Big bedrooms? Sometimes, but they’re generally more expensive than they’re actually worth. Big two story plot of land with room for a car and a bunch of kids to have their own bedrooms? This is Spain, be serious!
Privacy isn’t a priority for the Spanish, and their homes reflect that. The most you’ll probably do in your bedroom is sleep, and it’s not entirely uncommon for young Spanish families to all share one room (and you thought cosleeping would make your kid codependent).
This lack of any interest of personal space is reflected in public places, too. Americans have a huge personal bubble; Spaniards do not. It’s completely normal for you to get poked and touched when you’re out and about, and it means nothing. Their concept of personal space is tiny!
Plenty of social time
If you’re at all like me, you like going home and going to bed, door closed, lights off, all alone. That’s not really how home life works in Spain. Like I said, Spaniards are social. Like, really social. If you’re at home, you should be hanging out with your family or your roommates. Pick a chair in the common area and have a cup of coffee.
The Spanish stop everything for a cup of coffee several times a day, and you’ll spend your time chatting with whoever’s around you. Grab some tapas and a cafe con leche, or just hang out in the kitchen and talk about whatever’s going on in your life.
American culture is much more private, much more solitary than most other cultures, so it’ll be good practice to get in the habit of being consciously social. Spend time with your loved ones, get to know the Spanish culture, and practice your Spanish. It’s a win-win-win!
No moving out til marriage
After the last points, this one just makes sense. The Spanish are generally frugal, very social, and are used to living in small spaces. Children also generally live with their parents until marriage. I know that it’s becoming more and more common for people to do this while rent prices are going up and paychecks aren’t, but I feel like it’s worth mentioning.
Most of us would go crazy if we had to live with our parents longer than absolutely necessary – that’s why Americans rent a house or an apartment and find roommates to split the bill. It’s usually still pretty pricey, but losing your sanity is even more pricey. Moving back in with your parents is almost like a life punishment for Americans (unless you’re lucky).
But in Spain, they live with their parents until further notice. Even after a Spaniard gets married, they still might not be able to afford a home themselves, and it’s perfectly normal to stay where you are until you can afford your own rent. The close quarters aren’t such a big deal, so you might find what you perceive to be too many people living in too small a house.
On the topic of marriage, it’s customary in America for the wife to take her husband’s name (though it’s becoming more common that a woman keeps her maiden name). In Spain, however, they approach it differently.
Every Spaniard you meet will have two surnames with a dash between them. If they’re unmarried, it will be their father’s name followed by their mother’s. When a woman is married, she can either keep her name as is, or add her husband’s surname after her name with de (of) between them.
It’s a mouthful, but it’s a great way to keep track of lineage. Instead of a family completely disappearing if they only produced daughters and they all changed their names when they got married, you can always track a family history by following the trail of surnames.
Air conditioning (or lack thereof)
You generally won’t find air conditioning in a Spaniard’s home. It’s too expensive, and fortunately many buildings were built before air conditioning even existed, so there’s much more air flow and it’s not actually that bad. I know that my Floridian friends are cringing at this thought, but the Spanish air is also very dry, so it’s not nearly as hot as you’re thinking!
Air conditioning isn’t common in the home, but it is common in public areas, so if you need to cool down, get out! Businesses do cater to the comfort of their customers, so you can expect some relief. Public transportation does also have air conditioning, though it’s harder to gauge when to turn it on (lots of bodies in a closed space means lots of body heat), so it still might get a tad warmer than is comfortable.
Drying your clothes
Seems kind of random, I know. But it’s important. You won’t find a dryer in your average Spanish home. You can use the washer (which, by the way, it’s in the kitchen, so that’s weird), but when it comes to getting your clothes dry again you have two options: let them hang outside, or stop by a laundromat.
As I said, the Spanish climate is dry, so it’s not completely unrealistic that most Spaniards save money (again) by letting the air take care of their wet clothes. And it works, as long as you’re wearing the right materials, you have the time, the sky stays sunny, and it doesn’t rain. But, of course, if the weather isn’t right, you’re going to have a more difficult time.
You’ll also have a difficult time if you wear jeans a lot. I’ll never forget my first week of living in
This is what I chose to do. Fortunately there’s a chain laundromat that I felt comfortable using consistently. It was pretty small, with less than a dozen machines total, and that’s as long as nobody leaves their clothes in for too long, but it was nice and clean. For a few euros, you can wash and dry your clothes, and not have to think about laundry again until you run out of clothes again! I had enough to stress about already without thinking about if it was going to rain on my clothes.
Business culture in Spain
Even if you’re not traveling to Spain for business, the business culture in Spain will affect you, since there is no way you won’t have to interact with a single business while you’re there. If you don’t know how business culture in Spain works, you could find yourself in a really sticky situation.
I know this because I’ve been put in really sticky situations before, like having to print out bus tickets and deciding to do it on the way to the bus, only to remember that it was siesta time and everywhere I could go to print them would be closed and I was going to miss the bus. Woops…
Siesta is real
Yes, friends, the Spanish stereotype of siesta is real. The purpose of siesta is to sleep through the hottest part of the day, so Spaniards don’t have to deal with the hot Spanish sun in the late afternoon. While the modern invention of air conditioning (mostly common in public areas, like I said) has solved the problem for many Spaniards, it’s still a nice custom.
So, when Spaniards are asleep, so are their business. In the modern-day it’s not possible for everybody to take a siesta, what with demanding globalized business and too-long commutes. Besides that, you can definitely find businesses that respect the custom, and siesta happening when it’s inconvenient for you can definitely mess with your life. Larger companies in larger cities will stay open all day, but smaller family-owned businesses and businesses in smaller towns will take the afternoon off and come back later.
During this siesta (from about 3-6 in the afternoon), Spaniards spend time with their family, eating a luxurious lunch. Lunch is the most important meal of their day, so it makes sense that it takes them 3 hours to eat it! A nice lunch with your friends and a couple hours to relax…not a bad idea.
If you’re late, you’re on time
The Spanish clock is slllllloooooowwwwwww. They’re always 15-30 minutes late. They take their time and enjoy life, instead of rushing around all the time like Americans. They enjoy their life, so who cares if they’re half an hour late to something? They were smelling the flowers. It’s important.
So yes, if you’re meeting with a Spaniard, they’re going to be late. Take the opportunity to smell the flowers for yourself. Don’t be too too late, though, or you’ll absolutely be in the wrong. Like that time I started working in a Spanish school, couldn’t figure out the bus system, and was an hour late every day for the first week. That was not good and they were understandably pissed. There were tears.
This timing also applies to Spaniards coming off of siesta. I know that technically siesta ends at 6ish, but don’t show up at the door at 5:59 and expect anybody to be there. Give them some time to casually stroll up to the store and open back up for business. What’s your rush, man?
Everything will work out in the end
I think the most stressful part of Spanish culture for me was trying to deal with bureaucratic red tape. Coming from a country where everything is exact and how you expect it because somebody’s going to get sued if not, Spanish culture was rough.
For example, opening a bank account. I go to the bank. I wait for 20 minutes to be seen, sit down, and say that I need a bank account. The teller advises me that they don’t open accounts in that location (what???) and sends me to another. I walk to that location. Oh no, they’ve already left for siesta. So I’m going to have to try this all again later and hope that it doesn’t get too difficult.
Either those random inconveniences will happen, or you just won’t get the same answer from anybody. The first person tells you something different from the second person different from the third. I cannot even express to you how infuriatingly stressful it gets when nobody seems to have the right answer, and half the places you need always seem to be on holiday for whatever reason.
But you know what? Somehow, it’ll work out. I don’t know how it happens, but I’ve never found myself in a difficult Spanish situation that didn’t end up working just fine. It’s just the Spanish way, I suppose.
Religion is an important aspect of any culture, even if it’s becoming less and less popular as time goes on. Thanks to the Spanish Inquisition, Spanish culture has been forever changed. After centuries of Spaniards who were tortured if someone even thought they might not be Christian, it’s completely unsurprising that most Spaniard identify as Roman Catholic.
Even though Roman Catholic is the main religion in Spain (besides fúbol, of course), most Spaniards don’t actively go to Church. Like in most of Europe, religion isn’t as big of a deal as it has been in the past. Not only do they not actively practice their faith, they also generally don’t follow the morals, politics, or sexuality.
You know how I said Spaniards don’t have much of a personal bubble? They also love PDA a lot more than we do, and they have no shame. You could be sitting on one side of a bench and have a couple making out on the other side of it, and it’s no big deal. And more power to them, I say!
Cultural facts about Spain
As you can tell, there are some differences between Spanish and American cultures. I hope you can use the experience of this new culture as a way to open your mind – that’s the point of traveling, right?