A country famous for its friendly people, great weather, excellent food, interesting history and chill-out lifestyle, incredible museums, wonderful music, etc. Spain is a great place to visit and a fantastic country to live in. Nevertheless, until you’ve spent some serious time in a place, it can be difficult to get a feel for everyday life and how people really live.
We’ve set out a few pointers that can probably be applied in most parts of the country, and they may help you to avoid some awkward or frustrating situations, make some friends and essentially get a feel for life in Spain. They will also introduce you to some interesting topics and good conversation starters that you can use to practise your Spanish.
The 17 autonomous regions that make up Spain have different identities, cultures and even languages. Respecting and understanding this is a pretty important part of understanding Spanish culture as a whole, and is something often overlooked by tourists.
The Spanish accent and even vocabulary in Granada will be different from that in Alicante. The Barcelona and Madrid street-styles are clearly defined, with much more traditional, smart and formal attire generally seen in the capital. Galicia, the Basque Country, Valencia and Catalonia all have regional languages (not dialects!) and even the Catalan spoken on the mainland will be different to the Balearic Island variations.
I distinctly remember seeing a group of British men on a Stag-Do in Barcelona last year, walking the streets dressed as toreros (bullfighters). Catalonia banned bullfighting a few years ago, and so this was a cause of great amusement for the locals around me…but not really in a good way.
Tourists sporting Mexican-style sombreros will give off an equally bad vibe, and should probably check their maps to see which continent they’re in. Just do your research, ask questions, and show interest and the regional differences will open you up to one of the most interesting aspects of Spanish culture.
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These are the established lunchtime or siesta hours, and apart from the biggest supermarkets and chains, all shops will close at these times. Don’t fight it, just head to a restaurant instead (these will definitely be open at that time) for a menú del día and go back to the shop later on.
The same also goes for trying to buy fresh fish on Mondays, or bizarrely, for visiting your bank on some days of the week, although this varies depending on the bank or branch. The fishing boats don’t go out on Sundays, and so if you do manage to get some, it’s unlikely the quality will be the best. Many restaurants and bars also close on Mondays.
Unlike some Northern European countries, Spain respects the mid-day break and having a day off. Once you know the rule, you’ll only make the mistake of heading out shopping at 3pm once, or in my case at least three times before it became ingrained in my brain.
Punctuality is different in Spain to some other countries, especially when compared with the UK. Lateness is not chastised in the same way, and is not considered quite so disrespectful, especially for social events. This feeling that lateness is acceptable is exacerbated by the length of time that it can take to get things done, for example registering as a foreigner in Spain or opening a bank account, giving the impression that time is not important.
However, this does NOT mean that you should assume that all Spaniards will be late. In my experiences when it comes to university lectures and work in Spain, people are pretty punctual.
Once, a professor at my university turned up 20 minutes late to an exam for the class. In that instance, not a single Spanish student batted an eyelid. They just sat the exam and got on with it. I learned that flexibility is the key to dealing with punctuality in Spain. You don’t need to alter your own behavior, or second-guess other’s, just don’t be too offended if your friends or colleagues turn up a little later than planned.
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If someone invites you to tomar algo of a weeknight, be warned. Going out for a quick drink could mean getting home at 3am, and don’t expect the evening to begin until 11pm. At the weekends, a night out farreando can end even later, at around 6am.
Socialising in Spain is a natural thing, and as bars and restaurants generally stay open much later than in other countries, time is not such an issue. It is much more normal to go out for a bite to eat or a drink on a weeknight here, and people generally seem to spend more time out of their houses and socialising.
If you’re coming from the US or the UK, then going out as late as the Spanish do is a shock to the system, but it is something you can definitely get used to. Furthermore, it’s important to note that going out late in Spain doesn’t necessarily mean drinking a lot as food is often eaten whilst drinking and the emphasis of a night out often lies on quality time and conversation.
Don’t be too quick to say no, some of the best nights start like this. You’ll might get introduced to a cool new place, meet some people and get a taste for Spanish social life at its best.
Mealtimes in Spain are a lot later than in other countries, with lunch being eaten around from 2pm to even 4pm and the famously late dinner that is eaten at around 9pm or later. Whilst waiting that long to have dinner might seem like an ordeal, lunches in Spain are generally substantial full meals. The classic menú del día found in most restaurants can consist of three courses and a drink, and so it really does set you up for the rest of the day.
Having said this, snacks mid-morning and late afternoon are a pretty standard affair in Spain, especially as breakfast is often not a big deal. I have known Spaniards to breakfast on little more than biscuits and Cola Cao (a chocolate milk drink), especially on weekdays. Therefore, it makes sense to have a snack mid-morning and a sandwich or bocadillo is a popular choice, especially filled with ham or cheese.
The merienda, or afternoon snack is a popular way of staving off hunger before sitting down for dinner and biscuits, tostadas or yogurts seem to be popular, especially for children.
The siesta is an iconic part of Spanish culture, but is also a very misconceived one. Foreigners assume that Spaniards sleep through the afternoon, whilst in reality few have time for a quick kip.
Regional differences and personal preference, along with contemporary Spanish work schedules mean that the traditional siesta is not present in all Spanish households.Traditionally in the hotter, southern regions of Spain, the siesta is more prevalent and is a way to escape from the intense midday heat. This is also true of other regions in the summer months.
Especially in the bigger cities, Spaniards, in lieu of a nap, have a break from work (note the closing of shops mentioned earlier). They take their time to eat lunch with friends, colleagues or family and enjoy this part of their day. Many people in Spain still go home for lunch in the middle of the working day.
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Spanish people are warm, and if they want to be friends with you, you’ll know! You’ll also know when they don’t. Spanish people, and of course this is a generalisation, are open and friendly. They will ask questions and chat to you about their lives, even if they don’t know you at all. The friendliness, in most cases, is genuine and Spain can be a great country for making friends.
In some countries, directness can often be perceived as rudeness, and advice, greeting or conversation from strangers on the street set alarm bells ringing in the ears of, say, a Londoner or a New Yorker.
This is not the case in most of Spain, and it is normal to ask personal questions and to give hugs and kisses on both cheeks. Strangers also greet each other in lifts or public places with a friendly hola.
As illustrated in the popular Spanish film Ocho Apellidos Vascos, regional stereotypes prevail. In Spain, southerners are generally considered warmer and friendlier than northerners. These regional stereotypes are always a hot topic!
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The food in Spain is delicious. There is a huge abundance of fresh produce cooked beautifully, and so it brings me to the verge of tears seeing tourists tucking into fish and chips, greasy pizzas or English breakfasts. It’s not all tapas and paella, it’s not all deep fried, and there are options to please everyone from healthy eaters and vegans to carnivores and kids.
Trust local recommendations, as the quality of classic dishes can vary greatly, especially in touristic places, and ask Spaniards for their favourite local dishes. When trying this tactic with a restaurant owner in Valencia I was treated to a glass of home-made port at the end of my meal!
It’s easy, especially when comparing the Spanish attitude to life with somewhere like the US or UK, to assume that less work and less effort results in less stress. Nevertheless, assuming that Spain is a ‘lazy’ country is totally inaccurate and I’ve learned that the relaxed attitude to life is simply that; an attitude, a way to approach life.
Spaniards go to work, and get their jobs done. Children go to school, and university students study. People are focused and committed to their careers, and to achieving their goals, crisis or no crisis. Young Spaniards travel the world to better their careers, open their minds, and gain valuable experience.
It’s also worth noting that a huge number of people in Spain are studying to learn English as a second or third language.
Spanish streets, especially in the big cities, are seldom quiet. The sociable lifestyle means that people of all ages are out and about. It is not uncommon to see small children out with their parents playing or eating fairly late at night. Traffic noise and squeaking brakes in towns contribute to this, and so heavily residential or rural areas are much quieter, as would be expected.
Another particularly Spanish noise is the sound of the TV on in the apartment next door. In my experience some Spaniards like to leave the TV whilst they eat dinner, clean the house, or hang around at home as a kind of background noise. This can be quite a nice white noise if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t enjoy total silence. If you’re not that kind of person, bring earplugs.
I’m all for freedom of expression, and if you do choose to wear your swimmers in the supermarket no one in Spain will actually stop you. However, you are guaranteed to stick out like a sore thumb and locals will spot you as a tourist from a mile-off.
If you are holidaying in Spain, near a beach resort then put some clothes on when you get off the beach. Spaniards would very rarely walk around in beach gear when not actually on la playa, and tend to wear trousers over shorts even in summer. Wear what makes you feel comfortable in the heat, but showing some respect for Spanish culture can make fitting in a lot easier.
Finally, don’t forget to learn some Spanish phrases with this Spanish Phrasebook with Audio.
What other no-no’s can you add to this list? Leave your comments and share with the rest of the readers.
Ellen Gordon is a writer, teacher and translator currently based at Santo Tomás University in Bogotá, Colombia. Her Spanish roots and lifelong interest in languages and culture led her to a degree in Hispanic Studies from King's College London during which she spent a year studying abroad in Barcelona. Also Deputy Editor of Sounds and Colours magazine, Ellen spends a lot of her time exploring the Colombian capital, learning about the country´s music and culture.
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