What’s the best part of learning another language or spending time in another country? That’s easy! Learning the quirks and oddities that make that culture special.
When thinking about Spain, the first thing that comes to many people’s mind is—“¡Fiesta y Siesta!” While it’s true that these two elements make up part of the Spanish culture, there are a lot of other interesting and noteworthy things that one may notice upon spending time in the Iberian Peninsula.
That’s where this article comes in. Below you will find a short list of some of the unique and interesting things about the Spanish people and culture.
So, we should start with the obvious—siesta. “Siesta” means “nap.” But don’t be fooled! This is the time of the day, usually running from 2pm-4:30pm (more or less, this can change on the region, city, etc.), during which most of the shops close, and people go home to have lunch with their families. It’s a long-standing tradition, and one that many people who are visiting the country find either utterly annoying, or blissfully amazing.
The truth is, most people don’t actually nap. It’s rare to meet a Spaniard that does sleep in the middle of the day. This is, in reality, just a time for people to relax with their families, eat, and maybe watch a little TV. And if you’re wondering, many people do go back to work after the “siesta” and continue their working day until roughly 9:00pm.
This leads us seamlessly into our next topic of conversation—meals and mealtimes. While in most countries dinner is the largest meal of the day, in Spain it’s actually lunch, and lunch starts at 2:30 (it’s good to remember this). This can be a big adjustment for anyone who’s used to eating a smaller meal in the middle of the day, as your appetite might not be ready to consume large portions and hefty food.
And then, after lunch, you’re expected to wait until 9:00 or 10:00 at night to eat again? That’s right, dinner in Spain is usually between 9pm-11pm. How is that possible? Don’t worry! Another long-standing and world famous tradition in Spain has the answer to your question—the “tapeo”.
The “tapeo” is an integral part of Spanish culture. Most people have heard of the Spanish “tapas.” And with good reason. It’s a wonderful custom, and fits into the Spanish lifestyle perfectly. It’s the process of going from one bar to the next, enjoying one tapa here, another there, and spending an evening relaxing with friends.
Depending on what region or city you’re in, the tapa scene will vary. Each place boasts its own take on the Spanish “tapeo” No matter where you are though, one thing is for sure—no matter what, you haven’t experienced Spain until you’ve indulged in the amazing world of the “tapeo!”
This is something small, but somehow it still leaves a little bit of an impression. If you go to any local bar or café, you’ll notice that a lot of the clients who sit at the bar to enjoy their caña (small beer) and tapa will wad up their napkin when they’re done and toss it on the floor. Yes, right there, in the middle of a busy café, they’ll throw their trash ON THE FLOOR!
At first, you may only notice the effect—the messy, unkempt look the balled up napkins give to the place. But, if you’re ever in the café when the rush has calmed, you’ll see the bartender come out with a broom and quickly sweep it all away.
The reason why people throw their trash on the floor is simply for convenience to the people working. It lets them grab the cups, plates, etc. quickly, dunk them into the water in the sink to be washed, and not have to worry about scraping off the trash in the process. This is very helpful during the busy periods.
These places will quickly become packed, and more often than not, there’s only one, maybe two people trying to serve all the clients at once. And, as mentioned before, when there’s a lull in the action, the mess gets quickly picked up.
When walking down the street and you walk past a Spaniard that you know, you may be taken aback when they don’t greet you with a friendly “hello” but instead with a quick “goodbye.” It’s not always an “adios” but can be a “hasta luego” meaning “until then/ later.” Don’t worry, they’re not being rude, or just trying to avoid talking to you—it’s just another odd, but wonderful part of the Spanish culture.
It takes a little while to get used to, but it’s actually quite nice. For one, it cuts out the needless small talk that so often detours one from their daily routine. This way, your friend, colleague, whoever, will know that you see them and acknowledge them, but that you’re going to continue on your way, and you’re perfectly fine with them doing the same.
Spaniards are curious people. They like to stare at things, and often they’ll do so without hesitating. This is more common with older people, but it’s still not unusual to see people gathered together to stare at or gawk in the direction of something going on. It’s perfectly acceptable, and just another aspect of the Spanish culture that may strike some as odd.
Be careful though! Smiling at strangers is weird here, and that does make people feel a little uncomfortable. So, if you awkwardly make eye-contact with someone, and they continue to stare at you blankly, do the same! Or, just look away, and act like nothing happened.
When walking into a store, elevator, or anywhere really, it’s expected that you greet the people around you. Yes, the strangers working in the shop or the other patrons at the bar, it’s polite to let them know you’ve arrived. Just a quick “hola” will do, and while not everyone will turn to face you eagerly to reply, it’s still an important aspect of Spanish society. In certain situations, it’s even considered rude if you don’t!
And, you guessed it—you have to announce that you’re leaving as well. This is where a very useful phrase, mentioned in the point above, will come in handy—“hasta luego.” In reality, it more often sounds like “ta lugo,” but it’s all the same. After checking out at the grocery store, or enjoying their morning coffee, Spaniards will bid farewell to the people around them before departing.
As is done in some other European countries, Spaniards greet each other with a kiss—or two really. Whether it’s the first time you’re meeting someone, or you’re getting together with a friend you see daily, it’s expected that you start your interaction with two quick kisses—one on each cheek.
This isn’t as cut and dried as it would appear on the surface though. There are a few “rules” that go into this. One, a pretty obvious one at that, is that you don’t kiss your boss, or people you don’t know in a professional setting. That would be very uncomfortable for everyone. It’s important to know, however, whom you kiss, and whom you don’t (outside of the aforementioned profession realm).
Women, it’s okay to greet other girls and guys with the traditional “ dos besos.” However, men, you don’t want to go in to give the “besos” to another man—just a friendly handshake will do. But with women, it’s normal to say hello with two quick pecks on the cheek.
So, pucker up!
If you order a coke, or any other drink that would normally have ice in it, in Spain, you’ll usually get one, single, lonely ice cube. This can be a little frustrating if you’re really craving a cool, refreshing drink in the middle of the blazingly hot Spanish summer.
This concept of not-very-cold-drinks is extended even a step further when you order water. For starters, getting just a simple glass of water is pretty rare. Usually it has to be ordered, and even then some places won’t serve it. It’s more common to get bottles of water, and when you do order one, you’ll be asked “fría o de tiempo?”—meaning “cold or room temperature?”
It may seem a little unusual to some, but it’s very common in Spain to get your water not warm, but not cold either. Many people will tell you they do this because it’s better for you. Whether that’s true or not, it’s definitely something that takes a little getting used to!
If you come from a culture that’s heavy on tipping, this will be a pleasant surprise for you. No need to pull out the calculators to figure up the added percentage you need to pay on your bill! Just pay the amount you have in front of you.
A lot of times a service fee will be pre-added to your check for you. If you like your waiter, or want to do something to brighten up someone’s day, you can leave the change you got back, or a little extra if you’d like, but it’s not expected, so don’t fret!
Let’s finish this list with something that was mentioned in the introduction—FIESTA! If one group of people knows how to have a good time, it’s the Spanish. They’re known for being loud, energetic, and having a great endurance when it comes to going out. No one in Spain will go to the “disco” or “discoteca” before 3:00am. That’s borderline social suicide.
Meetings with friends will generally start at around midnight, and consist of the pre-game known as the “botellón” This is when groups of student-aged Spaniards get together, go to a park, or some other place (could even be a friend’s house) and drink. After spending a few hours “warming up” they will move to the next step—the clubs!
The clubs (or “discos”) will fill up around 3am-4am, and stay packed until 6:00, or even later! It’s not uncommon to go out at 11:30pm and not make your way back home until 9:00 the next morning. That’s some real “fiesta!”
This list has been just a little compilation of some of the wonderfully odd things about Spain. At it’s heart, Spanish culture is laid-back and relaxing, with a lot of focus on family, friends, and enjoying the little things in life, but learning to navigate your way through the intricacies of the day-in and day-out life can be an adventure!
Of course, like with any culture, there will be exceptions to the aforementioned things. In major cities the siesta isn’t practiced hardly at all, and you’ll surely come across a friendly Spaniard that will smile at you as they pass. In addition, there are definitely other unique aspects to the culture. Keep in mind that this article is meant to serve more as a guide and not a definitive list.
Want to understand Spanish conversations better? Learn Spanish expressions!
Anastasia is a Chicago, Illinois native. She began studying Spanish over 10 years ago, and hasn’t stopped since. Living in Spain since 2012, she loves Spanish tortilla, vino tinto, and anything that contains jamón ibérico.
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