Spanish customs: Culture shock or fascinating differences?

by Deborah Cater
Spanish family have lucnh together - typical custom

The nice thing about living in another country is that after a while you start to look at your country of origin very differently. As accustomed as you were to the habits and customs of home, they appear differently after living in Spain for a few years.

InSpain.news takes a look at some of the key differences.

Eating habits

The Spanish time is the same as that of the rest of Europe, while the geographical time should be the same as that of the United Kingdom and Portugal. That is why the Spanish daily schedule can seem a bit strange to us northerners. Spaniards hardly have breakfast at home, go to work, and leave between ten and eleven o’clock for an extensive breakfast (el desayuno) with coffee in a bar around the corner. At the weekend, a glass of beer with a tapas follows around noon.

The extensive and warm lunch (la comida or el almuerzo) starts at two o’clock, which is followed around six o’clock by the merienda. This is often something sweet (bollería) or a sandwich to last until dinner (la cena), which is not served until ten o’clock in the evening. Children take their breakfast to school, where they eat it around half past ten, eleven. Many schools in Spain have ‘comedors’ that serve a hot lunch between two and three.

Little princes and princesses

Spaniards are passionate lovers of children. If you have small children, don’t be surprised if all your contact with adult Spaniards goes through your offspring first. The expression ¡aiii qué guapo/a! (oh what a handsome guy) is therefore indispensable in any conversation. Don’t be surprised if during a restaurant visit your baby or toddler is snatched from your hands by the camarero/a to show to the kitchen staff. Gifts for children at Christmas and especially with Epiphany are bigger than parents would ever buy for themselves.  The positive thing for people with children is that little ones are accepted everywhere; they can, and may, be very noisy.

In Spain, no one is surprised by children playing tag in a restaurant. There is a playground in every hamlet or district where watching parents can almost always go to a kiosk for drinks and refreshments. You can also see children accompanying their partying parents until late at night at parties, ferias or other occasions. The average bedtime for children is around 10pm during the week. During the summer and weekends, it can be later than midnight.

Mañana and punctuality

A Spaniard usually does not arrive on time. If you meet at eleven o’clock, it can also be twelve o’clock or later. Professionals who come by for a repair often only give the indication por la mañana (in the morning) or por la tarde (in the afternoon). Also keep in mind that the mañana lasts from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the tarde from about 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., given the different working hours in the country. If someone promises you to solve something mañana, don’t take it literally as ‘tomorrow’. Sometimes a Spaniard really means tomorrow, but more often it means ‘later’, with no indication of how much later exactly. The only thing you can be sure of is that it isn’t today. Patience is a virtue in this respect.

Noise

The number of decibels you have to tolerate in Spain is a lot higher than in most other European countries. Spaniards are very noisy. This is especially true for Spaniards in Andalucia. Sometimes it seems as if there is an argument, when it’s just enthusiastic shouting at each other. It helps that Spaniards like to have fun and socialise and often operate in groups. In restaurants, too, this quickly creates more noise than the same number of people meeting one-on-one. A normal conversation therefore consists of a Spaniard telling his or her story, until he or she is loudly interrupted by someone else, who then tells his or her story. It is the same with children.

Related post: Spain to tackle traffic noise pollution with radars

The normal conversational tone is a lot louder. It also seems as if traffic produces more noise in Spain than in the north of Europe. Crackling scooters, noisy rubbish trucks, buses and trucks that run on diesel contribute to this. It was once proven that Spain is the noisiest country in the world after Japan.

Personal space

Spaniards tend to have a different idea of ​​personal space than Northern Europeans. As mentioned above, they prefer to cuddle closely together. Don’t be surprised if you have just spread your towel on the beach in a spot as far away from your neighbours as possible, when a large Spanish family pontifically builds up in front of you, and right in your view, their entire property including various cool boxes, tables, chairs and a huge parasol. Also in public transport people do not hesitate to sit more or less on your lap when it is busy.

Do’s and don’ts

Do well

– Spaniards are in many cases more formal than most other Europeans. When in doubt about your choice of clothing or the best way to treat, always opt for the more formal option, especially if you are meeting Spaniards for the first time.

– Customise the different greetings for different times of the day and for different occasions.

cogesa expats

– Keep both hands visible above the table during meals. Keeping them out of sight on your lap is considered rude by Spaniards.

– The custom to kiss you on both cheeks when you greet and leave has disappeared because of the pandemic but might come back after.

– Dress appropriately for any occasion. Spaniards are very aware of their clothing and the associated formalities. They wear what is appropriate for the occasion and expect the same from you. Please note beachwear is not appropriate in normal everyday life.

Drive carefully. Spaniards behind the wheel are often unpredictable, pay little attention to their surroundings and see traffic as ‘the right of the strongest’, so be extra alert and keep your distance.

– Treat churches, chapels and cathedrals with respect. Many Spaniards are very religious and expect everyone to behave properly in their places of worship.

– When you arrive somewhere where there is a queue or a group of people waiting ask: Quién es el último? (who’s the last?) and keep an eye on that person. Sometimes it seems as if there is no order at all, but Spaniards have an unfailing eye on who is next and when.

Do not

– Don’t expect an invitation to Spaniards’ homes. Spain is the country with the highest bar density in Europe for a reason. You meet each other on the street in a bar or in a restaurant, not in your home. If it does happen in a rare case, take a gift with you. A flower, some chocolate or a bottle of wine is appreciated.

– Yawning or stretching in public is considered very uneducated.

– Don’t underestimate the Spanish sun. You won’t be the first foreigner to get sunstroke or turn as red as a shrimp in Spain. Also be careful with alcohol in the sun. It dehydrates quickly and can carry risks. The sun is already very strong from February, so good lubrication is the motto, especially in the case of children.

– Act violently, defiantly or intoxicated in public.

– Joke to the Spanish police. You could do so in England, but not in Spain. The local police may overlook a bit more, but the national police and agents of the Guardia Civil are still very old-fashioned in this regard and expect respect and submission.

– Assume you can quickly arrange something with an official body. The experience of most foreigners in Spain is that you have to spend at least half a day (a whole morning) if you want to have something changed, apply for a pass or change a utility service name. Bring a book, draw a number and be patient.

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