Discovering a new country is always a fascinating adventure, especially if that country is Spain! It is one of the most exotic places on Earth. It is inevitable, however, that there will be embarrassing situations as a consequence of culture shock and the difference between manners in Spain and in the rest of the world. The customs aren’t that different to those in other European countries, in parts of Asia and of America but there are subtle and crucial variations.
A recent article in The Times was particularly negative about the international image of Spanish people, describing them as “loud, rude and foul-mouthed”. Those who understand the manners that exist in Spain would have disagreed with such assertions from a well-regarded British newspaper and as you read on, you’ll see that the customs in Spain are slightly different to those in England, France or their other European neighbours but that those assertions should be taken with a pinch of salt (and lemon and tequila!).
6 keys to understanding manners in Spain
Enthusiastic and open greetings are the norm
Apart from at work, at university and in other professional environments, the way Spaniards greet each other is quite different to that of most of the rest of Europe, especially Eastern European countries. On the Iberian Peninsula, the greeting is quite tactile and intimate. Normally men and women greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks even if they haven’t met each other before but for men, they normally only greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks when they have met each other previously. The greeting is always a friendly one and accompanied by a big smile as well as a constant willingness to help one another, because Spaniards are naturally open.
‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ – necessary with strangers
Because of their naturally extroverted manner, Spaniards can come across as foul-mouthed to other Europeans in terms of their public demeanour. An English person would always order a coffee and would say “please”, but that is not strictly necessary in Spain. Generally the words “please” and “thank you” are reserved for when speaking to strangers and are not necessary amongst friends and relatives even though it, of course, depends on the person you’re addressing.
Silence is a rarity at the dinner table
Leaving the etiquette norms that rule over the dinner table in every culture aside, Spanish manners during meal times are a tad different to the rest of Europe, but are in keeping with the Spaniards’ extroverted style. There are two quite surprising aspects about Spanish meals – the strange timings of the meals and the uninterrupted chit-chat at the dinner table. Silence is a rare occurrence at a Spanish meal and even though it can be a bit strange at first for people who haven’t been exposed to it before, everyone always ends up getting used to it and finding it an enjoyable way to spend a meal time. It’s only because Spaniards have a lot to talk about and they don’t want to wait until they’ve finished their dinner to spill the beans
Punctuality and Spaniards don’t get on very well
French and English people have historically been critical of Spaniards for their lack of punctuality. Truth be told, Spaniards do not place a huge amount of importance on punctuality and in fact on the Iberian Peninsula, punctuality is far from a virtue. Despite this, it must be said that in working and studying environments, being on time is just as important as it is in the rest of Europe.
Compliments can be confusing
One of the most notable differences between manners in Spain and the rest of the world is the perception of and value placed on compliments and flattery, which can often cause confusion. In any other country, certain types of courtesy typical of Spain would be strange and possibly regarded as rude. But this is because a compliment in Spain performs more a function of friendliness in a conversation rather than being a form of flattery. Therefore as a young woman, you wouldn’t need to blush if the waiter had addressed you as “reina” (queen) or as “guapa” (pretty) because in that case, he is just being polite and not trying to flirt.
In certain regions, one of the most used words is “mi’arma”, which is an abbreviation of “mi alma” (my soul literally but it is used in a similar way to dear). This expression, which causes confusion for foreigners, is used in both close and not as close circles. For example, you could say to a colleague at work, “Ten cuidado al conducir, mi’arma” (Be careful driving, dear). This shows the affectionate politeness with which Spaniards normally communicate.
Hospitality is an excellent Spanish quality
Another key feature of good manners in Spain is the treatment of guests in the country, a quality which they share with their Italian counterparts. There aren’t many more polite gestures than being invited for a meal at a Spanish friend’s house. If you’re honoured enough to get such an invite, you could be confused at certain customs of politeness. They may, for example, say to you that “estás en tu casa” (you are home). Similarly, as good hosts, a Spanish person would always insist that you stay for longer or have a second helping. They do this purely to make their guests feel welcome and happy.