Cultural Differences in Spain

The cultural differences between various countries are fascinating and, often, surprising. Understanding them is hugely important if you want to survive - and thrive - in a country that is not your own. Recognise them. Understand them. But don't be frightened by them.

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Introduction

Spain is made up of semi-autonomous regions lightbulb image.  Within each of those regions there a quite a lot of cultural consistency but even within a region – say, Andalusia – there are important differences between people who live in the city and those who live in the countryside –  and even between the occupants of different towns or villages close to each other.

There are even greater differences between the cultures found in the various regions: Barcelona, Madrid & Malaga are very different places.

Add to this the impact of the foreigners living in an area. Over 8% of the people living in Spain are foreigners. In some areas, such as the Costa del Sol, the figure can be closer to 50%. so you need to study and understand the culture where you will be living or doing business. See our guides to the cultures of the various regions we have covered.

Although it’s perfectly possible to get along in Spain without learning Spanish, life will be far easier and more interesting if you do. Integrating into the local culture will be faster and doing business will go more smoothly. Check out our guide to Learning the Language.

Expat culture in Spain

Most of this guide will talk about the Spanish culture on the Costa del Sol, but remember that this Spanish & Andalucian culture is mixed with, and influenced by, the cultures of its massive expat population.

The expat culture on the Costa del Sol is a reflection – and often an exaggerated reflection – of the cultures that these people come from. For instance, although the Spanish rarely indulge in binge-drinking, it is not unusual to see groups of drunken revellers on the streets of the Costa del Sol (see below).

The exaggeration comes from the fact that it takes a certain type of person to be an expat.

Some people are naturally outgoing and full of the spirit of adventure. Some people have made a lot of money at home and are now spending it like mad in Marbella or Malaga. Some are even running away from something back home.

This last point, unfortunately, means that you will find some expats who are ‘dodgy’ or untrustworthy. If, for example, you’re looking to hire a contractor to do work on your property, do not assume that somebody from your own home country will be automatically more trustworthy or skilled than somebody native to Spain. The reverse is often the case.

Of course, the high percentage of expats also has many advantages. No matter how integrated you become into the Spanish way of life, it is comforting to be able to spend time with others who understand your own culture and etiquette.

General cultural differences in Spain

When writing about cultural differences we need to be very careful.  Some of our readers will come from places where they will think the way of life in Spain – or, at least, some aspects of it – are no different from their’s ‘back home’. Others will be staggered by the differences. With that in mind:

Climate in Spain

The climate of a country has a huge impact on its culture. Spain, and especially the south of Spain, is moulded by its heat. It is simply too hot in the middle of the day to run your country as you might do in, say, Northern Europe.

Although the advent of air conditioning has eliminated some of these issues, many people in Spain simply don’t have it. Even though it is becoming more widespread, culture often takes a long time to catch up with the impact of modern inventions.

See our Guide to the Climate in Spain.

Working hours in Spain

The climate has a direct impact on the working day. As a result, the typical working day varies from one area of Spain to another. To keep things interesting, it can also vary from one town to another and even between similar businesses in the same town.

The ‘classic’ working day would start about 8:30 or 9:00. People would then stop for lunch at about 13:30 and resume work at 16:30 or 17:00. They would then continue working until about 20:00, or even later.

This gap between 13:30 and 16:30 is the famous Spanish siesta. It gives the opportunity for a lengthy lunch – often of several courses – and (if you don’t live too far from work) a restorative sleep, all during the hottest part of the day when it is simply too hot to do any productive work, manual or mental.

These are the hours that, traditionally, have prevailed in the Costa del Sol.

In reality, many office workers start a little later. They may arrive at their desks at, say 09:00 or 09:30 – and then often disappear for a lengthy coffee and breakfast break before reappearing at their desks at 10:00 or 10:30.

The advent of air conditioning has made all of this less necessary. As a result of this and increasing internationalism, more and more people are now working the ‘intensive day’ – 08:00-16:00 or 09:00-17:00. This is much more like the 09:00 to 17:00 working day found in large parts of Europe.

This ‘intensive day’ is an ostensibly sensible development (for those who have air conditioning) and it will probably be very beneficial to the Spanish economy, but it ignores the reality that many people, even today, work or live in places without air conditioning. As a result, the classic Spanish working hours will probably be around, especially in the South, for many years.

The real-world hours worked vary a lot between the public and the private sector, between one place and another and even between similar businesses in the same town. The real world is also affected by the phenomenon known as presentismo – “being present”. Workers spend long hours in the office (or, at least, appearing to be in the office) to impress their superiors without necessarily doing all that much.

All this produces a daily problem for those doing business in or with Spain and even for those living there. If you want to arrange something by telephone with people in three other businesses you may find that one of them is working from 09:00 to 17:00, one of them doesn’t get to his office until 10:30, leaves again at 13:30 and doesn’t return until 17:00 and the third works away from the office in the mornings (for example, in court) and then is only in the office from 17:00 to 20:00. As a result, there is no point in the day when you can guarantee to get hold of all three of them and so arranging an appointment can take two or even three days.

All of this is changing and, in some sectors, it’s changing quite rapidly but you will have to get used to the idea of establishing when the people you want to talk to are going to be available. Many of us have special fields in our contacts database to record those hours.

Bank opening hours in Spain

Most banks still work the traditional banking day.

This means that they will open at 08:30 or 09:00 on Monday-Friday and then close for the day at 14:00 or 14:30.

Some offer evening opening on one or more days per week and many open on a Saturday from 09:00 or 09:30 until 12:00 or 13:00.

Sometimes these extended operating hours are only offered for part of the year. This is, strangely, usually during the winter months.

Shop opening hours in Spain

Most shops open from 09:30 to 13:30 and from 16:30 to 20:00. Larger stores and major shopping centres tend to be open all day from about 10:00 until about 22:00.

These opening hours apply from Monday-Saturday.

Most larger shops and shopping centres will also be open on some Sundays each year.

Holiday/vacation time in Spain

Thinking about working hours makes us think also about the question of holidays. The Spanish are well-served when it comes to holidays. They may have up to 30 days of paid leave per year, including many local and national public holidays. The local holidays will vary from region to region, province to province and town to town.

In addition to having more public holidays than their main European neighbours, the Spanish have a wonderful habit of creating puentes (bridges): if a holiday falls on a Wednesday, for example, many people will take the Thursday and Friday off too.

Food and eating times in Spain

Food and meal times are, too, heavily influenced by the climate.

Generally, life starts with an early breakfast before you travel to work. This may then be followed by a coffee break between 09:30 and 10:30 and a substantial lunch between 13:30 and 15:00.

Because of the heat in many parts of Spain, particularly during the summer months, dinner is usually served late. Anywhere from 21:00 to 22:30 is normal and it is not unusual, for example in Madrid, to eat much later than that. On the Costa del Sol, the normal time for dinner has been influenced by the many expats living in the area whose tendency is to want to eat earlier. Many Spanish people now do likewise but you should still expect to eat later than you might be used to at home.

Of course, there is a long gap between lunch at 13:30 and dinner at, say, 21:30 and so it is common for Spanish people to take a late afternoon/early evening snack to tide them over. This snack (merienda) will usually be as soon as you end work but some lucky souls are able to bring it forward and take yet another bit of time out of the office during what is, notionally, the working day.

Many people who arrive in Spain – especially during the winter – find these hours strange but if you have tried to get to sleep during the summer at 22:00 when the temperature might still be 30°C (86°F) in a bedroom with no air conditioning you will understand why the Spanish choose to eat late and go to bed later.

The people in Spain

In Spain, as in most countries, there are generally two sides to people: their public facet and their private face.

Privately, most Spanish people I know are as considerate and gentle as anybody else.

Publicly, their persona can be quite a lot more aggressive than your typical Brit or Northern European. This is just the way they say and deal with things. I must stress; they are in no way being rude, or violent.

For example, if you answer the phone in Spain you might say, “Digame!” which means, “Tell me!” – there’s no soft entry. If you’re in a bar or restaurant you will say, “Bring me a beer!”, whereas in England or Japan, for example, you would dress up the request in social niceties.

The culture is superficially brusquer, and less careful, than many countries’. Men still routinely whistle at women and engage in banter.

The Spanish also tend to be very loud, especially when in public with groups of friends or family. They love argument and argue passionately and at great length. Discussions often involve several people talking, at high volume, at the same time. The effect of this is often magnified by rooms with hard floors and few soft furnishings: nothing to soak up the sound.

It can take a little time for a person who is newly arrived to work out how to deal with this. Generally, the best approach seems to be to follow the old and very wise (paraphrased) advice of, “When in Spain, do as the Spanish do”! If you’re going to do this it’s probably worth being prepared to retreat into your normal lower-profile foreign way of doing things if you find you’ve gone a little bit too far.

The Spanish also tend to be multi-taskers. This is reflected in many things, some very frustrating. In most countries, we will have seen people driving whilst holding a mobile phone in one hand. There are not many where you will find someone driving, holding a mobile phone in one hand and a book in the other! If you have an appointment at someone’s office, do not be surprised if they constantly take telephone calls during your meeting. This is not intended as a discourtesy to you. On the contrary, it could be seen as a sign that you have been accepted into their circle.

Timekeeping in Spain

Timekeeping – precise timekeeping – in Spain is an optional extra. It’s just not on the Spaniards’ agenda, as a rule. However, again, things are changing quite quickly. When I started working in Spain 30+ years ago, I would commonly drive for two hours to get to an appointment (on time) and then be kept waiting for an hour or more. Today, that would be very rare in most parts of Spain.

Make sure you attend appointments on time, but be prepared for your Spanish colleagues to arrive, variously: on time; 15 minutes late; or 30 minutes late. Those who are late will be profuse in their apologies. But they will also be late next time and the time after that.

The Spanish have two ways of expressing the time of a 10:00 meeting: “a las diez de la mañana” (at 10:00) or “sobre las diez de la mañana” (around 10:00). Unless you know the person well, whichever they say, assume they mean the latter: but be there in time for a prompt 10:00 start.

Administration in Spain

The administration in Spain is changing very quickly. Twenty years ago, the whole system was incredibly cumbersome. Everything had to be done in person and officials seemed to think that you were nothing more than an obstacle to them having a quiet day.

These days, things have improved. Lots of things can be done online. There’s also been somewhat of a change in attitude, and many members of the administration have come around to the idea that they’re actually there to provide a service to the public!

Religion in Spain

Although Spain is very Catholic on paper, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many people of younger generations who go to church very often, or even who proclaim themselves to be religious. In fact, in a WIN/Gallup survey in 2017, 55% of Spaniards said that they were “not a religious person”.

However, the church still has influence over the state and Spain’s calendar is littered with religious festivities. See our Guide to Religion in Spain for more information.

Although Spain is, overwhelmingly, a Catholic country you will – particularly in the places where there are large numbers of expats – find churches of many denominations as well as mosques and synagogues.

Drinking in Spain

In Britain and many other Northern European countries, there is a culture of going out with the aim of getting drunk. Although this is a relatively new phenomenon, it is now widespread.

This is not the case in Spain. Alcohol in Spain, as drank by the Spaniards, is usually consumed with a meal, in moderation. Half a bottle of wine each would be at the top end of what one would normally drink. Whilst there is a bit of a culture in Spain and the Costa del Sol of going out and partying (bar crawls and nightclubs), such nights out are usually reserved for special occasions – and even on the party-heavy Costa del Sol you are very unlikely to find a Spaniard puking on his shoes at 2am.

This, of course, is true for Spanish people – but expats and tourists from Northern Europe and elsewhere have lamentably brought across their culture of binge-drinking; and they, especially the youngsters, indulge in it lavishly on the Costa del Sol.

There is one area in which the Spanish are drinking a great deal less than they used to 20 or 30 years ago. That is in the area of drinking whilst driving. It used to be commonplace to stop for breakfast on a twisting Spanish mountain road and to find lots of lorry drivers taking their breakfast together with a couple of a large shots of Spanish brandy to fortify them for the road ahead. See our Guide About Drinking & Driving in Spain.

Cultural differences in Spanish business

When doing business in Spain, it is very important that you get to know people. They will expect to talk about things other than business and ‘get a feel for you’ before you get down to making money.

Whilst Spanish people engaged in business are as tolerant as any other Spaniards – particularly if they are doing business internationally – it makes sense to make your life as simple as possible. This can be achieved by following three basic rules;

  • Be clear in your communications: remember, they don’t speak your language as a first language. Confirm, in writing, things agreed verbally and so so in nice, short, simple sentences.
  • Follow their lead. If they start talking about personal matters, or politics, or bull-fighting, feel free to do they same. Otherwise stick to safe topics of conversation: your country, football, what you like about Spain etc.
  • Try to be charming and funny – but funny can be dangerous as it can go wrong: no sarcasm.

Relations with business partners in Spain

Business is built upon trust, built over time, and communication.

There is always a social element to business relationships in Spain. Whenever you meet up you will probably end up going out to a bar or restaurant and they’re likely to bring along their spouse. However, you are very seldom going to end up in anybody’s home. I’ve known some lawyers in Spain for over 25 years and have never been to their homes.

See our Guide to Doing Business in Spain and our Guide to Business Issues in Spain.

Conclusion

A new culture can be a shock, but the people in Spain are generally friendly and you should find yourself slipping into the Spanish way of living with relative ease. Be open to change and don’t go into it with a “my way is best” mentality.

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