skip to navigation

Cultural Faux Pas Spain

spain

Bono from U2 once sang 'We're one, but we're not the same' - an important motto to remember when travelling the world! Each country and culture has its own unique customs, traditions and idiosyncrasies, and if you want to be accepted and liked by the natives it's best to read up on the dos and don'ts of social etiquette before you go. Spain is generally considered to be a typically relaxed Mediterranean country, but there are still some important things to remember when travelling there.

Conversation

  • Politics. The historical politics of Spain are long and complicated, so unless you are a scholar of such topics it is usually best to avoid them. There is still a lot of controversy and discomfort among the Spanish people about the British colony of Gibraltar and separatist groups in Catalonia and Basque, so don't bring these up in conversation.
  • The Beautiful Game. Of almost equal contention is Spanish football, with a long-fought rivalry (el clásico) existing between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Don't risk getting embroiled in a conversation about this, and never take sides! But equally, don't ever diminish the importance of this national institution or fail to take it seriously.
  • Heritage. Spaniards are usually very proud of their history and heritage, so it's important to be polite about all aspects of their culture - even those you may not agree with. It is considered very rude for outsiders to criticise bullfighting, so if you're very much against the practice it's best to avoid talking about it altogether.
  • The Monarchy. Like Britain, Spain has a monarchy, and like a lot of Britons, the Spanish tend to be quite loyal and supportive of their monarch. As such, it's dangerous territory to start criticising the royal family or the structure of Spanish politics.
  • Keep Conversation Light. As a general rule, steer away from heavy topics like politics, religion and football!

Dining

  • Cuisine. Like many European cultures, Spain is famous for its delicious cuisine and the Spaniards quite rightly take great pride in it. Home-cooked and restaurant dishes are often handed down over several generations and come laden with family history, emotion and pride: when you eat in Spain, you're eating more than just food, so it's important to treat it with respect.
  • No Ketchup! Don't season your food. When your food comes to the table, it is already considered the best it can be. There is no need to add salt or pepper, and you should definitely never ask for any Ketchup!
  • Food Etiquette. Don't be rude about food. If there's something you don't like, don't make a fuss. Simply explain to your host that you're full up, and be as complimentary as you can about his/her cooking.
  • Don't Rush Food. In Spain, there's no such thing as a quick lunch. You can't simply bolt down a sandwich in ten minutes and get on with your day. Lunch is a treat that should be made the most of - don't be surprised if it goes on for a couple of hours.
  • Eat Late. Never dine before nine. Evening meals in Spain are usually taken at about 10pm. This allows for the time spent in siesta during the afternoon. You will also be expected to sit at the table after your meal and chat with your companions for a good hour at least. It is rare for an evening out in Spain to finish before 4am.
  • Cheers! If someone makes a toast at your table, always join in and always make eye contact.
  • Let Them Spoil You. Let them pay. Spanish people are very generous. Members of the older generation in particular will be keen to show off their generosity by offering to buy you dinner. You should let them, but be sure to show your gratitude.

Making Friends

  • Firm Handshake. The Spanish appreciate a firm handshake, so never be limp-wristed! On the other hand, they are put off by people who are too rigid, so always accept hugs and cheek-kisses when they are offered.
  • Be Casual. Spaniards are not very formal people, and don't like to waste time following strict guidelines and dress codes. Be casual, and you'll probably fit in.
  • Slow Down. In Spain, patience is a virtue. If you are queueing to be served in a shop, don't be surprised or angered if the sales assistant falls into deep conversation with the person in front of you. Talking is a very important part of Spanish culture, and shop lines are as good a place for it as anywhere else. Remember that when you get to the counter, you will be offered the same amount of time to chat about yourself, your life and your family, and this is a great way of integrating yourself more into the community.
  • Que? Beware of language confusions. There are many words in Spain that can easily flummox a non-native-speaker. For example, the Spanish for 'gentleman' is 'caballero' - not to be confused with the Spanish for 'horse', 'caballo'!