Saturday, May 31, 2014

4 Things Spain Can Learn From America

A month ago on this blog I talked about what I thought my country could learn from Spain, having lived here for nearly two years now and gotten a chance to experience the good and the bad of Spanish culture. It sparked a lively discussion on the differences between the U.S. and Spain as well as the areas where America could stand to grow. I intended to write a follow-up talking about what I think Spain could learn from America, so here is that post, as promised.

1) Less bureaucracy and paperwork

red tape spain
(Source: Randy von Liski)
When I say Spain invented red tape, I literally mean Spain invented red tape; you can read an enlightening history on the use of red ribbon for official forms and documents as well as Spain’s long tradition of bureaucracy here. This uneasy relationship the country has with el papeleo (paperwork) bears itself out in the countless trámites (processes) foreigners have to go through to apply for residency.

Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the United States is far from innocent when it comes to giving foreigners the run-around on visas and residency applications; however, the experience I and countless other language assistants have had in Spain dealing with extranjería (the foreigners office) has shown the Spanish bureaucratic state to be a convoluted nightmare, from inconsistent requirements that change from one functionary to another, to fee-payment schemes that are often impossible to complete during normal business hours, and to the complete lack of coordination between the Education and the Interior ministries when it comes to the language assistant program.

The endless paperwork and bureaucracy is definitely part of the culture. As an example, to renew for another year at my school, one of the steps was to simply send a form via snail mail to the regional government in Santiago, but my school insisted I have teacher’s sister who worked there deliver it, so they went through this byzantine procedure of making copies, officially stamping and signing everything, entering things into a leather-bound register, and so on. I stood there in shock and wondered why putting a stamp on an envelope was so hard.

Finally, the heavy paperwork really puts a burden on entrepreneurs and small-business startups, because it’s simply so expensive and difficult to incorporate here! I can’t for the life of me find the original article, but I was reading something by a Malaysian tech company talking about their experiences incorporating in the Netherlands and in Spain. The process in the Netherlands was painless, required maybe one form and a fee of 20 euros or so. Spain took upwards of a year to complete, hundreds of copies and forms—all of which had to be officially translated—and a final cost of 10,000€.


2) More sensible and convenient opening hours

post office úbeda spain
Post office, Úbeda
I honestly don’t know how people who work standard business hours at an office job ever get anything done in this country; e.g., going to the bank or the post office. Banks are only open Monday through Friday from 9am-2pm, and the post office isn’t much better, so if you need something done you basically have to take a day off of work. Same goes for dealing with extranjería (foreigners office) or getting your drivers license: you gotta show up on a workweek between 9am and 12pm—Saturdays don’t count. And to make matters worse, the entire country shuts down on Sundays, so if you forgot to buy groceries on Saturday, you’ll be eating out on Sunday.

Now, I understand dealing with bureaucracy and banks isn’t much more convenient in America, but at least things are open till 6pm on weekdays and a few hours on Saturdays. And while I appreciate a nationally-instituted day of rest for time with your family, it can be really frustrating if you’re at home on 9pm on a Saturday and realize you won’t be able to go grocery shopping until you get home from work Monday evening. I’m not saying Spain needs 24-7-365 Walmarts all over the place, but not everyone here has the luxury of going with the siesta flow.

3) Better customer service

One of the most common complaints by Americans about European dining is the service, or lack thereof. Accustomed to frequent check-ins by servers eager to make a decent tip, American diners expect to order their food quickly, receive it not long thereafter; basically a get in, get out, get on with your life type of attitude. So it’s only natural that they might be a bit jolted upon encountering the slow, relaxed mindset toward serving tables in Spain. The goal in restaurants isn’t to make a big profit but to simply serve good food and create a good environment for spending time with friends and family. Dinners can stretch for one, two, or even three hours—a perfectly normal occurrence where people aren’t rushed to scarf down their meal.

But sometimes things drag on just too much: restaurants are often understaffed so the one or two servers working that evening are working their hardest just to deliver drinks and food to all the tables; it might be a quarter of an hour from the time you run out of water to the next time your server passes by; and if you need to peace out fast and want to pay for supper at the table, don’t expect to leave in a flash.

Also, companies frequently put customer service phone numbers on their business cards, websites, and products for you to call if you have problems…but they’re almost never toll-free; you have to pay to complain about something…it’s almost as if they don’t want you to call or something. Hmm.

4) An anti-smoking crusade

no smoking spain
(Source: Jose Gonzalvo Vivas)
In 1950s America nearly half of all adults were smokers. Today, barely one out of five Americans smoke—the result of a tireless public health campaign to educate people about the harmful effects of smoking, discourage them from using cigarettes, and help people quit smoking. Although opposed by the tobacco industry, significant reforms and restrictions have come into place since the 1990s and tobacco use continues to drop.

In Spain, however, almost 40% of men smoke with close to 30% of women using cigarettes daily. Walking down the street, if you’re not stuck behind someone who manages to take up the entire width of the sidewalk, you’re probably choking on a cloud of smoke. And when high school students go on recess, often it’s also a smoke break. Thanks to a recent ban on smoking in public places, though, it’s more common to see people smoking outside bars, restaurants, and cafés than before. Spain has a long way to go before the familiar estancos (tobacco shops) become few and far between, but hopefully something can take root here soon.

What else could Spain learn from America? Tell me your thoughts in the thread below!
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