Culture Shock in Spain: It’s the Little Things

Whenever you move to another country, you’ll inevitably experience culture shock, a roller-coaster of emotions that you experience while dealing with the obvious (speaking a foreign language, listening to weird accents) to the benign (nothing open on Sundays) to the problematic (Epiphany parade-goers in blackface). I’ve talked about culture shock before on this blog, from the differences I’ve noticed in Spanish elementary schools and Spanish apartments to saying “see you later” in the street when you mean “hi!” or wishing “enjoy your meal!” to complete strangers.

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Although some people might complain about how everything here in Spain is sOoOoOo different from cultures in the U.S., the UK, etc., I don’t believe there are that many huge cultural hurdles to leap over when moving to Spain from another Western country. It’s not like in East Asia where they place a big emphasis on saving face, or in Arabic-speaking countries where you have to learn a completely unrelated writing system. The main cultural differences—those things that can wear you down and cause culture shock—are just a lot of little things that can build up over time.

However, while much of daily life in Spain is similar to that in other countries in Europe or North America, you do tend to notice small differences every now and then that make you go “hmm.”

  • Addresses in Spain follow this general convention: the type of street (avenue, road, etc.), the name of the street, the street number, what floor and door the apartment or office is at. For example, let’s break down the following address: “Calle de Alfonso X, 56, 3º Dcha.” Calle means “street,” Alfonso X is the name of the street, 56 is the number of the house or building,  means the apartment is on the tercero piso or third floor, and Dcha. is an abbreviation for puerto derecha or “right door.” You can also have Izq. for izquierda (“left”) as well as letters A, B, C, and so on.
  • It’s common courtesy to greet complete strangers when you go into an enclosed public space, such as the changing room in a gym, an elevator, or even a quiet, small restaurant (where you would also wish a ¡qué aproveche! to someone eating). Don’t forget to say goodbye as well; if you get called up for your doctor’s appointment mumble a quick hasta luego to your fellow strangers in the waiting room.
  • The same goes for stepping into a shop or a café-bar; just throw out an hola or buenas and acknowledge the shopkeeper/bartender.
  • To answer the phone, you rarely say hola; instead, it’s a fast, get-to-the-point ¡Dime! Literally translated, it means “tell me!” which to English ears sounds rude and blunt, but it’s simply an expression of the very direct Spanish culture.
  • When it’s time to pay for a ride on the bus, your drink at a café, or your groceries at the supermarket, cashiers will use the construction “Euros-With-Cents” to tell you how much you have to pay. If your tab for breakfast came out to be 2,85€, the barista will ask for dos con ochenta y cinco, “two with eighty-five,” although every now and then I do hear the English-style dos ochenta y cinco. The whole phrase means “two euros with eighty-five cents” but the “euros” and “cents” are left off.

  • Many people in America think nothing of walking around the house barefoot (or outdoors for you hippie types), but this is a big no-no in Spanish houses. Probably because the flooring is always cold, smooth tiling (instead of carpeting), it’s simply much more comfortable to go around with slippers on indoors to keep your feet warm (and clean).
  • Whenever it’s your birthday, you are responsible for throwing a party or celebrating at your place of employment. At school, for example, teachers typically bring a Nestlé Caja Roja of chocolate bonbons or special sweets they found at a local pastry shop to share in the teachers lounge.
  • Don’t even think about finding a dryer in a house or apartment here, and dishwashing machines aren’t necessarily standard fare, either. Get ready for line-drying outside your window and on a tendedero (folding hanger)! Dryers use a lot of electricity, Spanish homes are small as it is, and plentiful sunshine all make line-drying an eco-friendly way of life.
  • You flush toilets here by pressing a button on top of the tank, not by pulling down on a handle. These buttons are often split in two where one side uses less water (i.e., for Number One).
  • No need to apologize or say you’re sorry if you accidentally bump into someone or happen to grace their shoulder. It’s no big deal, just keep on walking. Conversely, if somebody touches you by accident or bumps past you and they don’t acknowledge this little mishap, don’t freak out and think said person was rude. ¡No pasa nada!
  • The 1980s called; they want their mullets (and dreadlock mullets), fanny packs, roller blades, and sweaters-draped-over-shoulders back. Yes, these are all still popular in this country!
  • One out of every three Spaniards smokes, compared to only one out of five in America. Thanks to a recent ban on smoking in public places, though, it’s more common to see people smoking outside bars, restaurants, and cafés (whereas before they all smoked inside). Still, many teenagers unfortunately go on smoke break during their high school recess. Related to this, smoke packs have gigantic cancer warning labels that take up almost the entire side proclaiming FUMAR MATA, “SMOKING KILLS.” In case you didn’t know.
  • It’s not uncouth to drop your (single-use) napkins, toothpicks, and other trash on the floor of a café-bar; in fact, it traditionally is meant to be a compliment about the quality of the food and establishment. I remember getting some pinchos at a famous no-nonsense joint in San Sebastián two years ago right before closing, and the bartenders used literal shovels to clean up the mess. The mussels I had were delicious, though!

  • As in many places outside of the U.S., the first numbered floor of a building is actually the second physical one; therefore, the floor that opens out to the street is called the (piso) bajo or the ground floor. This means, in Spanish, it didn’t sound quite so bad to be living on the planta, but in reality, in American English, I was living on the 5th floor!
  • Roundabouts, roundabouts everywhere!
  • If you see a flag hoisted and waving in the wind, it’s probably because you’ve come across a government building (town hall, regional delegation, etc.)…or that person is a nationalist, either a Spanish nationalist or a Basque/Catalan/Galician independence supporter.
  • This may just be a personal thing I don’t do, but when counting numbers 1, 2, 3, and so on, people start counting with their thumbs and go up instead of starting with their index fingers.
  • 1s and 7s are written differently; 1s have a little swoop on top but no foot, and 7s are crossed in the middle (like the letter Z!). Often capital letter As look like triangles.
  • Outside of northern Spain, all the houses are close together and touching (casas adosadas). That is to say…there are no front lawns or backyards since the houses open directly to the street and have maybe a small patio for drying clothes and eating out back.
  • Giving besos (kisses) is probably the most famous difference between Anglo-American culture and that of southern Europe. Two men will shake each others hands, but when a man and a woman (or two women) meet each other for the first time (or after a long time away like summer vacation), they will greet each other with two cheek kisses, one on each cheek, although this “kiss” is really more a “let’s touch our cheeks and make smoochy noises into the air.”

  • Like all but five other countries on this planet, Spain measures temperature in Celsius, where 0º is the freezing point of water and 100º is boiling. To give Americans an idea of how it might feel outside in Celsius, 10º is chilly and you will need a decent jacket (if you’re a Spanish old lady go ahead and throw on your floor-length fur coat). 20º is comfortable weather, especially if it’s sunny and the wind isn’t blowing too hard. At 30º, things are heating up, so put on some shorts and sunglasses and go for a paseo or afternoon stroll. If it’s 40º, I have one question: why are you walking around in Córdoba in August in at 3pm when you could be inside drinking cool gazpacho or taking a nap?!? You’re gonna melt!!!
  • Military time is also standard, mainly in official documentation, and it leaves no possibility for confusion. For example, train schedules are all given in the 24-hour format: your train for Barcelona that leaves at 17:05 will be announced as las diecisiete horas y cinco minutos instead of cinco de la tarde. If you’re confused, just subtract 12 from the big number and you’ve got the “p.m.” version. Be advised that the Spanish morning (la mañana) lasts from sunrise to 2pm (or lunch) and la tarde (afternoon) extends until 8 or 9pm (or supper).
  • When writing out quantities or prices, Spaniards use commas instead of periods to separate whole euros from céntimos (cents). You’ll see a menú del día (set menu) advertised on little blackboards outside restaurants as 9,50€, not €9.50, since periods are used as commas are in English, to divide groups of three numbers, like 1.234.567,89€.
  • Bread is the fourth piece of silverware on a Spanish dinner table. Obviously you have forks, knives, and spoons, so why bread? Well, to scoop up slippery pieces of food onto your fork with, silly! And also to sop up delicious sauces and broths that remain at the bottom of the bowl.
  • Manual transmission in cars is the norm here, so if you’re considering renting a car in Spain, take a crash-course in driving stickshift if you learned to drive with automatic like I did.
  • Since many supermarkets, offices, shops, and café-bars prohibit dogs from entering, it’s totally normal to see pet dogs left outside, their leashes tied up to the door handle or even a little hook provided specifically for this purpose. They sit out in the open (generally well-behaved) and look mournfully for their owners inside. This sounds weird, but when you remember that everything in Spain/Europe (especially older parts of town) are very close together with apartments and convenience stores on top of each other, it makes sense that when walking your dog you might kill two birds with one stone and run some errands while you’re at it.

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  • Because Spanish parents typically don’t hire babysitters (they’d sooner leave them with the grandparents), they bring them along when going out to dinner with their friends on the town. The children are literally left to run wild around the restaurant (or play soccer on the plaza outside) while the adults have drinks and tapas.
  • At least in Andalucía, there is no concept of “inside voices.”
  • Because boxed milk is stabilized with UHT processing and chicken eggs are left with their natural protective coating on, you can safely leave milk and eggs out of the fridge. Eggs are also normally brown instead of white…why, I don’t know.
  • Air conditioning and central heating are not standard in Spanish apartments, especially older ones, but most new places connected to gas lines will have radiators in every room.
  • Breakfast is small, usually coffee/tea/Cola-Cao with toast/a pastry/cookies. Fruit and yogurt makes a good mid-morning snack to hold you over between breakfast and lunch.
  • If beef is king in America, then pork reigns supreme in Spain.
  • The whole country shuts down on Sundays, so if you wanted to go grocery shopping on Saturday night at 10:01pm, tough luck—gotta wait until Monday morning.
  • Book spine titles are upside down to English-speakers, as they are read bottom to top instead of top to bottom.

What other small cultural differences can you think of between Spain and your home culture? Share your stories in the comments section below!

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