10 Dos and 10 Don’ts in Spain

Spain is a relaxed and diverse country and in general, there are very few etiquette rules to follow but here are the most popular ones to remember:

Do

  1. Travel the country to small towns and go up to the North of Spain – Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid are amazing cities but there are fantastic places that are not so well-explored by tourists or expats, one of these gems is the North of Spain, where you can find beautiful landscapes in Basque Country, Asturias, Cantabria and Galicia and some amazing Spanish produce such as artisanal cheeses, amazing meat and cider.IMG_2218.JPG
  2. Greet people with “Buenos Dias” when you walk into places.
  3. Remember that there are different Spains! There are 17 autonomous communities with very different culture, food and even language and accents! There is more to Spain than bullfighting and flamenco and endless places to visit and things to learn about.
  4. Greet people with a handshake or two kisses starting first with the left cheek then the right. Spanish people get offended if you refuse to kiss. Women always greet with two kisses on the cheeks and men only greet women with kisses while greeting other men with a handshake. I have seen men try to greet other men with kisses and it was incredibly awkward.
  5. Always dress in an appropriate and stylish manner.Remember that Spanish people dress for seasons and not the weather. Even though it may be blisteringly hot in April or May you will NEVER see Spanish people wearing shorts or flip-flops. They will still be wearing their winter boots and coats. The Spanish are very stylish and well-dressed. It is frowned upon to go out in your tracksuit, yoga pants or worse still in your bikini or shirtless in the streets, especially in cities. This is something that Spanish criticise the most.
  6. Be patient. The Spanish concept of time may drive some Northern Europeans crazy. Fast food is not all that fast, you can wait 30 minutes before ordering a meal or receiving the bill, and it is customary for most people to arrive between 10 and 20 minutes late without batting an eyelid. It is customary to arrive at least 30 minutes late to a party so it’s best to relax and embrace this instead of getting frustrated by the lack of punctuality.
  7. Bring clothes from home if you are full-figured or beauty products from home if you are deeply attached to them. Spanish sizes cater more towards the smaller sizes, I have heard that it’s not easy to find larger sized clothes so if you are fuller-figured it’s best to bring clothes from home. I’ve heard from some people that African-American hair products are hard to come by, even though there are products available in neighbourhoods like Lavapies, I’ve heard that they aren’t the same quality so please remember to bring those with you from your home country.
  8. Open any gifts you receive in front of the giver – Here in Spain it is customary to open gifts when you receive them to show your delight, I remember that this was a difficult custom to adopt as in Thailand it is the opposite, you don’t open your gifts straight away but instead accept them with a smile and with grace and open them at home. In Thailand, where I lived for five years, it was perceived as greedy and materialistic to open your gifts straight away.
  9. Pay attention to your belongings in touristy areas and on the metro – This is an important one! it’s almost 2017-pick-pocket.jpega rite of passage when people get their phone or wallet stolen. I’ve seen people put their phones on the table in a restaurant or cafe, hang their bag on the back of their chair and generally not pay much attention to their belongings. The centre of Madrid and most touristy areas in Spain are pickpocket hotspots and they can tell who the tourists and foreigners are. Remember to keep an eye on your belongings and keep your bag closed and to your front at all times. It’s such a hassle to get new documentation and cancel all your bank cards here that it is much better to prevent pickpockets in the first place. Spain, in general, is an incredibly safe country which is one of the reasons I love living here, but the most common crime is theft and pickpocketing.
  10. Eat your tortilla or cake with a fork only  – Apparently, this is a thing, so don’t use a knife!

Don’t

  1. Expect people to speak English – There is a huge demand for English teachers here in Madrid and one of the things that surprised me the most when I moved to the Capital city was that so few people spoke English, or spoke poor English. Things have improved significantly and more and more people speak English these days. People are incredibly shy though and even though they might know some English they may not be forthcoming to practice their English with you. It is helpful to learn some Spanish phrases before coming here and definitely do not expect people to speak English!
  2. Overtip – I remember when I first came to Spain my Spanish friends were shocked at how generous my tipping was. Here it’s customary to only tip maybe 30 or 50 cents if you’re eating a menu del dia. In a more expensive restaurant, it is customary to tip more.
  3. Criticise the food! – even though I have heard from many foreigners that Spanish IMG_1396.JPGfood is too bland for their tastes (not enough herbs and spices) NEVER say this to a Spanish person as they are very defensive and passionate about their food. It is very common to hear the sentence “Spanish food is the best in the world” or “our raw ingredients are such good quality that it needs nothing more than a little olive oil and salt” or “Indian/Asian/insert international food here use spices to mask the poor quality of their ingredients”. Even though the last statement is not true, it is a common belief in Spain. Personally I love Spanish food but I love all cuisine!
  4. Expect to find spicy food in Spain – the tolerance for spice levels here are incredibly low. Luckily you can request spicy sauces or for them to ramp up the flavour, or carry around a bottle of siracha (which you CAN buy in supermarkets). In Leon they make spicy chorizo which is actually excellent! I remember the butcher saying he had 7 levels of spice so we opted for level 6 and found it as a nice mild spiciness! Nothing like the Thai curries I had become accustomed to whilst living in Thailand.
  5. Expect many vegetarian options in Spain – Spain is a country where the pig is jamon-iberico.jpgking, I have heard that some vegetarians get offered jamon as an option. Many Spanish people would be horrified if you refuse to or have never tried jamon. In the big cities, there has been a surge in vegetarian and vegan restaurants but it is still not the norm or as established as in other countries. One excellent thing is that most menus in Spain are dotted with symbols to consider all allergies including shellfish, gluten etc. however, life is still hard for vegans in Spain, especially in smaller towns.
  6. Don’t try to do anything important between 14:00 and 16:00 – despite the fact that people don’t have siestas, most businesses such as banks and administrative offices close at 14:00, so get everything done in the morning!! If you have to go to the hospital or public health centre you need to take at least 3 hours of your day, so make sure you take enough time for your appointments.
  7. Be surprised if a Catalan or Basque person gets insulted if you call them Spanish! – unless you want to start a heated debate about the Catalonian crisis and have a very offended Catalan or Basque. It’s better to approach this topic with caution.
  8. Be offended by physical contact or very personal questions – Spanish people are cheek-kiss11.jpgvery friendly and are quite physical and like to show their affection by touching you on the arm, speaking close to your ear, patting you on the back and asking you very direct and personal questions such as “how old are you?” or “do you have a boyfriend?” or “why don’t you have any children?” These questions are seen as a way of getting close to people quickly. However the forbidden question here is “what do you do?” Or “what is your job?” Which Spanish people feel is an incredibly personal question. This approachability and openness make Spain a great country to meet a lot of people. In some countries, this intimacy can be perceived as rude, however, here it is best to be warm and answer questions as politely as possible. There is a stereotype that northern Europeans are cold and distant and it’s a widely perpetuated stereotype here!
  9. Expect civil servants to be friendly – a tough lesson to learn but in general, they exist to make your life difficult. There is a legend of the friendly and helpful funcionario but that is something I have yet to encounter, they are as rare as unicorns! Be prepared when going to administrative offices and make at least 6 copies of everything. Don’t forget any documents as they are very unforgiving. It took me 3 visits to obtain my NIE and that was just the beginning! Patience is the key.
  10. Don’t expect much silence – Spain is a noisy country, the volume is ramped up tonoisy.jpgWhether dining in an intimate restaurant or being out in the street or in your house, you need to get accustomed to a lot of noise. There can be only five people in a small restaurant but it will sound like a crowd of 100. Don’t worry you’ll get used to it! Earplugs are also a good investment!

I hope that you found these pointers useful!

Are there any more you would like to add? Please feel free to leave a comment!

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12 thoughts on “10 Dos and 10 Don’ts in Spain

  1. I go to language exchanges and people (Spaniards!) ask each other what they do for a living and what am I doing in Spain (retired) all the time. I do not understand your comment about not asking people what they do for a living. Is it because of the “crisis” and there is a lot of unemployment here and it embarrasses people? I find this “do not ask people what they do for a living” not true at all in my experience, but maybe you can explain why you listed it as a “don’t”.

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  2. Lucía

    Nice article! But Spanish people don’t get offended when you ask them what they do for a living, what it’s seen as impolite is to ask how much do they earn!

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  3. melissadurablog

    Hi! I have met the friendly and helpful funcionario many times 🙂 It may be that they sound a bit more ‘brusque’ because of the way Spanish people often communicate, but a lot of the time people go out of their way to help you. It’s one of the things that surprised me about Spain – a lot of people complain about ‘red tape’ but, to be honest, I don’t think it compares to a lot of the red tape in the UK, where I’m from. It can be confusing to find information, though, and I think that’s partly down to overly-complex, difficult to navigate IT systems. However, this is one area where at least some level of Spanish is a MUST – even when I arrived here and had very basic Spanish, I had to do nearly every formal transaction in Spanish – oddly, although there are a lot of English speakers in Madrid for example, English speaking services for the important stuff is still quite limited. Re: the comments above about Spanish people getting offended if you ask them what they do – I agree that they don’t – however, I wouldn’t open a conversation with that. It’s not so much that it’s offensive, but people don’t seem to regard their job role as the most important aspect of themselves – and rightly so.

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    1. Madrid Insider

      You’re very lucky! I have encountered one or two in my lifetime but unfortunately my experiences have been largely negative rather than positive. Interesting point about the job as not the most important aspect, I fully agree but in the West I’ve noticed people often ask that first and I guess it’s an aspect that people use to judge and define your social status and success

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