An Expats Guide to the Customs of Spain

An Expats Guide to the Customs of Spain

20th February, 2014

Despite Spain’s recent economic woes, it is still a popular destination for expats. The weather is reliably good all year round, mild in winter. The cuisine is legendary, the people are friendly, the countryside and coastlines are delightful and property can be surprisingly affordable. But what about the customs of Spain? We thought it would be useful to take a detailed look at what you can expect from Spanish culture, Spanish business etiquette and Spanish traditions.

About Spanish culture

Contemporary culture in Spain is a complex blend of different influences including Celtic, Iberian, Roman, Phoenican, Latin American and Moorish.  The end result is a culture that’s varied, vibrant and tolerant. As USA Today says:

The Iberian Peninsula, where Spain is located, once was a part of the Roman Empire before it came under the control of the Visigoths. The region was later conquered by the Moors of North Africa around the 8th century. Moorish and Visigoth cultures merged for several hundred years until a united group of Catholic monarchs waged a successful campaign against the Moors and reconquered its lands. Spain progressed and prospered during colonial times as it reaped the riches of its exploits in the Americas, only to see its power recede as many of the colonies achieved independence. Spain has been through its fair share of ups and downs since then, but these periods in history have left permanent marks on the social and cultural identity of the country.

This complexity is reflected in the country’s language. While the official language is Spanish, AKA Castilian, spoken by more than 70% of Spaniards, people speak Galician in Galicia and Basque in Euskadi, the Spanish Basque region. Locals speak Catalan in Catalonia and the Balearics, and Valencian in the Valencia region. All these different languages are officially recognised, but there are still more that are not, including  Aragonese and Asturian.

Traditions in Spain – Personal space and family values

Every nation has its own comfort zone as regards personal space. In Spain people use physical contact often and with pleasure, during conversations and on any occasion as a perfectly natural part of the communication process. Close contact isn’t seen as an invasion of personal space as it would be somewhere more reserved, like Britain.

Traditionally, culture in Spain has flowed from the family and extended family, with family values at the heart of the nation’s social structure. However things are changing. It’s less common for Spaniards to work in family businesses than ever. More people are going to university, living longer and having fewer children, and Spaniards are less likely to live with their family beyond university age.

Spanish customs – Machismo is dead!

Machismo means male dominance, and it’s another aspect of Spanish culture that’s changing fast. Once a nation where traditional ideas about manliness were woven deep into society, these days Spain has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe as well as an extremely strong reputation for equality.

About religion in Spain

Most Spaniards are formally Roman Catholic, although many don’t practice their religion and other faiths are widely accepted. The country is a place of festivals where Christian celebrations blend with ancient pagan traditions in a lively, year-long round of processions, parties, fiestas and carnivals. While the country’s intense religious history is apparent in every town and village, in the cities many Cathedrals feel more like museums than places of worship. In a nutshell, as far as faith goes, anything goes.

Spanish customs – Fiesta!

Most people equate Spain with Flamenco and bullfights. There are still plenty of bullfights and the Running of Bulls has made the little town of Pamplona world famous. In fact bullfights form a vital part of more or less every Fiesta, wherever you are in Spain.

Flamenco is less widespread, the musical tradition of Spain’s hot, exotic south with its heart in Andalusia. In April there’s the Feria de Abril, in Seville, a whole week of singing, dancing, drinking the region’s finest Sherry and enjoying Tapas. Seville is also home to the extraordinary Semana Santa, Easter week, with its breathtaking processions.

In Valencia during March there’s Las Fallas de San José, a city-wide party with fireworks, food, drink, dancing and music. And in nearby Buñol during August you’ll find an annual event called La Tomatina, the planet’s biggest tomato fight. Nobody knows how or why the fifty year tradition started, but it attracts thousands of visitors every year. In short, no matter where you choose to live in Spain there will be at least one Fiesta near you, probably a whole host of them.

Customs and etiquette in Spain – Eating

If you’re invited into a local person’s home, it’s good manners to take either chocolates, pastries, cakes, wine, liqueur or flowers for the hostess. If your hosts have children they will probably be included in your evening, and it’s also good manners to take a small gift for them.

If you’re at a formal meal, always stay standing until your host sits. Keep your hands visible while you’re eating, resting your wrists on the edge of the table. You can start eating when your hostess starts. Fruit is eaten with a knife and fork, not with your hands. And you’re not supposed to get up until the guest of honour does.

Cultural etiquette in Spain – What about the siesta?

There are two types of siesta in Spain, one for businesses and one for the public. Siesta time for shops and businesses tends to run from around 2pm until 5pm, bars and restaurants close between 4pm until 9pm, catering for the throngs of siesta-lovers who want to while away the afternoon with good food and drink. But siesta is another key aspect of life in Spain that’s changing fast. In summer 2012 Spanish business hours law was relaxed. These days businesses can stay open for 90 hours a week and open a maximum of ten Sundays a year. This goes some way towards bringing Spain into line with the rest of Europe’s working practices.

Having said that, siesta had been dying a death for some time before the law changed. Commercial and economic pressures plus the popularisation of air conditioning means more Spaniards work through the hottest part of the day. Even so, Spanish people still tend to sleep an average of an hour less than other European countries.

Spanish etiquette – Night life

Spanish night life literally lasts all night. At midnight, when the rest of Europe is winding down, the streets in Spain are just filling up with people of every age, who stay out until 3am and later. How long will it last? As you can imagine, the changing face of the traditional siesta might eventually change the country’s love affair with late nights on the town.

Business traditions in Spain – Meeting Etiquette

When you are introduced to someone for the first time, shake hands. If you know the person already and you’re male, you can embrace and pat each other on the shoulder. Some men use a two-handed shake, with the left hand on the other person’s right forearm. Women who know one another kiss on both cheeks, left first.

What to call someone? If it’s a formal occasion you can call the person ‘Don’ (male) or ‘Dona’ (female) plus their first name.

Business etiquette in Spain – Developing good personal relationships

Like many people around the world, the Spanish like to do business with those they know and trust. It makes sense to spend time getting to know your business colleagues and making the effort to develop good relationships.

As a rule face-to-face is better than communicating by telephone or in writing. Modesty is admired, showing off isn’t. And communications in general are formal.

It’s extremely important to avoid confrontation if at all possible because Spaniards do not like to admit they’re wrong, especially in public. Like many societies, Spanish people do not like to look foolish and don’t like to lose face. You might notice that people don’t give their opinions at meetings, which makes it particularly important to tune into non-verbal cues.

Character is very important, as are hierarchy and rank. Spanish business traditions mean it’s best to deal with people of a similar level to you, so much so that you might never meet the senior people who actually make the decisions.

If someone interrupts while you’re speaking, or everyone talks at once, is isn’t because they’re being rude. It’s because they are really interested in and excited about what you have to say.

Spaniards are also known to be extremely thorough, going into minute detail to make 100% sure something has been properly understood. An oral agreement usually comes before a formal contract, and you are expected to stick to your contract meticulously, to the letter.

Business dress? It’s best to look conservative, smart and formal. You should never just turn up – always make an appointment first. And bear in mind you might not do any business or even make a decision of any kind during your first meeting, usually a formal affair dedicated to getting to know one another.

While English is widely spoken, it’s polite to also provide written materials in Spanish.

Driving in Spain

Expats are allowed to use their driver’s licenses for as much as 6 months, until their Spanish driver’s license comes through. This is only possible if you come from a country with a ‘driving agreement’ with Spain, where your license is ‘recognized’ and can be converted into a Spanish one. If your home country doesn’t have an agreement with Spain, you will need to go through the learning process from scratch and take the Spanish driving test, including exams.

  • On motorways the speed limit is 120 km/h
  • In built up areas the speed limit is usually 50 km/h
  • It is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving unless you use hands-free
  • You must wear a seat belt
  • if you drive a motorbike, you must wear a helmet
  • emergency on the road? Call 112

 What’s your top tip for living in Spain?

We’d love to hear from you if you already live in Spain. What did you find the most difficult and easiest to get used to?

Alison Massey

Group Marketing Director

Now Health International

Alison Massey is a 15-year digital marketing veteran, who has spent the last seven years using social media to help expats and soon to be expats find out what to expect from a life overseas. An expat living in Hong Kong herself, Alison is the Group Marketing Director of Now Health, the award-winning international health insurance provider.

Contact Alison Massey

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