Culture Shock in Spain
- Purchase the complete Expat Arrivals Spain Guide (PDF)
Most expats moving to Spain will be familiar with the siesta, but more often than not, this somewhat outdated cultural concept is the full extent of a foreigner’s Spanish foundation. While expats might not experience as much culture shock in Spain as other locations, they are still likely to find a lot that takes getting used to.
Many places in the Iberian Peninsula do still observe the siesta, a long break between 2pm and 5pm in which many people sleep or return home for lunch. Expats working in larger cities such as Madrid and Barcelona will, however, find that it is slowly disappearing. Spanish businesspeople often cannot afford to take this time out of their days, and many workers insist that a shorter lunch gives them more free time in the evening. For restaurants and other members of the service industry, the siesta, if taken, might run at a different time.
On a similar note, new arrivals soon realise that many Spaniards work on their own time, and get irritated if somebody tries to hurry them. For example, when asking for a bill in a restaurant in Spain, expect to wait for it. This does not necessarily mean the person is rude, they just see and do things differently.
Language barrier in Spain
Many expats assume that learning Spanish is not necessary because, since Spain is a Western European country, everybody will speak English. This is not only an attitude that Spanish people often despise, it is also an outright fallacy. Although much of the population does have some knowledge of English, levels of proficiency vary greatly. Furthermore, the Spanish can be very unforgiving towards foreigners who make no effort to even begin to communicate in the national language.
It is also important to recognise that Catalan is largely spoken in the northeastern region of Catalonia, which claims Barcelona as its capital. A French-influenced variation of Spanish that derives from Latin, it has co-official status in the autonomous community.
One of the best ways to ease the degree of culture shock expats will experience after they arrive is to learn Spanish, and it is highly recommended that they master at least a few basic phrases before they move.
Politeness in Spain often does not rely on “please” and “thank you” in the way that it does in English. New arrivals should instead expect to be spoken to with short and sharp requests for either action or information. For most purposes, saying please (por favor) is either overly formal or a sign of exasperation. Spanish shopkeepers will acknowledge this with little more than a quick “Si?” and an expectant facial expression.
Women in Spain
Women may have a difficult time adjusting to Spanish culture, especially if they come from places where cat-calling is uncommon. The cities are essentially modern, but rural Spain still holds onto some of its patriarchal thinking – staring and commenting on passing women is something of a national pastime for many groups of men.
While times are changing, it’s not for nothing that the word "machismo" originated in the Spanish-speaking world. However, there are few legal, educational or cultural impediments to female advancement in the workplace and the law protects female equality.
Religion in Spain
Spain is a Roman Catholic country and, while the Church is not state-backed, the evidence of its reach can be seen everywhere. In many towns, the largest building is the church, and the cathedrals and shrines of Spain are not to be missed when sightseeing. As much as 70 percent of the population identifies as part of the Catholic Church, and around 20 percent are regular churchgoers.
Despite its religious background, a large degree of social change has come about since 2004; for example, same-sex marriage and abortion have been legalised.
Bureaucracy in Spain
The structure of the Spanish government means that a high degree of autonomy is given to each of its 17 political regions. This means that both laws and culture can vary extensively from one part of Spain to another and, as a result, the bureaucracy in Spain is particularly painful.
Similarly, in business, the Spanish people adopt a tedious approach to contract negotiation. The Spanish will take a lot of time arranging any deal, running over each section until it is clear that both sides understand what is required of them and, once signed, it is expected that details are carried out to the letter.