- Download our Moving to Spain Guide (PDF)
Spain has a rich and varied local culture. While expats will likely receive a warm welcome from locals, there are a few aspects of the local culture in Spain that might take some adjusting to.
Time in Spain
Although the siesta is slowly dying out, many places in the Iberian Peninsula still observe this long break in the middle of the workday – usually between 2pm and 5pm – during which many people have a nap or return home for a long lunch. Expats working in larger cities such as Madrid and Barcelona will, however, find that companies no longer accept it. Spanish businesspeople often cannot afford to take this time out of their days, and many workers insist that a shorter lunch frees up more time in the evening. For restaurants and other members of the service industry, the siesta, if taken, might run at a different time.
Similarly, new arrivals soon realise that many Spaniards generally do not have a sense of urgency, 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, but it is also an outright fallacy. Although much of the population does have some knowledge of English, levels of proficiency vary greatly. 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. Catalan has co-official status in this 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.
Women in Spain
Women may have a difficult time adjusting to Spanish culture, especially if they come from places where cat-calling is uncommon. Rural Spain, especially, still holds some 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. That said, there are few legal, educational or cultural impediments to female advancement in the workplace and the law protects gender equality.
Religion in Spain
Spain is a 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 the country's religious background, a large degree of social change has come about since 2004; with the legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion being two prime examples.
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. Once the contract is signed, it is expected that details are carried out to the letter.
►Accommodation in Spain gives information on finding a home in the country
►For information on getting around, see Transport and Driving in Spain
What do expats have to say about Spanish culture?
"German and Spanish cultures seem to be the most opposite when it comes to European countries. It took me a while to get used to the somewhat chaotic Spanish lifestyle, new schedules (Spaniards love to eat late), and mastering the Spanish language." Read more about Vicki's expat experience in Barcelona.
"The biggest adjustment would be going to bed later. I’m normally an early bird who goes to bed around 9pm, but here in Spain, that’s usually dinner time. So, in the beginning, I found I was rather tired, but I adjusted quickly." Read more about South African expat Gabriella and her move to Spain in her interview.
"The initial culture shock I experienced was related to food. I was a very picky eater, so was instantly put off by the sight of a full fish (face and all) offered in front of me. It’s still a little disturbing now, to see the fish laid out like that in the supermarkets." Learn more about British expat Stuart and his life in Spain in his interview.
Are you an expat living in Spain?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Spain. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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