In Spain Do As The Spaniards Do: A Comparison of Cultures

Adrienne Prillaman is a student at University of North Texas and an an ISA Classmates Connecting Cultures  blogger corresponding with a high school student leadership class in Keller, Texas. Adrienne is studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain on an ISA Fall 4 program.

One of the main concerns people have when studying abroad is experiencing culture shock. It’s inevitable – every culture has differences. However, it’s important to not look these differences as hindrances, but as a way to broaden your cultural horizon. It’s about learning to appreciate and tolerate another way of life, even if you disagree with it. That being said, here are the 10 biggest cultural differences I have encountered while living in Spain – some of them are a little strange, and some are things I prefer over my own culture!

universidad de salamanca

1) Home is a private place

In general, only family or those very close to the family are allowed in the home. And homes in Spain are more like apartments, although usually with more bedrooms and bathrooms than normal for an American apartment. Even though it seems like an apartment, it’s a house to them, so don’t call it an apartment.

2) In restaurants, no individual checks for groups (but tax is already included in the menu price given)

When dining out, it is very rude to ask for the waiter to split up your bills, and they probably wouldn’t do it anyway. While this sometimes results in college kids arguing over basics mathematics, it’s not too terribly difficult because you don’t have to calculate tax since it’s already included. Tax is included in the sale price of everything in Spain, so it makes all shopping easier – until you check the conversion rate,  and then you cry.

3) Scarcely will you here people say “sorry”

People will push, shove, and not say a thing in crowds… or even when not in crowds. And people don’t typically apologize for being late either.

4) Walking with blinders on

People tend to walk like they are wearing blinders, not looking at others, not smiling or saying hello to others. Maybe this is more strange for me  because I’m from Texas, and it’s very common for us to smile and make conversation with perfect strangers. I had to be very careful to not stand out as a foreigner by avoiding doing that here. However, while people are usually paying attention to only themselves, they are usually extremely friendly if you ask them for help. And in Spain, and Europe as a whole, I felt safer than in the U.S., so while I was cautious I didn’t feel as nervous traveling or walking around on my own like I probably would in the U.S.

The Spanish Speaking Canines
The Spanish Speaking Canines

5) Tiny dogs everywhere!

Well they are not all tiny, but it seems like most everybody owns dogs, and usually they are smaller because the houses are smaller. However, most dogs have been trained to not really pay attention to others and they don’t get really excited and try to run over and play with other people or dogs typically. Also, it’s really cute to see the dogs in the wintertime, because the owners put little jackets on them – adorable.

More Adorable Pups
More Adorable Pups

6) Fashionably late

Spaniards are notoriously late for things, and are quite fashionable as well. So they may be late, but they’ll look great. Perhaps they were the reason the term was invented…

7) Meal times

Spaniards don’t really eat breakfast, and if they do it’s toast with jam and tea. Then they have their main meal at lunch, usually around 2 or 3pm. During this time, the smaller shops, like pharmacies and such, will close to allow everyone to go home to have lunch with their family. The meal times were incredibly hard to adjust to for me, and the large gap of time between meals is one of the main reasons tapas bars are so popular. But when you have class from morning until lunch with no breaks, it’s not possible to go grab a snack. Dinner is usually at 9pm at the earlier, but usually at 10pm and sometimes even later. I wasn’t able to grab snacks between breakfast and lunch, but I usually always did between lunch and dinner.

Daily Walks No Matter The Age
Daily Walks No Matter The Age

8) The elderly are out and about

This is actually something I wish was more common in America. Most of the elderly still go out for daily walks, and you can see many grandparents caring for their grandchildren and bringing them on their walks. Even if it’s not easy for them to walk, many have their children arm in arm to help them get around. Additionally, there are many of those exercise parks that look like playgrounds available for people to use before, between or after work.

9) School and grade system

The Spanish version of grade schools varies a bit from ours in the United States, but the main school years are still for children ages 6 to 18. But the way it’s laid out is a bit different:

  • Educación Infantile: ages 1-5. First there is nursery (1st grade) for the 1-2-year-olds and 2nd grade is for 3-5-years-olds.
  • Educación Primaria: ages 6-11. 6-year-olds are in 1st grade E.P., 7 year-olds in 2nd grade, and so on up to 11-years-olds in 6th grade.
  • Educación Secundaria: ages 12-16. Instead of continuing on to label the following grades 7th through 12th, they start the numbering system over again with Secondary Education. Children aged 12-13 are in 1st grade E.S.O., 13-14-year olds in 2nd grade E.S.O. and so on.
  • Bachillerato: ages 16-18. 16-17-year-olds in the 1st grade of Bachillerato, and 17-18-year-olds in 2nd grade.
  • Universidad: Spanish students usually do not have to pay for university, or if they do have to pay, it’s very little in comparison to how much we pay in the U.S. Additionally they choose their major and only take classes that are pertinent to it, and can go on to significant careers in their field after graduating. Master’s and PhD programs also exist in Spain, and many people will go on to them after they graduate from their university, but higher degrees like these are not as necessary to have a successful career like in the U.S. Also, while in university, many students aim to get just the grades they need to graduate, and don’t mind taking many classes more than once in order to pass. The grade system is a bit different as well. The scale is from 1-10, 5 and up being a passing grade. This is more or less the system that was used at the University of Salamanca, but every school can vary slightly.

10) Fiesta!

The Spanish love to party. My friends and I used to joke about how we wish we had chosen to study in the spring instead of the fall because there are so many more holidays and festivals during that time of year, that it seems like people are working or going to school only half the time. Additionally, the Spanish like to party any night of the week, but they will not stay out as late if they have work or school the next day. But on the weekends, they won’t go out until around midnight or usually even 2am, and not come home until between 6-8am. However, while they party more than us, they drink less. Unlike Americans, most Spaniards don’t drink to get drunk typically but rather they drink as a social event. If they are out, they will most likely only average 1 or 2 drinks an hour (a smarter, safer choice).

So those are the biggest culture comparisons I encountered in Spain, and while I may not have enjoyed all of them, I did learn to appreciate them and learn more about another culture I was living in.

Author: Adrienne Abrahamson

Texas native, world traveler, food enthusiast, Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanatic.

2 thoughts

  1. Very interesting! I’ve studied Argentine culture for a couple of years, and many of the items you write about are typical of Argentina, too. So maybe this is where much of it comes from, as the majority of Argentines have Spanish and/or Italian ancestry. USians are always struck by the late dinner hour and the almost-nonexistent breakfast.

  2. I was in Salamanca in ’83 and from what you describe things have not changed. But then, these are things related to their worldview and would take eons to change.
    You probably noticed that they don’t call people friends after five minutes either; there’s a clear distinction between acquaintances and friends.

    Also, things aren’t black and white like they are for Americans. That’s not good or bad, but a result of very different worldviews. Leafing through a magazine you will see the most gory photos of real, not gratuitous or imaginary, violence followed by a photo of a baby or a perfume ad.

    There’s nothing dignified about being sloshed out of your mind, and dignity is important to Spaniards. Something white Americans see differently. Black Americans have never gone in for being sloshed in public because it isn’t dignified or safe.

    If you want to have a real understanding of the Spanish worldview check out Unamuno, and Madariaga. Once you understand a culture’s worldview it’s so much easier to understand many of the seemingly small and large differences you run into.

    After all these years, I’m still in love with Spain, and I guarantee that this experience will change your life, Adrienne. I”m interested in reading more of your thoughts on one of my favorite places in the world.

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