The Top 5 Cultural Differences Between Spain and the U.S.

Jocelyne Becerra Garcia is a student at the University of Colorado Boulder and an ISA Featured Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA in Salamanca, Spain.

Do you know what culture shock feels like? Well let me tell you. According to me, it’s this feeling that you get when you’re in a whole new environment that’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before and for the most part you feel like you’re on the outside looking in. You’re a lot more sensitive to things because you don’t want to appear abnormal or different, yet you can’t help but make mistakes. At times, culture shock can leave you feeling uncomfortable, but for me, it’s a blessing in disguise.  Here are 5 cultural shocks (or blessings in disguise) that I experienced during my time in the beautifully antiquated city of Salamanca, Spain.

  1. Store Hours


Once upon a time after my last class ended at 14:30 I began my short walk to La Perfumeria (store that sells beauty products like soap, make-up, toothbrushes etc) to run some errands. From the outside I noticed the lights inside were off, it was completely dark and no one was in this petite store but for some reason I attempted to go in anyway. With my mind still running on U.S norms, I thought to myself, “it’s 14:40… how could they not be opened?” I tried going in but, of course, the door was locked. In the U.S, stores are opened all day, err’day (even on Christmas!), but Salamanca has its own rules. It turns out many private owned businesses close from 14:00 to 16:00 because, in the words of one of my good friends, “businesses are willing to lose profits and time during the day to close for siesta.” Which brings me to my next point.

  1. Siesta


What is it? A nap after eating lunch. I was very excited to come to Spain and have naps be a norm. Before I left to Spain, I heard numerous times that siestas are a very Spanish thing to do. BUT WAIT. Siestas are actually not very common amongst the Spaniards, at least not all year round like I assumed. My grammar teacher Lula explained that siestas are very common during the summer for the Spanish and the reason for this is that during the summer it’s too hot to go outside and meriendar (light meal before since the typical times to eat are 9am, 2pm and 9pm). Ergo, the next best thing is to have a siesta. Many foreigners assume it’s a year round thing. Unfortunately, I was one of these foreigners, but you’re reading this so you won’t make the same mistake I did! Don’t worry, I got you. :)

  1. Napkins


First off: tapas are small portions of food that you can get for very cheap prices and they’re perfect for sharing with friends (sometimes they’re free with a glass of wine so pour it up, pour it up!). I remember the first time I ate at a tapas bar in Madrid and I noticed that there were a lot of crumpled napkins on the floor in front of the bar. “Wow, that’s kind of rude,” I thought. Little did I know that this is surprisingly an action many tapas bars welcome. Why? Let me tell you– it makes sense! Apparently, this makes it easier for the dishwashers to wash dishes if they don’t have to worry about little napkins clogging up the sink. After all, it is easier to sweep up napkins with a broom than trying to unclog a sink. So if you notice a lot of little napkins beneath the tapas bar, please feel free to add your own to the collection. I promise it’ll be greatly appreciated!

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you

Un dia, my grammar teacher (the same one that hilariously called us foreigners out for assuming that siestas are year round) was handing out our homework. Every 2 seconds I heard “gracias…gracias…gracias” but I didn’t think anything of it. Then all of a sudden she stops and asks “why is everyone saying thank you for homework? It’s not a gift! It’s homework! You foreigners say thank you for everything!” Apparently, in Spain “thank you” is only used when it’s necessary and appropriate, like when a waiter brings you your food, someone gives a gift, etc. I never noticed how much I used that word until now. So don’t “gracias” a lot, period.

  1. Personal space

This doesn’t exist here. Here, it’s common for strangers to bump into you on the street or abruptly cross in front of you while you’re trying to look at a shirt in Zara. On the other hand, Spaniards are very touchy so when they’re talking to you, they might grab your wrist or something like that. It’s also normal to sit very closely to each other, to the point where you feel like the person you’re talking to can see your pores. And when it’s time to leave you kiss each other’s cheeks. Remember to start on the left side always, I made the mistake of leaning right first and nearly kissed the person I was INTRODUCING myself to.

Overall, these past weeks have taught me not to be afraid of experiencing culture shocks and I have inevitably gained a richer understanding of the Spanish culture through my mistakes; in other words, I have gotten one step closer to being una española.


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