“Sorry if you can’t hear me. There’s a bunch of Spanish people nearby talking so loudly.”
“Don’t say that. They aren’t Spanish people—they’re people.”
In that moment I realized what I said, or even what I have been saying for the past semester. How could I have said something so glib after months of being here? It’s so easy to separate. It’s so easy to separate us from them; that they do this or that because they’re them. Of course I didn’t mean for my comment to my mom to become a bigoted remark, but it was. What my comment really referred to was the stereotype that Spaniards are inherently loud and while it may seem harmless, generalizations are problematic.
Spaniards can be infuriating if that’s how you want to look at them. Some of my professors who were born and raised in Spain would explain cultural differences with stereotypes: “Spanish people don’t say “please” or “thank you” as often,” “We don’t like to accept compliments,” or they would explain some of the many colorful idioms that foreigners aren’t used to.
You may be reading this thinking that these examples are trivial and shouldn’t be bothersome, and you’re right. Cultural subtleties can be hard to understand for foreigners in any culture, but with a negative outlook even the minutiae of differences can be estranging. After months of separation from family, friends, your home and what you know as comfortable, and after the initial enchantment has faded, you may begin to note the differences. It’s easy to put an entire people at fault just because you had a few uncomfortable interactions.
For example, you might compliment your Spanish friend’s shirt, but she’ll shrug and insist that it was a bargain instead of simply saying “thank you” or returning the compliment. A stranger might bump into you on the street or push their way through a crowded bar without saying perdon, por favor, or gracias. One of your Spanish friends might call you gordito, not to tell you that you’re fat, but as a term of endearment. Sometimes when you’re in a new country, you will begin to attribute these tiny scenarios to the character of an entire people. This type of thinking will only breed contempt. Listen to explanations that locals give. If they don’t give them, ask for them.
Spaniards don’t utilize “please” or “thank you” as often because they express gratitude and kindness with their tone of voice or body language. They don’t like to blatantly accept a compliment for fear of seeming conceited. Colorful idioms aren’t met to offend, but come from the richness and diversity of the language, using a lot of nicknames and diminutives to show affection. There are two outlooks to nearly every social or cultural situation. You have the ability to choose to interpret it either way.
The people talking loudly in the lobby while I was on the phone with my mom could have been any nationality. The point is that they were simply people talking loudly—neither American nor Spanish nor Norwegian nor Chinese. The truth is that it’s hard not to compare a new culture directly to your own, or think that this or that would never happen in your home country. Many times it has happened and will happen—you just don’t realize it. Maybe you won’t understand some things, but you must learn to accept the differences. Neither culture is better than the other. Traveling with an open and curious mind will let you see the beauty in the differences.
Want to read more about Salamanca? Check out “Five Tips for Studying in Salamanca on a Shoe String Budget.”