Traditions & Customs in Spain
Culture and identity
- Spaniards are generally very patriotic, both towards their country and the region in which they live. Avoid arguments about whether people from Catalonia or the Basque Country are Spanish or not. Security is usually not an issue in the event of an argument, but you will be dragged into a long and pointless discussion. If, on the other hand, you find yourself in deep Basque country, you may encounter serious problems.
- Spaniards, especially young people, generally feel a linguistic and cultural connection with Latin America. However, most will be quick to point out that Spain is a European nation, not a Latin American one, and that all Spanish-speaking countries are different and have their own particularities.
- Spaniards are not as religious as they are sometimes portrayed in the media, but they are and always have been a predominantly Catholic country (73% officially, although only 10% admit to practising and only 20% admit to being believers); respect this and avoid comments that could be offensive. In particular, religious holidays, Holy Week (Easter) and Christmas are very important to Spaniards. Tolerance of all religions should be respected, especially in large urban areas such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville or Malaga (where people and temples of all faiths can be found) or in various regions of southern Spain, which may have a large Muslim population (representing almost 4% of the country’s population).
- Although Spain is a predominantly Catholic country, homosexuality is fairly tolerated and public displays of same-sex affection are unlikely to provoke hostility. A Pew survey conducted in 2013 in various countries in the Americas, Europe, Africa and the Middle East found that Spain has the highest percentage of people who believe homosexuality should be accepted by society, at 88 per cent. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005 and the government grants legal benefits to same-sex couples. However, this did not necessarily mean that all Spaniards were positive towards homosexuals; homophobic attacks were rare but did occur. Cities are more tolerant of homosexuality than rural areas, Madrid, Catalonia and the Basque Country are much more tolerant, but on the whole Spain is gay-friendly. As everywhere, older people generally have much more conservative views. The Madrid Pride Parade is one of the largest in the world. Overall, Spain is one of the safest countries for LGBT tourists.
- Avoid talking about the old colonial past and especially about the “Black Legend”. Whatever you may have heard, Spain had several mixed-race ministers and military leaders who served in the army during the colonial period and even a prime minister who was born in the Philippines (Marcelo Azcarraga Palmero). Many Spaniards are proud of their history and former imperial glory. People from Spain’s former colonies (Latin America, Equatorial Guinea, the Philippines, Western Sahara and Northern Morocco) make up the majority of foreign immigrants in Spain (58%), along with Chinese, Africans and Eastern Europeans. Likewise, Spain is one of the most important investors and donors of economic and humanitarian aid in Latin America and Africa.
- Bullfighting is considered an icon of cultural heritage by many Spaniards, but discontent with bullfighting is growing in all major cities and apparently also among animal rights activists in the country. Many urban Spaniards would see bullfighting as a spectacle for foreign tourists and older people in the countryside, and some young Spaniards would be offended if their country was associated with it. To illustrate how divided the country is, many Spaniards point to the royal family: King Juan Carlos and his daughter are avid bullfighters, while his wife and the Crown Prince have no interest in the sport. Bullfighting and related events, such as the annual bull run from San Fermin to Pamplona, are a multi-million euro industry and attract many tourists, both foreign and Spanish. In addition, bullfighting has recently been banned in the north-eastern region of Catalonia and has also been banned in several cities and districts in the country.
- Be careful when referring to the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975, and the civil war of 1936-1939. It was a painful past, as Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist and executed many Spaniards who violated the regime’s undemocratic laws. It was also a period of remarkable economic growth in the last years of Franco’s regime, and some older Spaniards may have a positive opinion of him.
- It is customary to kiss friends, family and acquaintances on both cheeks when we see each other and say goodbye. Man-to-man kissing is limited to family members or very close friends, otherwise a firm handshake is expected instead (as in France or Italy).
- Spaniards are careful to maintain physical contact when speaking, for example by placing a hand on the shoulder, patting the back, etc. These gestures should be seen as a sign of friendship between relatives, close friends and colleagues.
- Spaniards are likely to feel comfortable around you more quickly than other Europeans, and you may even receive a lewd comment or even an insult (cabrón) as a greeting shortly after meeting in an informal setting, especially if it is a young person or a man. You should not be offended by this situation, as it will be interpreted as proof that you have such a close relationship that you can mix up without consequences. You should respond with a similar comment (never something serious or something that could really hurt the person) or simply greet the person. But don’t insult people, because you will also find people who don’t like it. It is recommended never to do this as a stranger and wait to be received. Generally, your instinct will be to know the difference between a joke and a real aggression.
- In cars, older people and pregnant women always take the passenger seat unless they ask not to.
- Spaniards are not as punctual as northern Europeans, but you are generally not expected to be more than ten minutes late and being on time is always appreciated. It is especially important to be punctual at the first meeting. As a general rule, you should expect people to be more punctual when travelling north and less punctual when travelling south.
- If you are staying with a Spaniard, bring indoor shoes, e.g. slippers. It is considered unhygienic to walk around barefoot in the house. Walking in socks may be acceptable in a close friend’s house, but you should always ask first.
- It is acceptable for women to sunbathe topless on beaches. Full nudity is practised on “clothed” or naturist beaches.
Food and drink
- During lunch or dinner, Spaniards only start eating when everyone is seated and ready to eat. Likewise, they do not leave the table until everyone has finished eating. Table manners are also standard and informal, although this also depends on where you are eating. When the bill comes, it is customary to pay right away, regardless of the amount or price everyone has eaten (pagar a escote).
- When Spaniards receive a gift or are offered a drink or a meal, they usually refuse for a while so as not to appear greedy. This sometimes leads to arguments between particularly unwilling people, but is considered polite. Remember to make the offer more than once (by the third attempt it should be clear whether they accept or not). On the other hand, if you are interested in the offer, smile politely and decline it, saying you don’t want to bother, etc., but give in and accept if they insist.
- Spaniards rarely drink and eat on the street. Bars rarely offer take-away food, but “tapas” are easy to find. The “doggy bag” was particularly unknown until recently. In recent years, bringing leftover food from a restaurant, while not yet common, is somewhat less stigmatising than in the past. It is called “un taper” (derived from “Tupperware”) or “una caja”. Older Spaniards probably still reject this practice.
- It is generally frowned upon to appear drunk in public.
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