When you travel abroad, recognizing the cultural context in which you’ll be entering should be a top priority. Why? You’ll only be visiting for X amount of time! Right? Wrong. It’s vital to be aware of the cultural context of your destination because not following said rules – whether spoken or written – can make for an uncomfortable or even lousy holiday.
This isn’t to say that you need to be able to name the Spanish Kings and Queens starting from the beginning of time until now, or that you should be able to hold your own in Spanish while debating Mariano Rajoy’s most recent fumbles in a bar. No, that’s a lot. Nevertheless, no one ever complained about the burden of being too culturally aware, too knowledgeable or too respectful.
Spain is NOT a Tipping Country
In the United States, our service workers receive a meager salary and earn the rest of their keep through tips. In turn, they tend to be more attentive, smiley and accommodating. You’re offered extra napkins, extra sauce, and asked how you’re feeling at least 4 times during your meal. This is not the case in Spain.
In Spanish restaurants, you will not be expected to leave a tip. Their base salaries take this courtesy into consideration. As a matter of fact, most Spanish people leave a “tip” most others would see as offensive as a way of showing gratitude for superb service like for example, 25 cents, or 1 euro if they’re feeling especially magnanimous. Don’t be offended, and don’t take yourself on a never-ending guilt trip. It’s okay not to tip in bars and restaurants. If the spirit moves you, they won’t turn it away, nevertheless, it’s not a common custom.
The Word ‘Now’ is Relative
Spain is slow. That is to say, when you arrive, you’ll have to tone it down a bit. They walk slower. They eat slower. Their bureaucracy is more intricate and fickle, and slower. Things are slower here. The only time you’ll see a Spanish person running is for a train they know they won’t make (Or during San Fermin). It’s a strange phenomenon as if those 2-5 seconds of jogging would be enough to close a distance of 70 meters, but I digress.
Have you just asked for the check? Expect to wait another 20 minutes before it arrives. Do you want to pay by card? Add another 5 minutes to your wait time. Take a deep breath, and meditate on the beauty of the cobblestones while you wait. They’re not trying to be rude, they’re just in no hurry… and really, what’s the rush?
Spanish People Don’t Speak English
But, hey, there are hundreds and thousands of English teachers in Spain! To that I say: Yes, and we’re all employed. Nowadays, you can find bilingual pre-schools and nannies in Spain. This is a more recent trend. It’s true that the government invests a lot into learning English, and that most Spanish people have studied English at some point in their lives, but as lonelyplanet.com points out, that doesn’t mean that they speak it.
Most Spanish people probably know and comprehend English grammar better than native speakers. Yet, they freeze and fumble when asked to speak English in a casual or spontaneous situation. Be as patient with them as they are with you when you try to speak Spanish.
Personal Space is a Luxury
Close talkers. Close sitters (is that a word?) One time, this man was walking so close to me that while coolly swinging my arms, we literally linked fingers and held hands. Without exaggeration. I’ve written (read: vented) on the subject before. All that to say, get ready to get close.
Get ready to double kiss to say both ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’. You don’t need to do full-on lip action, a touching of the cheeks will suffice.
75% of my conversations with strangers have started with complaining. ‘Oh, it’s hot!’ ‘Oh, it’s so cold today!’ ‘This line is so slow!’ ‘This food is spicy as hell!’ ‘Man, where is the train, we’ve been waiting forever!’ You get the idea. If you want a link directly to the hearts of your average Spanish person, start with a “fun” observational complaint such as, “Man, the sun sure is bright today!” From there, just let the conversation roll. Trust me.
Yes, They Stare
They will stare. Their eyes will linger long enough to plant a seed of self-doubt in your core and make you question whether or not there’s some unsightly mole growing out of your left nostril. My God, they love to stare. If you’re a POC, said staring may also be accompanied by questions or even touching (your hair of course). Bless them. Bless their staring souls.
Here’s the deal: just a couple generations ago, Madrid was basically a pueblo or a town. Yes, it’s the capital; however, that village mindset is still very much detectable in their everyday happenings. See: standing in line for the bus. They’re curious. Sometimes, they’re just bored. I recommend staring back and smiling. You can also just say ‘hello’ or ask them if they need something– a more forward approach. Either way, don’t read too much into it. I won’t ask you to ignore it because that’s damn-near impossible. I will say that staring at someone does not automatically denote malintent or judgment.