What to Expect When Traveling to Spain: Culture & Etiquette

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.

Patio in Córdoba, Spain

Patio in Córdoba, Spain

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.

That being said, if you're coming thinking of visiting Spain for a weekend, a week, or even something more long term, here's what you should keep in mind: 

 

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.

Pro tip: Hotels and resorts are a different world as their contact with Western cultures is much higher and as a result, they tend to lean towards tipping as it's more common amongst tourists.

 

Want some tips on where to eat? Keep reading and get inspired!

 

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? 

Pro tip: RESPECT THE LINE. Spanish people line-up for the bus, to take the train, to snag a free something or another in a plaza, for church festivals, etc. They adore lines. Don't ask questions, just rock with it. 

 

Spanish People Don't Speak English 

But, Danni, 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 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. 

Pro tip: 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. 

 

Want to Start a Convo? Complain. 

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. 

In brief, Spain is different. Besides the above points, I'd also mention that eating times will vary. Breakfast is between 8h and 9h, snack / coffee around 11h, lunch is at 15h, coffee part two is around 18h and dinner is at 21h. It takes some getting used to, but since the says are so long, especially in Summer months, it's not uncommon to have dinner at 22h with your family in tow on a terrace because, #itshotafoutside. 

Rapid Fire Bonus Round:

Flamenco is mostly popular in the South of Spain. Top 40s or Classic Rock rule the land

Stay away from talks on religion as most have beef or indifference towards the Catholic Church

They probably know more about US politics than you do, and want to talk about it

Jamón is a way of life, not a cured meat. Respect this. Know this. 

Bullfighting is a polarizing topic that separates the older and younger generations

Immigration is very new here

Spain is not a monolith: They speak more than Spanish

Their language is far from politically correct

If you're interested in what to pack, or if you'd rather check out a smaller town, here are some free resources that you'll find useful!

I really hope these tips and observations make your stay in Spain that much smoother! 


Danni, Community + Content Director at Las Morenas de España, is a twenty-something, Chicago native currently residing in Madrid. Lover of language, words, and travel, she's managed to combine all of her passions through her work. In her free time, you can find her exploring the winding streets of Madrid, hunting down good flight deals, planning her next adventure and writing & researching for LMDES. Danni loves spicy food, natural hair, music and of course, her wonderful husband. If you need to find her, she’s the girl with huge hair and her face buried in her Kindle.