Guide To Etiquette In Spain

Eye contact in Spain is very important. However women should be careful with making eye contact with strangers, as it might signal interest of a romantic nature.

guidetoetiquetteinspain_mediumEvery country has its own culture, if you want to enjoy your trip to any country you choose to visit, it is wise that you learn a thing or two about the social etiquette in that country. By doing so, you are showing respect to the people of that country and demonstrating that you are a good ambassador for your own country.

By knowing what some of the written and unwritten rules are, you can achieve a successful and enjoyable trip anywhere in the world, particularly in conservative and tradition-bound countries like Spain.

1. Greetings

When someone introduces you to someone else, you should shake hands with the other person, whether that person is a man or woman. If the other person is a woman and offers you her cheek, then you can exchange two kisses, the first being on the woman’s right cheek followed by the other cheek. The kiss is not really a kiss, but is the touching of the cheeks, and the kiss is to the air. If it was really a kiss, everyone in Spain would have smudged lipstick on their cheeks and all the women would have smudged lips!

It is more common for a man to exchange kisses with women in social occasions. Males and females can hug women friends lightly. Male friends can hug or embrace (the abrazo) each other or touch each other’s arms or kiss each other, depending on how good their friendship is. In Spain this is not a sign that one is gay. Never touch, hug or back slap a Spaniard you do not know well, unless a friendly Spaniard touches you first. On leaving, you should shake hands again.

2. Dress or Appearance

Appearance is very important to the Spanish people. Even for casual occasions they like to dress elegantly. Foreigners should know this, because many foreigners have a tendency to dress very casually in their own countries. In Spain the informal Fridays are not usual in most workplaces and in any case an "informal" Spaniard will be well dressed anyway, even with jeans and a t-shirt. A foreigner who wants to make a good impression in Spain will try to show good taste in dress. Do not try to stand out by using flashy colors. You will get the wrong type of attention.

Businessmen wear well made, conservative suits and ties, even during summer. The Spanish will recognize brand names. Women no longer are limited to dresses and skirts, because many now wear pants, which may be more practical. However they try to show their feminine side, such as wearing a scarf.

Good shoes are very important in Spain. The Spanish manufacture high quality leather shoes in the greatest variety of styles, so they are very conscious when looking at the shoes the other person is wearing. Shoes should always be well cleaned.

Shorts are not worn in public by men or women, unless you're at a beach resort, and it is during the day. Long pants are worn at night at beach resorts by men. A woman who wears shorts in public may be thought of as a person advertising her body.

Men and women wear elegant accessories, such as good watches and jewelry. In Spain, it is important to project good taste in apparel. The Spanish spend much time on deciding what to buy and what to wear so that everything matches and is in good taste. You will find many women whose bag matches exactly her shoes. A good real leather handbag for a woman is a must in Spain. A foreign businessman who wears a cheap plastic watch may not have much luck in business in Spain. Spanish men are obsessed with buying good watches, and those who have money may own several.

When seated, Spanish men will cross their legs at their knees. Years ago it was considered "unfeminine" for women in Spain to cross their legs, but it's tolerated nowadays, at least in big cities.

3. Personal Space

Personal space in Spain is small, unlike what Americans or other Westerners are used to. If a foreigner is talking to a Spaniard and the Spaniard is quite close to the foreigner, the foreigner should know that this is normal in Spain. The foreigner should not back out, because this may be misinterpreted by the Spaniard. Spaniards also speak a lot with their hands. There is no need to copy them with this.

4. Tipping

One of the joys of visiting Spain is that tipping is not an established custom here, unlike in the U.S. At bars and cafeterias it is not the custom to leave tips. For taxis, neither is it the custom to tip. If you decide to tip, you usually leave small change. At restaurants customers also leave small change. At fancy restaurants with very good service, a 5% tip is considered very generous.

5. Gifts

When invited to someone’s home, it is traditional to bring a small gift for the hostess. The gift should be well wrapped. Something representative/typical from the country of the visitor will be always appreciated. If not, bring pastries and cakes from a good pastry shop. Good chocolate is also a good choice.

You can also bring a bottle of wine. If you do not know what wine to bring (there must be thousands of different wines in Spain), a safe bet is a wine from the Ribera del Duero. This region produces the best wine in Spain and your hostess will recognize that you are a sophisticate if she gets this gift from you.

Flowers are also an appropriate gift. Do not give chrysanthemums (yellow or white) because they are the symbol of death, the flowers most commonly used in funerals. Other gift items are books about nature or desk items. If your hosts have children, bringing them small gifts will make your hosts think the best of you.

If you are a recipient of a gift, you should open it immediately and make a remark showing your appreciation of the gift.

6. Addressing a Person

The word for Mr. is Señor and the word Mrs. is Señora. Remember that the Spanish are very traditional people, so you should always use this title when you are addressing them. Calling an unmarried woman "Señorita" is old-fashioned. Married women keep their own surnames. Never call a person by her first name, unless that person is younger than you, or you know that person very well.

When speaking Spanish there are two forms for addressing a person. For the English word you, you can use the familiar form “tu”. The other is the formal “Usted”. If you're not familiar with the other person, always use the formal word “Usted”, especially with older people. This shows respect. When in doubt, use the formal Usted.

Older people in Spain are an active part of society and are always shown respect and preference. Their children bring them everywhere. There are few retirement homes in Spain and family is the most important thing for people.

Another way to show respect to people is to call them Don or Doña, together with their first name. If the man is called Jaime, you can call him Don Jaime.

7. Eye Contact

Eye contact in Spain is very important. However women should be careful with making eye contact with strangers, as it might signal interest of a romantic nature.

8. Table Manners

Remain standing until invited to sit down. You may be shown to a particular seat. Always keep your hands visible when eating. Keep your wrists resting on the edge of the table. Do not begin eating until the hostess starts.

Use utensils to eat most food. Even fruit and canapes are eaten with a knife and fork. If you have not finished eating, cross your knife and fork on your plate with the fork over the knife. Indicate you have finished eating by laying your knife and fork parallel on your plate, tines facing up, with the handles facing to the right. In Spain, when the table is set, the forks are placed with the tines down.

The host gives the first toast. An honored guest should return the toast later in the meal. It is acceptable for a woman to make a toast. Do not get up until the guest of honor does.

Spaniards do not waste food. It is better to decline food rather than leave it on your plate. In other words, do not put on your plate anything you cannot finish.

9. Traits Valued by The Spanish

Personal pride and individualism are highly valued, as are character and breeding. Modesty is valued over assertiveness. Flaunting superiority, intelligence and ability is not appreciated.

People strive to project affluence and social position. Personal appearance, image and human relationships are very important. That is why dress is very important, a clue to your character and who you are.

10. Dining at Restaurants

It is acceptable and common to be late by 30 minutes in southern Spain and 15 minutes in northern Spain for social meetings (but never in business meetings!). Extreme punctuality for social meetings is not considered very important in Spain (this being more or less true in certain areas, better be punctual to be in the safe side when you want to cause a good impression...). If you arelate, the saying is “No pasa nada” (which means it is not that important).

Many restaurants do not put a bread and butter plate. Bread may just be put in a wicker basket on the table. Restaurants generally charge for bread by the piece. Do not ask for butter because many restaurants may not have any. Spaniards are more used to dipping their bread in olive oil, which is readily available.

When you enter a restaurant, it is the custom that you can choose the table you want, unless there is a sign on the table that it is already reserved. The customer is always right in Spain. When ordering from the waiter and a dish comes with French fries which you may not care for, ask the waiter if he can substitute a small salad for the French fries. In most cases the restaurant will want to accommodate you. Also you can ask them not to put too much salt in your food, if that is your desire.

Do not over order food for yourself. If you do not finish what you order, it is considered bad manners. Here everyone is thinking of the millions of children starving in the third world. If you do not know how big the portion is going to be, ask the waiter and he will explain this. There is no need to be shy about asking this. Remember that in Spain, many other countries have the reputation of wasting food and other resources, because they see this on TV everyday. Do not make them think that you are that type of person.

Regarding "who pays the bill", be aware that customs change depending on the region and the kind of occasion. Dutch treat is not used in some areas of Spain where it is considered "a foreign invention", if the person who invited for dinner insists on paying the bill, do not squabble for the bill, because this is considered bad manners. However, in other areas of Spain, sharing the bill is the norm, usually not making an exact division with the calculator, but rounding the numbers so everybody's pay the same. In doubt, always offer to pay your part, if you're their invitee they will not let you to pay, but your gesture will be appreciated (it wil be worse if you "assume" you're invited and it's not the case!).

The waiter will not bring the bill until he is asked to bring the bill by one of the diners. If you insist on paying the bill, tell the waiter when you enter the restaurant. When everyone has finished eating, make an excuse to go the bathroom and ask the waiter privately for the bill, and then pay for it. When you go back to the table, ask if everyone is ready to go and then stand up to leave. When the others ask for the bill, tell them the bill has been taken cared of, but do not make a show of it. Everyone will object lightly, but they will be pleased.

11. Smoking

There are new laws in Spain about smoking to curb smoking, since the Spanish are heavy smokers. It is thought that the law against smoking was passed because smokers may bankrupt the social security system, which takes care of doctors’ bill and hospital bills. Smokers have more illnesses than non smokers and the hospitals are now full, taking care of smokers.

On January 2, 2011, a new smoking law came into effect. You cannot smoke in a business anymore or any enclosed public area. Smoking is forbidden in shopping centers, supermarkets, and airports. Restaurants, bars, and cafeterias are not allowed to permit smoking. Smoking can be done only in open spaces like the street or a park that is not adjacent to a children's area or school. There are stiff fines for those caught smoking where they should not smoke.

There are many people in Spain who are against smoking. If you are invited to a social function and want to make a good impression, try not to smoke because if you smoke it will show that you have one vice.

12. Regions

In Spain there are 17 autonomous regions, each region having 3 or 4 provinces, and two autonomous cities in Africa (Ceuta and Melilla). Spain is the country with the most mountains in Europe after Switzerland. In the past many places were isolated, especially when there was no modern transportation. So Spaniards developed a loyalty and sense of identity to their place of birth and region. Loyalty to their country was secondary. The Spanish have only lately been able to have more mobility within their country. Before a Spaniard would be born in a city and never leave his city for work at another place, and die in his city. The worst thing that can happen to a Spaniard is to leave his country for another country to find better work. Of course younger people now have more opportunities and abilities, so everything in this regard is changing.

A foreigner should find out where a Spaniard is from and avoid making any remarks that may be stereotypical of that region. Otherwise you may hurt the feelings of your Spanish friend. It is best to tell your friend that you hear that his city or region is famous for its food. Emphasize the positive, and you will not go wrong.

13. Conversation

When greeting friends on the street or elsewhere, you should first ask about your friend’s health and his immediate family, including your friend’s parents. This is a must before you converse about other topics. If you do not do this, you are breaking etiquette rules.

The Spanish love to converse and can talk for hours. This is called the “tertulia“.

Conversation is the favorite way most Spanish spend their free time on. Most foreigners may get tired of talking after several hours, but the Spanish do not seem to get tired! If you are dining out with Spanish friends and the conversation lasts until the wee hours of the morning, you can tell your friends goodnight, because you are not used to these hours. They will understand and will not be offended. They know that they are night owls and that they keep the latest hours in Europe.

The favorite topics of conversation are family. They may ask you about your family. If you have some problem with any of your family members, do not mention it. It is best to keep your family problems private. The Spanish have very close family ties and may not understand your problem. How close are these ties? Adult children have to call their parents everyday, sometimes several times. Otherwise the parents will worry and think there is something wrong with their child, even if that child is an adult. It does not matter whether the parent and child live hundreds of kilometers away in different cities. That is why the main telephone companies charge rates by the minute, to maximize their profits.

Another good topic to converse about is food. The Spanish are experts in food, especially about jamon Iberico, their favorite ham. To start a conversation, you just have to ask what place in Spain produces the best ham. Everyone will have an opinion.

In Spain during a conversation, many people may talk at the same time. This is not considered bad manners. It just shows that they are interested in the conversation topic. You can see this on TV during the talk shows, which last for 4 hours. The popular talk shows on Friday and Saturday nights have usually a panel of 5 people telling their opinion of some famous celebrity. Most of the time all of them are talking at the same time. If the celebrity is important, they will bring 4 extra commentators. The person hosting the show loses control at this point because 9 people are talking at the same time. A foreigner will not understand anything, but the Spanish will. In this respect they are multi-tasking. Remember that if you are interrupted while talking, it is not considered bad manners, unlike in other countries. The advice is to just counterattack and interrupt someone else.

When with friends, if you are quiet and not talking much, everyone will think that you are ill or have a serious problem and everyone will show concern for you. A person from another culture may not be used to talking much, but may be trained to hear more and think about it. This is not the case in Spain. So you should talk!

There are some topics that you should never talk about with a Spaniard. These are politics, religion, and especially the Civil War in Spain, and Franco. You do not know on what side a Spaniard’s grandparents fought for, so this is a minefield. Most families lost at least one relative during that war and many wounds are still open.

If you are a female, the men will always compliment you on how good you look. You can compliment them back. This is just considered good manners and nothing more. Do not think that a compliment on your appearance means that the man wants to have an amorous relationship with you. In many Spanish humorous movies, the Spanish man compliments a visiting foreigner about her looks. Since many foreigners do not get compliments in their countries because it is not the custom, the foreign woman immediately jumps to conclusions and that is when the fun begins. Even if you are a 70 year old woman who seems to be on her deathbed, the men will compliment you on how good you look! This is just another form of gallantry.

14. At Government Offices

If you have to go to a government office because of some paperwork, be patient. Nothing is done in a hurry by the bureaucracy here. Spanish government trademarks are procrastination and delay. Their procedures need a major overhaul. It is useless and counterproductive to show your irate feelings. When you get what you want, just thank the bureaucrat because you may need his help in the future!

15. Establishing Business Relationships

In Spain people in business want to know what your character is like before they do any business with you. If you are not deemed trustworthy or “simpatico”, they will not want to do business with you. If you succeed in making friends, then your business relations will never fail you. They will continue doing business with you unless your prices are much higher than your competitors. They will let you know as a friend and not just drop you outright. Business relations are based on personal friendships in Spain.

The business lunch or dinner is a good place for your prospective business partners to get to know you. They will ask about your family and your home life. Be prepared to answer properly. If you try to hide anything important, they may find out during conversation. Also do not drink too much because this may show one of your vices. Do not smoke, because some of your prospective business partners may have strong opinions against smoking. It may take time for the Spanish to get to know you well, so you have to be patient and show your best side at all times.

When a foreigner first decides to live in Spain, he or she should establish a friendship with the person in his/her bank who handles his/her account. This is very useful. One thing you can do is to give the person in the bank a small gift, such as pastry from a good pastry shop or chocolate, and explain to that person that the reason for the gift is to show your appreciation for the effort that he or she has exerted on your behalf. People working in banks have some leeway in the way they handle accounts. They may inform you that if you put your money in some type of account, you will earn more interest. This is information that is standard in other countries , but not here. The banker may also show you how to avoid bank charges! In any country, people like to be appreciated, and by being explicit, you can make many new friends.

16. Strolling Hand in Hand

Women are often seen strolling on the streets of Spain hand in hand or arm in arm. The women may be girlfriends or mothers and daughters. This is a common custom and shows affection between the two women, nothing more. It is totally innocent. In other countries people who observe this can be malicious and ascribe something sexual to the pair strolling. Remember that in Spain showing affection in public is the rule. After all Spain is a Latin country.

17. Visiting Churches

Dress appropriately when visiting churches. Do not have bare shoulders or use halter tops or skimpy dresses. Do not use shorts either for both men and women. It is all a matter of respect and you should always respect the religious sites. Many times tourists who do not dress appropriately are denied entrance to churches. Do not be noisy either (talk in whispers), because people who are praying may be distracted by you. The same goes for flash photography while a Mass is going on. A light shawl for women is recommended to cover up.

18. Compliments on The Street

In many places in Andalusia, young men like to pay compliments to pretty women who pass by on the street. They may shout "guapa" (meaning beautiful) to the woman. The woman should not acknowledge the compliment and should try to keep a straight face, so as not to encourage the young man. Unless she's interested 😉

19. A Man’s Right?

The observant foreigner who comes to Spain will notice that many men scratch or touch their nether regions in public. Spanish men on TV also do it and it is a very widely practiced custom. Some try to be more discreet than others. Many white collared men in suits do it. So is it allowed? Men in high social positions do not do this in public. However it is considered a very minor faux pas, and not a mortal sin. In other countries this is gravely frowned on, but in Spain it is nothing to get upset over. ¡No pasa nada! 

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