It can be said that there are cultural differences between any two countries in the world. Even places that are seemingly very similar (say, the United States and Canada) still have pretty significant differences that make each culture unique.
I personally have experience living in two very contrasting cultures: the USA and Spain. There are so many little differences in the norms of these two countries, maybe stemming from language or history, but I would like to focus on the main differences that I have personally experienced during my time spent in both places.
Let’s Be Blunt About This
In the United States, most people are very considerate and at least make attempts to be polite during conversations. Many times that means “beating around the bush” or straight up ignoring something in order to avoid being rude.
In Spain, I don’t believe the phrase “beating around the bush” even exists in any form of translation. This is not something Spanish people practice. If they see something, they will comment in the most direct and sometimes, to my fragile American feelings, harsh way.
For example, one day I was running late for work so I had to run to the metro and didn’t have time to put on any makeup. I didn’t think much of it until I arrived at school and one of the other teachers said to me “Kristen, what is wrong with you? Your face is so red, you look sick!”
Being the American I am, I didn’t want to make her feel bad for basically telling me that my fresh, no makeup face looks ill, so I just went along with it.
Personal Space. Or Lack Thereof.
In the US, and most Anglo-Saxon cultures, personal space is extremely important for a person to feel comfortable. Personally, I come from a family that probably takes this even farther than most. We don’t hug very often or show much physical affection, which has always seemed normal to me.
Culture shock is one way to describe my feelings on my first day when I arrived at my new school and immediately had to kiss about 30 strangers. It’s true that Spanish people really do the double cheek kiss every time they meet someone, haven’t seen them in a while, or are anticipating being away from them for any amount of time. Also, birthdays and holidays are an excuse to smooch someone.
Spaniards are also extremely close-talkers. By that I mean literally standing with their face inches away from yours and usually a hand on your arm while having a conversation with you. This is something that I’m still trying to get used to almost nine months later.
You Eat Dinner at WHAT Time?!
Spain has their own, unique food culture that is very different from the US. In Spain, lunch is the biggest meal and is usually eaten around 3 p.m. Then they will have a small snack somewhere around 6-8 p.m. and then dinner from 9-11 p.m.
Spanish people are literally shocked when we tell them we usually eat dinner around 6 p.m. It’s actually hilarious to see their reactions and their disapproval. Other than the extremely late dinner, I actually prefer the Spanish schedule. They have breakfast early and then a snack around noon. They eat much lighter and more often, which seems to make more sense to me, honestly.
This may not come as much of a surprise to Americans, but in Spain, they tend to eat food that is much fresher. There are fruit stands on literally every street and supermarkets no more than a few blocks from each other. The close proximity also favors the Spanish way of grocery shopping, which is stopping in almost every day to pick up a few things at a time, just what you need for the day. Much different than American families that shop in bulk once a week.
Spaniards are also much different about how they eat. In America, we tend to favor convenience with our food, often eating on the go or while multi-tasking. In Spain it’s just the opposite. When people eat, it is a proper affair and they will always sit down at a table (and there WILL be a table cloth, even if you’re in the school’s cafeteria) and talk with each other.
Meals are looked at as a very special part of the day. Even when eating out at a restaurant, groups will sit at their table for hours after their meal is finished, just drinking or talking and enjoying the time spent together. Servers know this is what people like, so once they give you your food, you often won’t see them again. Our first time at a restaurant in Spain was a bit confusing as we didn’t know this was custom and after waiting and waiting, we had to hunt down our server to finally get our check.
Business Casual- Hold the Business.
Overall, Spanish culture is much more relaxed than in the United States. In Madrid, people dress fashionable, but extremely casual. At my school, all of the teachers wear jeans and sneakers everyday. There is basically no dress code at most businesses, but you will see the odd guy wearing a suit on the metro.
This is one of my favorite parts of Spanish culture because I have mostly worked for companies in the States that have very strict dress codes. It’s refreshing to see a society that believes that people can still do their jobs well even if they’re wearing jeans.
It is very easy to see the the cultural differences between Spain and the United States. Some aspects of Spanish culture have made me fall in love with this country, while others are harder to adjust to. All in all, culture is part of what makes traveling so eye-opening and rewarding. It is what makes each place their own.