Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Culture Shock 101: The Main Differences between Spain and the United States

So, I have been in Spain now for two weeks and I’ve loved every minute of it.  I don’t think I went through any culture shock and I believe I’ve adapted very well to the Spanish way of life; things that once seemed novel are now just a part of my daily life.  However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any striking differences between the two cultures…

The following are what I perceive to be the differences between Spain and the United States.  Note of caution:  My observations are based only on Michelle’s host family and on only one part of the Spain; I would hate to say that it describes what all of Spain is like, because, as I discussed in an earlier post, Spain is made up of many cultures/nationalities.

With that, let’s begin (¡Cuidado!  This post is fairly long…)
  1. Sense of Time: The pace of life is much slower here than it is in the States.  Most shops close down for an hour and a half to two hours during the afternoon for lunch.  The only businesses that stay open during that time are restaurants, cafes, and large department stories in the bigger cities.  A lot of people also take month-long vacations during either the month of August, but others may only take a week or two off.
  2. Family and Friends: They are very important to Spaniards.  It’s very common for the children to live at home until their late twenties and for adults to take care of their elderly parents.  Every day I see someone wheeling their elderly parent around in a wheelchair, whether it be to the beach or to a café.  It’s also very common to go out every night to meet up with some friends or family at a local café.  There, you drink a couple of glasses of wine and talk long into the night.  It's uncommon to hang out or have a party at your house, this is reserved for special occasions and holidays (instead, people hang out in public).  Meeting someone for the first time is also a little bit different.  Girls greeting girls kiss each other on both cheeks as do men greeting women; men greeting men is just a firm handshake.  Public displays of affection are very common amongst young people (a.k.a 20-year olds making out on the subway, on the street, ect)
  3. Food: The biggest meal of the day here in Spain is lunch, which they eat between 2 and 4 and it's usually a two course meal followed by a piece of fruit for dessert.  Breakfast is usually something light, like cereal/toast and a coffee (though their coffee is basically a shot of espresso).  They usually eat dinner between 10pm and midnight, but it’s also fairly light.  They eat a lot of pork products (ham, bacon, pork loins), seafood, eggs, bread, potatoes, beans, soups, rice and leafy vegetables.  After meals, it’s very common to sit at the table for an hour (or more) and talk, while enjoying a couple of cigarettes (if you smoke) and some more wine.  This is really different from the States where usually at home we just eat and move on.  I think this might have to do with their sense of time and the importance they place on family and friends.  I really like this, because so far there have been a couple of really deep and interesting conversations at the dinner table (Their view of America, what kind of animal you would be in the next life and why, the different languages and dialects of Spain, for example). 
  4. Space: Everything is a lot smaller here than it is back in the States.  Houses are expensive and not very common (an average size house back in the States would cost hundreds of thousand of Euros over here), so most people live in apartments.  Arantza’s apartment is considered one of the nicer ones, but it’s still even less space than the first story of my house back home.  Local shops, cafes and bars are also pretty small; at times, you feel like you’re on top of the other customers.  There are no SUV's over here and very few vans.
  5. Smoking: Smoking is very common, and this is probably the only aspect of their culture that I do not care for.  They smoke after meals, light up while watching TV, and smoke inside restaurants and cafés.  The government labels on the cigarette packages are also very direct.  They say things like "Smoking can kill" and "Smoking gravely injures you and those around you" in big black letters on the front of the box.
  6.  Public Transportation:  Gas is very expensive and it costs 1,000 Euros to take the test to get your license (if you fail and want to take it again, you still have to pay the 1,000 Euros again).  Because of this, most people take public transportation to get from point A to point B.  I’ve taken the metro everywhere, all the way from downtown Bilbao to the little fishing village of Plentzia.  I love taking the metro; it’s inexpensive, fast, reliable and convenient (plus you don’t have to worry about traffic and idiot drivers).  The bus system is also very good. 
  7. Fashion: Everyone dresses very fashionably over here; you would not be caught dead wearing a pair of sweatpants outside in public.  Kids my age dress kind of the same as we do back in the states (Guys: jeans, sneakers, graphic t-shirt) but middle aged and older people dress very nicely (they dress like they’re going to church on a Sunday morning).
  8. US Imported Entertainment:  Dubbed American television shows are on in the afternoon (shows like Bones, Cold Case, NCIS) and I’ve heard a lot of American music in bars.  One cool thing: before going to commercial, the TV will tell you how many minutes of commercials they will show (we will return in 70 seconds).  Most of the movies shown here in movie theaters are American films dubbed in Spanish and a lot of the theatre productions are American musicals that have been translated into Spanish.
  9. The Spanish of Spain: For words that have the letter z and c (if it comes before e or i), the consonant sounds like a lisp; this is only found in the North and Central part of Spain.  Personally, I like it creates a distinction between certain words, so that you are able to spell the correctly.  For example, in the Spanish of Mexico, the words cazar (to hunt) and casar (to marry) are pronounced the same.  This would not happen in Northern/Central Spain because the second consonant in cazar would be “lisped.”  There are also some vocabulary differences between the Spanish of Spain and the Spanish of Latin America.  For example, coger is a verb that means “to take” in Spain, but in Latin American Spanish it’s the f-word (this is probably why we weren’t taught this verb in my Spanish classes).  So if a Spaniard was to say “¿Coges el bús?” (Do you take the bus?) to a Mexican, there will probably be a big misunderstanding….
  10. Miscellaneous: A lot of people don’t walk their dogs with leashes, but the dog does stay close to the owner.  Also, dogs crap on the sidewalk and the owner doesn’t have to pick it up.  There is no personal trash collection.  There are big containers on some of the street corners and you have to go out and throw your garbage in there to be collected.  All baby strollers also come complete with their own personal umbrella for the baby.
Well I hope you have a better idea of what life is like over here.  I will probably be updating this list in future posts when I see more differences between the two cultures.


  1. LOVE this! haha. just not so excited about the smoking part, but i think i'll live. also, good thing about the shows you named, i'm a big law and order fan, and law and order plays with those other shows :)

  2. I remember the smoking in Europe being pretty prevalent, but unless you were standing around people who were smoking, it wasn't too terrible. Obviously, I'd prefer if they didn't do it around me, but you can't force the issue.

    I think it's funny that the Spanish of Mexico and South America is different from the dialect they speak in Spain.

    I've been enjoying my baby-Spanish class. Yo soy estudiante de espanol. I don't know how to make the squiggle over the N :C

  3. Sean - Wow! Argentina is very similar, cultural wise. At least here, in Buenos Aires. Smoking is huge here too, and everyone lives in small houses or apartments (as I am currently staying in an apartment). The dogs are also not on leashes and crap on the sidewalks, and many of the people our age dress nicely too, like they're the newest fashionistas of South America, haha.

  4. I love this :) Thank you so much. It was very informative and helped me with one of my school reports. Once again, thank you.


    Please read my blog about my exchange year in Spain!