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Cultural Etiquette in Spain

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  • 0:03 Spaniards & Formality
  • 1:29 Swearing
  • 1:57 Personal Space
  • 2:43 Invitations & Table Manners
  • 3:39 Cultural & Business Etiquette
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

This lesson provides you with an overview of some practices that surround the Spanish culture so you can make the most of your visit - whether it is for pleasure, business, or any other purpose!

Spaniards and Formality

Spain is a wonderful country to visit and knowing a bit about its customs can make a smooth visit - which is exactly what Jennifer did not have. She slapped a guy who kissed her on the cheek, commented on how awful she thought a traditional dish was, and arrived late to her business meeting because she heard 'Spanish people are not punctual.' Let's learn what she did not.

In regards to greetings, Spaniards, in general, are very casual in the language they use. The words Hola, ¿qué tal? (Hello, what's up) are very common for greeting people who enter a store, speak to new acquaintances, neighbors, coworkers, children, family. The 'textbook' greetings Buenos días, Buenas tardes/noches (Good morning, afternoon, evening) are the standard courtesy, but keep in mind that if someone greets you less formally they are not being forward.

In regards to formality in relationships, a good indicator of how casual Spaniards are is in the use of vs. usted. They both mean you, but is widely used, whereas usted is reserved for people who hold a position of authority like a judge, a school principal, a police officer, the elderly, and for professional settings.

Swearing

If you speak Spanish, it might surprise you to hear some Spaniards use swear words very often and casually. There is no offense intended, although, this is not a general practice. Spaniards may use swearing to express admiration, surprise, or a strong opinion. Best advice, if you are not a native speaker is to stay away from swearing. No matter how fluent you are, it may sound awkward coming from a foreigner, and you risk swearing at inappropriate times.

Personal Space

Spaniards greet each other with a kiss on each cheek. It is likely that even if you just get introduced to someone, they will just reach out to kiss you on the cheek. This does not happen among men but mostly among women and between men and women. A handshake is the rule of thumb, though.

Sometimes, men position their left hand on the right forearm of the person they greet. In addition, it is not uncommon to see people pat each other on the shoulder. This usually happens after someone knows you, at least a little bit.

Family members or even friends may walk around arm-in-arm. If someone you know grabs your arm while walking, this is just part of the culture. All these expressions that involve personal space do not indicate anything in particular. It is simply how Spaniards interact.

Invitations and Table Manners

When a Spaniard invites someone to dine at their home, beware that dinner may be at 9 or 10 pm. It is polite to take flowers, wine, pastries, or the like, but do not ask 'What can I bring?' as this is not a custom in Spain. If you are offered a gift, open it immediately and thank the person.

When ready to eat, your host/hostess will either tell you to sit wherever you wish, in which case you shall choose any chair on the sides of the table but not the ones at either extreme, as those are usually for the host/hostess.

Start eating when the host or hostess starts. Usually, they offer bread or other appetizers on the table to accompany the meal. It is polite not to help yourself, but usually people keep offering.

Maintain both wrists at the edge of the table. When you are finished eating, lay down fork and knife, side by side with handles at the right side of the plate.

Cultural and Business Etiquette

If someone invites you to a bullfight, accept if you wish or make an excuse if you do not wish to see one. If you have strong opinions about this tradition, keep them to yourself as Spaniards may be highly offended if you criticize this custom. Also, if you visit a church, remove your hat if you are wearing one, and do not speak loudly while inside.

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