How to Have Good Manners in Spain

“Give me a coffee. With milk.” I say to the barista. She turns around immediately and scoops out some dark torrefacto coffee. The machines buzzes and whirs, and a minute later she slides the coffee across the bar to me, without a word.

Rude? Of course not.

Manners in Spain are different from those anywhere else. That much should be obvious right from the get go. But how? What can you do to be polite in Spain? What does Spanish etiquette call for?

Greetings

This one might be the most obvious, but it’s still good to think about. Spanish people, upon meeting (whether for the first time or for the 101st time), do not usually shake hands; rather, two cheek kisses is the accepted form of greeting. You can read about dos besos in more detail on my blog, because it’s a bit more complicated than that, but here’s a short summary: Men give other men a handshake, while women kiss everyone. But in business situations, you shake hands.

You should say hello to people from your apartment building. I know—you don’t know them; why should you greet them? But say “Hola” as you step on an occupied elevator, and “Hasta luego” when you get off at your floor. Similarly, in shops or gym locker rooms, you should greet people when you enter and upon exiting. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this when I’m changing at the gym, but it’s the general rule.

Table Manners

We Anglo-Saxons are among the few Western cultures to eat with one hand on our laps. Try this: Next time you eat with a large group of us, see how many eat with one hand (generally the left) on their laps. You may be surprised. In Spain, you eat with your fork in your right hand and your knife in your left. Or vice-versa if you’re a lefty. If you don’t need your knife, you should still keep your non-dominant hand above the table. Why? It seems it may have to do with not knowing exactly what you’d be doing under the table, which I find humorous.

Spaniards eat a lot of fruit. And why not? The fruit selection here is varied and dirt cheap. Many, if not most, like to eat fruit after the meal, as a sort of dessert. Or pre-dessert in the case of my in-laws. Americans may be surprised to see that most everyone peels the fruit. It’s not rude to eat an apple or a pear unpeeled, but you may attract some stares. My mother-in-law was taught to eat an orange without using her hands, only a knife and fork!

Restaurants

You don’t need to worry about tipping at restaurants, but if you feel the service was exceptional … by all means, leave a small tip!

Generally people don’t split the bill up by what each person has ordered. The bill is split up in equal parts, so even if you had a salad and water, you’ll still be paying for part of Pedro’s steak and wine. Just be forewarned. You also have to beware of someone “inviting” you, a.k.a. paying for your beer/wine/tapa. They may say this each time, but you need to realize that, in all reality, you’re expected to invitar next round. No freeloading!

On the Street

We Americans are very casual in our clothing choices. The Spanish definitely aren’t. Don’t go out on the street wearing raggedy clothing or pajama pants. I’ve heard this is different in some of the beach towns, but up in Castilla y León or here in Madrid, it’s bad manners to do so.

Speech

Try to use usted when talking to older people. Although the use of usted has decreased, it is still a nice way of showing respect for the elderly.

The Spanish can be rather more direct than we can—it is common to hear a family member tell another that he/she has gotten a bit fat. Spanish people may also refer to their partners as gordi, short for gordita, meaning “little fattie.” Yep. That’s even considered to be a lover’s nickname! Perfectly acceptable. However, this also translate to compliments. It is common to hear Spaniards greet each other as guapo/guapa, meaning pretty/cute/handsome. At first, when Mario was writing an email to a female friend and had begun with calling her guapa, I was a bit miffed, but I soon learned that this behavior is almost universal here. No big deal!

Saying “please” and “thank you” also has less value. This doesn’t mean I think Spaniards are rude. Not at all. We do say please and thank you a lot, and I like it, but I understand when Spaniards don’t. However, I request that Mario uses such language with me, as it makes me feel more loved. I also feel that people on the street will bump into you without saying “Excuse me,” but I don’t have hard evidence to back that up either.

And back to my earlier example … In English, we might say, “I would like …” when we’re ordering at a restaurant or a coffee shop. Here, though, it’s perfectly fine to say directly, “Give me a …” or “I want …”

Time

Just kidding. I don’t really think the Spanish are habitually late, or that time isn’t important, as implied by some articles. Perhaps promptness is a tad less essential when attending a party, but isn’t the same true in the U.S.? Personally, most, if not all, of the Spaniards I know are always on time.

So, did I miss anything? What other Spanish etiquette should I remember?

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27 comments

  1. It drives me ccracy when I call a business establishment and the person answers the telephone “digame.” I have no idea that I’ve reached the right company or with whom I’m speaking. It seems terribly rude and unprofessional to me, but everyone else seems to accept it as the way things are in Spain.

  2. Hmm, maybe it’s a southern thing, but as for time, there is definitely a difference here. For scheduled appointments, people seem to be punctual. But anything social – dinner, a party, drinks, etc. – seems to run on a different schedule, where you can show up anywhere from 15 minutes to nearly an hour late without worry. The American habit of showing up at exactly 8 when dinner starts at 8? No. As for please and thank you? I just can’t stop! Same for saying “I’m sorry/lo siento” instead of just “¿qué?” when you didn’t hear or understand someone.

    1. I have become accustomed to saying ‘venga’ instead of thank you down here, and it seems to work like cheers. People in both Castilla and Andalusia have told me to quit being so polite and saying please and thank you so much. When I have a bit of confianza with a barman, I usually joke around and say, “si Ud. es tan amable, me pone una cerveza?” or something of the sort. Gets them laughing since most people either say PONME UNA, JO or quillo, una birra!

  3. Most of these also apply to Italy. I just can’t get the hang of peeling fruit, plus they are throwing away the part with the most nutrients. I find that shop assistants are way more polite in Italy than in Spain. They say grazie when you are leaving and sometimes they even give you your change in your hand!

  4. Thank you, Kaley! This was very helpful seeing as though I just found out that I’ll be living in Logroño next year. I’m going to bookmark this and read it again as it gets closer to my September departure date!

  5. The arriving late thing is pretty typical in France too. It doesn’t apply to most situations, usually only when you’ve been invited to someone’s house for dinner or a party. Let’s say you’ve been asked to come over at 6:00 PM. You are not expected to arrive at 6 PM on the dot, that’s actually considered rude. Being fifteen to twenty minutes late is considered acceptable (sometimes it can be as much as an hour but then I get pissed because some hosts won’t feed everyone until they’ve all arrived and I get cranky when I’m hungry). They do this because the thought is the host won’t be 100% ready at 6 PM so you give them time to finish preparing food/set the table/clean up so by the time you arrive a little late, everything will be ready.

  6. Great list! I didn’t know about how they split the bill here until I was out with my boyfriend’s friends for the first time. I ordered a small entree, but ended up having to put in quite a few euros more to cover my “share”. But sometimes it’s the other way around (the things I ordered cost more than the others’ food) so then they have to pay more than they got and I feel a bit guilty.

  7. These are all so very true! It’s all the little things about this that are sometimes the hardest part about culture shock—but if you’re *aware* of them before they start jarring on you it’s a lot easier to take.

    I similarly am befuddled by the rampant fruit-peeling that goes on here. A couple months ago the Xunta (the Galician regional government) delivered bushels of fruit to school to encourage healthy snacking, and while the teachers were delicately peeling their apples, pears, and ORANGES with knives, I was just sittin’ there chowing down with my teeth, skin and all, and tearing into an orange with my fingers.

  8. Hmm, this might be a silly question, but then how do you know if someone is really complimenting you or hitting on you when they say “guapo/a”?

    1. Mario says, “If they’re friends or family, it is acceptable and they’re hitting on you. In other contexts, you just have to use your judgment.”

  9. THE GYM THING THOUGH. The women at my gym greet each other it in the shower. Where no one is wearing clothes. The other day a señora even got sassy when she walked in and tried to talk to “everyone,” but no one replied. (“Bueno, sois mudos o qué?”) No, sorry, we just don’t want to talk to you when we’re naked.

    Also, my parents got so concerned when they noticed I wasn’t asking for things in Spanish in a “polite” way. They kept worrying, “Shouldn’t you say ‘Could I have a glass of water please?” I tried to explain that such politeness isn’t necessary, but old habits die hard.

  10. I would dispute what you say about using knives and forks: in the UK I was taught (and so was everyone else I know) to use both: fork in the left hand & knife in the right, or the other way around for lefties. The US custom of dropping the knife & using just the fork is considered just as bad manners there as it would be in Spain. I agree with you on the fruit peeling thing, though.

    As far as politeness is concerned, the fact that the Usted form exists means that you can be formal and polite without saying please/thank you. That’s probably why it’s less prevalent here, even though Vd. is now being used less and less.

    Another big difference that has struck me over the years is that in Spain swearing is acceptable a lot further up the social scale than it would be in the UK or (I guess) the US, which can make Spaniards sound extremely rude when they speak English, and make English speakers sound prissy when they speak Spanish. When the king went on record as saying that the asparagus he was served were “cojonudos” the producers actually strarted using the word on their cans and in the advertising campaigns. This really freaks out Latin American speakers of Spanish.

    1. Yeah, I wasn’t really sure about the UK and fork/knife situation.

      My students seem to think swearing in English in front of me is okay!

  11. Oops, I definitely didn’t know about the “eat with 2 hands” situation! I’ll have to keep that in mind next time I dine with Spaniards. However, I have no shame in eating my fruit unpeeled, even when my coworkers look at me like I’m certifiably insane. I always happily remind them the benefits of eating the peel ;) I refuse to miss out on all the good fiber & nutrients, cultural norms be damned!

    1. Definitely agree! I always, always, always eat my apples with the peel. It might be uncouth to just bite into an apple like that, but so what!

  12. Mmm… I’m not sure about what you said of peeling the fruit. For instance, I’d peel the fruit only if I don’t have water nearby to clean it. Because we know they have fertilizers and this is quite toxic(that’s what I’ve been taught at school…), therefore we peel the fruit. In case the fruit is “clean”, I won’t peel apples or pears but oranges? do you really eat the peal of oranges???

  13. Love this. So very accurate. I also had to request that my Spanish boyfriend use more please and thank you with me because his commands used to come off as very harsh, especially when translated directly to English.

  14. In America we tend to put our napkins in our laps during a meal – in Spain it goes up on the table next to your plate. Also, it would be SUPER rude not to say “buen provecho”!

  15. I haven’t figured out if it’s rude or not, but I know that if I eat just about anything in the street (not counting picnics or street cafes) or while walking I feel out of place and very American.

    One interesting thing I observed at the school where I was teaching was how they taught the kids to use their bread to push their food onto the fork.

    And, as far as lining up goes, I’ve noticed that most people respect each other’s place in line, except for older people. There seems to be an unwritten rule that older people can “hacer el tonto” and cut in line without causing a fuss.

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