“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?
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.
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!
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.
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 …”
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.