Cultural Differences Between Spain and the United States

Authored by:
Austin C.

Warning: The following is a generalization of two fantastic and lovely countries called Spain and the United States. It’s told from the very narrow and personal perspective of a very narrow and personal man. Don’t read if you are prone to cringe over generalizations.

I hate to do a post about something that appears in every travel blog, but here we go. People aren’t people if they don’t immediately contradict what they say, no?

For those who are trying to learn a language, you know that it’s virtually impossible to not learn about the culture at the same time. Why do I bring this up? Well, one of my main reasons for being in Spain is to practice and expand my linguistic skills.

And how has it been going? More or less, great. I’m finding that appropriating and developing a second language takes lots of time, but it’s achievable with some discipline, constant practice, and being okay with the unknown.

What about learning the culture? Well, here in lies the rub, so they say. What do we mean by “culture”? Are we referring to the history, architecture and art? Or are we talking about something with more energy and life, like music and food? Or is it something as simple as what you’re wearing?

I’m a firm believer that the big things – that is, art, history, architecture, music, food and dress – are more like mix-and-match accessories. What I think that culture means, or at least where it is most significant and where it divides us the most, is our daily habits and reactions to others. Or in other words, a person can move to another country and adopt another country’s food, art, eating, and so on. However, unless that person is transformed to view the world and others the way those native to the country do, that person is still a part of their previous culture.

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Alright Austin, enough of the lecture. Okay, okay, fair enough. I suppose one of the biggest cultural differences that I’ve seen while abroad is the way Spaniards take and give money. Whether it’s a fancy restaurant or a low-level bar, you will come across this: they don’t hand you the money. It will either be slapped on the counter for retrieval or sheepishly given in a small bowl or plate.

I don’t know why Spaniards practice this. Perhaps, it’s got something to do with hygiene or not wanting to give off an air of greed or bribery. I just don’t know. And no, not every purchase has been like this for me. There have been people who have taken money out of and put it in my hands. However, those instances are fewer in my mind. I remember a lot better those times when it felt as if the money was being pushed to me or dropped into my hand. Hey, maybe I’m a scary-looking guy or I smell. I’ll gladly admit that. But where I come from that sort of behavior is just rude, and I see it as such. My gut reaction is to think that there is something wrong with me or my purchase, which probably says something about American culture. I just don’t think that in the United States there is as much of a problem with exchanging money hand-to-hand as there is here.

Another cultural difference is the forwardness and almost socially aggressive attitude you must have in every interaction. Maybe I’m just too much of a “polite”, reserved, puritanical Anglo-Saxon, but Spaniards seem to go into every conversation without fear and ready for battle. Here’s an example to illustrate my point. A week ago, I wanted to ask my local phone provider if they had wireless chargers available for purchase. I waited in line for half an hour, as you must when there are others before you. When I arrived at the front, the attendant immediately chastised me for not jumping the line to ask my simple question. I had apparently waited too long for such an easily resolved matter. In my head, I was thinking that taking your place at the front, no matter the subject, was the rudest thing that you could do in a shop. It certainly is in the States.

And the negative effects of “our timidity” don’t stop there. If you don’t flag down your waiter for everything, you will go hungry or just never leave the restaurant. And his-her attention is divided, so you better make that flagging look good too. I suggest an interesting dance. All joking aside, you need to be a little aggressive in any service-centered encounter that you are a part of. Good news for the extroverts. Bad news for us who are introverted and-or who think that they don’t have to remind the waiter to serve them.

Speaking of social interactions, let’s talk about Spaniards talking. They are loud. Although they claim that Americans have them beat, I wouldn’t say so. I remember that when I first came to Spain several years ago I thought a man was yelling at a woman in the streets. They both were speaking very loudly, and I grew concerned that this “shouting” could turn ugly. I grew even more concerned that no one else was intervening or taking notice. But turns out, silly me, that they were just talking to each other, albeit in an animated tone. Cultural difference three: Spanish people like to talk loudly, touch you and use a lot of gestures when they speak. They are just that way, so prepare yourself. It isn’t like America where everyone respects your personal bubble. So, get ready.

For those who want to object or who can’t sense my facetious tone, I don’t hate Spain. Firstly, I’m sure that I’ve avoided many nasty colds because the money wasn’t given to me directly. Secondly, I’ve learned to assert myself a lot more since being here. I’ve taken the expression of my wants and needs into my own hands, though apparently not to the level of the locals. Finally, I love talking to Spanish people. I always laugh when I hang out with Americans because we now seem very shy and sheepish. Most of us don’t enter each other’s personal bubble and most conversations don’t reach above a medium voice level. Overall, what I guess I’m trying to say is that you should accept the cultural differences. Don’t feel bad if you have a negative reaction to them or don’t feel comfortable adapting all the way. You are you. But who knows, you might grow a little by trying to see the world from their perspective. 

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