I get it. You’re coming to this country and hoping to get in sync with the locals. In short, you’re wondering what NOT to do in Spain.
Well, I’ve been here since 2011 and in that time I’ve learned a thing or two about what you should – and shouldn’t – do in this country. And I’m laying it out for you.
I hope this post and video helps you explore Spain a little more like a local!
11. Don’t go overboard on “please” and “thank you”
I’ve gotten a lot of heat for this one in the comments section from Spanish viewers who think I meant that you don’t have to say “gracias” or “por favor” in Spanish. That’s not what I meant.
The thing is, in English we simply use these words a lot more than when speaking Spanish. You see, in Spanish “please” and “thank you” are a lot more implied in the speaker’s tone or in the way we construct words rather than stated explicitly.
So while in English we will say, “Can have have a beer, please?” In Spanish we might say (with the right tone), “¿Me pones uña caña cuando puedas?”. Of course you could say, “¿Me pones uña caña por favor?”, but it just doesn’t sound quite as fluid as the first example.
I understand that is a hard rule to follow when you’re just learning the language. But as you learn Spanish, keep this in mind.
And if you’re not sure, obviously play is safe and use “por favor” and “gracias”!
Also, if you’d like a little more information about how to order in a Spanish bar, check out this video about How to Order Food in Spain Like a Local.
10. Don’t put your bread on your plate
This is a funny one that took me a while to get used to.
Whenever you eat a meal in Spain, you always eat it with bread. The bread serves as a utensil to push things onto your fork, and also to mop up juices.
But if you want to look like a total local, then keep your piece of bread beside your plate (on the table or tablecloth) rather than on the actual plate.
I’m not 100% sure. I think it harks back to the idea that bread through much of Western history has been used as a tool to mop up the juices of the stew you’re eating. And given in Spain we still eat a lot of stews, you simply can’t keep your bread on your plate because it was sit soaking in juices and get soggy.
I know this may seem like a banal explanation, but it’s probably not much more complex than that.
9. Don’t eat with a hand under the table
Another eating rule, and one that Yoly tells me off for quite often (because it’s not a rule that I grew up with in New Zealand).
When you’re eating, you should keep your elbows off the table. But also, don’t eat with one hand hidden under the table. It’s considered rude.
Again, I’m not sure of the root of this. But it could be similar to the root of why we shake hands, that it’s simply to show that we’re not carrying a weapon.
Another theory? Viewers in the comments of the YouTube video have suggested it was a rule implemented by Catholic Spain to ensure hormonal teenagers weren’t doing inappropriate things with their hand under the table. But I kind of doubt that one!
Whatever the reason, if you’re heading to Spain and plan to eat with a family or friends at their home or a restaurant, then keep those hands where everyone can see them!
8. Don’t offer guests beer at 5pm
I had just moved to Spain and a Spanish friend came to visit at around five o’clock in the afternoon. I offered him a cerveza. I was certainly ready for one – beer o’clock in New Zealand is 5pm!
But my friend said no. He wanted a café con leche. My first instinct was, “How boring!”. But then I realised it was simply tied to the fact that everything happens later in Spain. We eat lunch at 2pm, and dinner at 10pm. So it’s normal that beer o’clock is later as well.
So, I served up the coffee (I think I begrudgingly had one myself), and we chatted for a while. And once it hit about 7:30pm, he was happy to hit the beers.
As was I.
7. Don’t help with the dishes after parties
When you visit a friend’s house in New Zealand for dinner or a party, I always felt like it was the “done” thing to help clean up afterwards.
Fast forward to living in Spain, and when Yoly and I would leave people’s houses after a dinner party, we might take some plates to the kitchen. But broadly speaking it was much more up and out, leaving our hosts with the mess. Which is great if you’re visiting, and not so great if you’re being visited.
This is not a hard and fast rule, just a cultural tendency I have noticed. Of course it’s nice to offer. But just be aware that your host’s expectations might be a little different (as should yours if you’re hosting a party).
6. Don’t be a “pesado” in social situations
In Spanish, a “pesado” is someone who is intense. Someone who belabours a topic, or gets a little too, well, intense about a topic during a conversation.
You don’t want to be considered a pesado in Spain.
Here’s an example. In New Zealand, when you meet someone at a party, you’ll probably ask about their job early on. And in order to show interest and curiosity, you’ll ask them questions about it. In Spain, it would be a little pesado to leap into asking all about someone’s job so early in the conversation. Conversations tend to float around more general topics, before diving into things like work.
Another example: When Spanish speakers tell stories, they often spend longer cutting to the chase. The nature of Spanish storytelling is to work towards the point. And I think English speakers work towards the point more quickly. So Yoly has often told me off for interrupting people who are telling a story and asking them what happened too soon. I need to back off and let the story evolve.
So anyway, don’t be a pesado!
5. Don’t misinterpret loud conversations as arguments
When I first met Yoly and she would speak to her mother on the phone, I thought they were constantly arguing (I didn’t understand Spanish).
But as I learned the language and the way we speak in Spain, I realised that in this country we feel more comfortable having a loud and passionate conversation than I would in English.
A conversation with a similar tone or intensity in English but make English speakers feel uncomfortable, as if we’d crossed the boundary into argument territory.
So don’t be surprised if you hear two people in a bar speaking with raised voices, and don’t assume the two people are arguing!
4. Don’t generalise about Spain
This is a very regional country, with many different traditions, languages and identities. So while Spain is one country, the more time you spend here the more you realise how important people’s distinct regional identities are.
Given that, you have to be a little careful not to generalise too much about Spain.
Let’s take the example of a couple of well-known Spanish cliches. Flamenco and paella. If you don’t have a lot of experience of this country, you might think those things are quintessentially Spanish. But each is in fact very region.
Flamenco is from Andalusia in the south. And if you want to see great flamenco you need to be in the south, or in Madrid or Barcelona (because they are big cities, there is great flamenco in both). But if you head to Galicia or Asturias or Valencia, you’re going to struggle to see great flamenco. They’re simply not local to those regions.
Meanwhile, paella is a regional dish from Valencia (a region where rice has long been grown). So while you can get paella all around Spain (largely in part to tourist demand), you’ll get the best ones in Valencia.
Overall, this is a country where people identify very strongly with their region, and even their village. And someone their loyalty is stronger to those things, than the country as a whole.
Yoly and I made about video about the 10 Things You Must Know Before Coming to Spain, and this includes a little more about the regional variety topic, as well as other topics that will help you explore this country!
3. Don’t call Catalan a dialect of Spanish
The Catalan language is spoken in the region of Catalonia. To the untrained eye, it can look a little like Spanish. And so often people think it’s a dialect of Spanish. But it’s not.
Catalan is its own language, the developed independently of Spanish from Latin.
This can be a particular charged point, given the independence movement in Catalonia.
Also, when speaking about the Spanish language, I prefer to use the term “Castellano”. Both “Spanish” and “Castellano” are valid terms for the language, but there are a number of languages spoken by Spanish people (other include Galician, Asturian, Basque). And if I am speaking to a Basque person, for example, and I say “Spanish” instead of “Castellano”, it could be perceived that I’m saying their language is not a Spanish language.
2. Don’t use “usted” willy nilly
My first foreign language was French. In that language you switch between the informal and formal version of “you” (“tu” and “vous”) constantly, depending on who you’re speaking to.
The same structure exists in Spanish. “Tu” is the informal version of “you” and “usted” is the more formal version. But amongst my generation and younger people, “usted” is quite rarely used.
When would you use it? Well, I only really use it when I’m addressing an elderly person (usually when offering them my seat on the metro). However, if I worked in a customer service role (e.g. a sales assistant), then depending on the shop’s policy I would use it when speaking to customers. Often I’ll find it’s how taxi drivers use it when speaking to me.
But if you’re not in a customer facing role, then generally you’ll only use it for people of a certain age or someone in a position of authority (a politician, the king, etc). For almost everyone else, feel comfortable using “tu”.
1. Don’t mention the civil war casually
The Spanish civil war was a long time ago. But for many Spaniards the wounds have not healed. And so you have to be a little bit careful before diving into this topic with someone.
Well, people’s opinions on the civil war and the dictatorship that came after it are often reflective of their opinions and thoughts about modern-day Spanish politics. And so a conversation about the civil war can evolve quite quickly into a debate about modern politics. And while I love debating politics, you might not want to go there depending on the circumstances.
Also, as Yoly said in the video, a civil war is one of the worst things that can happen to a country. Families were torn apart, villages divided, and you might meet people who carry some shame about what their family did or didn’t do during the conflict. So tread lightly.
Of course, it is a fascinating subject, and so once you have a little bit of trust with someone, do dive in.
Also, if you’d like to learn more about how modern Spain is dealing (or not) with the civil war, check out the fabulous book The Ghosts of Spain, by Giles Tremlett.
And the most famous modern historical account of the Spanish civil war is The Spanish Holocaust, by Paul Preston.
I hope this has been helpful! Do let me know in the comments below if there are any “don’ts” that we missed!