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Spanish culture and etiquette – what to expect

Hannah Jolliffe / 30 May 2022

Spain may not be far away, but there are still cultural differences that you should be aware of if you’re planning to visit or relocate. Read our guide to help you get the most out of your time in Spain.

Customers inside spanish cafe
Spanish cafe culture © Tupungato / Shutterstock.com

Meeting and greeting

Spanish people can be quite formal until they’re introduced. After that, the rules are relaxed, says Culture Smart! “Once you’re considered a friend, you will be treated in a warm and familiar way. Women greet each other and men with a kiss on both cheeks. Men shake hands, and they hug close friends, loudly slapping each other on the back at the same time.”

As is the case in many other countries, you will find that the manners of the older generation are usually more formal, and a certain distance should be maintained.

On the whole, Spaniards are generally very tactile people. They will often touch your arm to emphasise a point or a joke.

Family life

Family is one of the most important things to Spaniards. They have great respect for the elderly, and many homes are made up of intergenerational relatives, especially outside of cities. Children are equally important, and are involved in all aspects of family life.

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Eating and drinking

Along with family, food is one of the most important aspects of life in Spain. Expect to eat later – most lunches don’t start until at least 1.30pm – and as this is the most important meal of the day, it can last for a few hours. Dinner rarely starts before 9pm, and if you’re dining out at the weekend, don’t expect restaurants to start filling up until 10pm.

Always tip when you’re eating or drinking out in Spain. Locals don’t leave huge tips, but it is common practise to show your appreciation of the service.

If you’re invited to dinner at someone’s house, take along a bottle of wine and some flowers or chocolates. Don’t be surprised if your hosts light up a cigarette – while smoking has been banned in public places, many Spanish people still love to smoke when they can.

What to wear

Spanish people may be informal in the way they interact, but don’t take this as a sign that all aspects of life are laidback.

It’s important to be respectful when visiting churches. Dressing casually is fine, but make sure you’re properly covered, avoiding shorts and sleeveless tops.

Men should avoid going bare-chested anywhere other than the beach, and restrict topless sunbathing to beaches where others are doing it. Some towns have introduced rules about wearing swimwear in public places. Again, be respectful and cover up if you’re going from the beach to a restaurant.

Manners and etiquette

“The Spanish can be very direct once they get to know you. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are considered normal among English-speaking people, but are thought to be excessive and unnecessary among family and friends, or in everyday exchanges in shops and restaurants,” says Culture Smart!

For example, Dáme un café (give me a coffee) is not considered impolite. It is the waiter's job to serve the customer, and no extra niceties are needed.

Holidays and festivities

If you’re visiting Spain at Christmas, expect the celebrations to carry on for longer than in the UK. Spaniards have their Christmas meal on Christmas Eve, and another big celebration on January 6th, the day of the Epiphany.

This is also the day when presents are exchanged, with children getting their presents from the Three Wise Men, or the Reyes Magos – the Spanish equivalent of Father Christmas. It’s well worth being in Spain at this time – locals hold street parades to welcome in the Reyes, who throw sweets out to the crowds from their floats.

If this appeals to you, then don’t miss the Easter celebrations either. Many local areas have daily processions in Holy Week – the week after lent ends. Expects the streets to be filled with decorated floats, candles, crosses and live music. On Easter Sunday, families congregate for big feasts, with the Easter cake – a Mona de Pascua – taking centre stage.

Culture Smart! references from Culture Smart! A Quick Guide To The Customs & Etiquette of Spain by kind permission of Kuperard Publishers.

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Disclaimer

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.