Spain is a popular country to travel to for pleasure, for school, or even for a permanent move! But before you go, it’s smart to research the differences in culture, traditions, and daily life, so you know what to expect. Read on as Spanish tutor Joan B. explains…
A diverse country filled with delicious dishes, rich cultural offerings, and plenty of fun, Spain is a country that will delight, amaze, and inspire you.
And as anyone who has traveled abroad knows, no two countries are alike! You might even be surprised by some of the cultural differences that exist. Below, I’ll share some of the key points — based on my own experiences working and living in Spain. Knowing these will help you blend in, connect more with the culture and people, and feel comfortable in whatever setting you find yourself in!
Life in Spain vs. Life in the U.S.
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Here’s a more in-depth look at eight of the cultural differences between Spain and the U.S.
Spain vs. U.S.: Introductions
- Spain: It’s common for women to kiss on both cheeks when being introduced to either a man or a woman. Men will kiss women on both cheeks when introduced, but shake hands with another man. When introduced, you can reply with “Mucho gusto” (glad to meet you).
- United States: It’s common in both formal and informal situations to shake hands upon introduction; in informal situations, you might also hug at the conclusion of the meeting once you are better acquainted with the other person. The standard “nice to meet you” will cover any introduction.
Spain vs. U.S.: Meals
- Spain: Breakfast is a light meal that often consists of a bollo (roll) and cafe con leche (a delicious mix of coffee and steaming milk). Spaniards usually have a snack around 11 a.m., like a bocadillo (a sandwich made with french bread). Lunch, which is the largest meal of the day, is eaten at around 1:30 or 2 p.m. and is often followed by a siesta (nap). At this time many of the shops are closed. At around 7 many people have a snack–often tapas. Dinner, which is a light meal, is eaten at 9:30 or 10 pm.
- United States: Breakfast can be a big or small affair, with cereal or eggs with toast being common choices. During the weekend, more elaborate options like French toast, waffles, or an omelet with bacon and toast are common. Lunchtime is generally from noon to 1 p.m. A mid-afternoon coffee combined with a pastry is often used to combat hunger and the afternoon slump, while dinner is usually around 6 or 7. Dinner usually consists of pasta, meat, or some other hearty option.
Spain vs. U.S.: Drinking
- Spain: People generally drink wine or beer with meals or tapas (appetizers). If you want a draft beer, you have to order una caña. Although you must be 18 to purchase alcohol in Spain (16 in Asturias), some families are lax about underage drinking as it is served daily with meals in most homes.
- United States: Drinking can be accompanied by a meal, but alcohol is often also consumed on its own, at a bar with friends. The drinking age for both consumption and purchase is 21, and parents generally frown on teenagers drinking in the home or outside.
Spain vs. U.S.: Nightlife
- Spain: If you want to go dancing in the big cities, the nightlife usually doesn’t start until 11 p.m., and lasts long into the night or until dawn.
- United States: Nightlife can start early — around 8 p.m., or after dinner, and laws generally require bars and nightclubs to close at a certain hour.
Spain vs. U.S.: Personal Space
- Spain: Personal space is much closer to those with whom you are interacting, often just inches away. You’ll find that people stand and sit very close to you on the subway, especially when it is crowded. It is also customary for women friends to walk arm-in-arm down the street and for male friends to walk with an arm draped over the shoulders of a friend.
- United States: Personal space is respected and coveted, as throughout most of the United States it’s common to commute in your car, and crowded public spaces are uncommon except in the case of special events. Invading someone’s personal space can be viewed as rude or a violation, especially in the case of mixed genders.
Spain vs. U.S.: Driving
- Spain: Big cities like Madrid and Barcelona have wonderful transportation systems. Buses and the metro can get you anywhere you want to go. Cars are small and often used more for trips out of the city. Also, pedestrians do not have the right-of-way, so be careful when crossing the street!
- United States: Driving is the norm in most parts of the United States, with the exception of bigger cities that have good public transportation, such as New York and Chicago. Some families opt for bigger cars to accommodate growing families and increase comfort during long drives. Pedestrian right-of-way is uniformly adopted throughout the United States, so even if you’re the lone pedestrian on a street filled with cars, you will be able to safely cross.
Spain vs. U.S.: Fashion
- Spain: Young people are fashionable, but dress casually. Men do not wear shorts in the city unless visiting a town on the beach. Older adults generally dress more formally. When visiting a religious site, be sure to dress conservatively, covering both your arms and back — and save the flip flops for the beach. This is not only the respectful thing to do, it is an enforced rule, so you will be turned away in many cases if you are dressed inappropriately for a religious site.
- United States: People on the whole dress casually during days off, with shorts and sandals a common choice during warmer seasons. Fashion is generally quirky and urban in bigger cities, with preppy choices more common on the East Coast and a laid-back beach style on the West Coast.
Spain vs. U.S.: Shopping
- Spain: When entering a small shop, always greet the store clerk with “buenos días” or “buenas tardes,” depending on the time of day. You should ask the clerk to show you something; it’s not customary for the customer to handle the merchandise. This also applies to buying fruit or other food items from a market; you do not select the fruit yourself, but ask for medio kilo (half a kilo) or un kilo (2.2 lbs.) of what you want. And don’t forget to say “adios” when exiting the shop.
- United States: Most shopping is done in behemoth malls, where you can shop to your heart’s content. Malls can be a place to spend the whole day, by enjoying a meal and a coffee or tea, getting your exercise walking around it, and, of course, shopping. It’s nice to say hello upon entering a shop, but not common or required in chain stores.
Now that you’re up to speed on what to expect in Spain, you’re ready for your trip! And when you’re there, don’t shy away from meeting the locals. Immersing yourself in the culture and chatting with Spanish speakers is a great way to boost your language skills. (Need some extra practice before you go? Meet with a tutor, or sign up for an online Spanish class!)
Readers, have you traveled to Spain? What other differences did you notice about life in Spain? Let us know by leaving a comment below!
Joan B. lives in Carmichael, CA and has been teaching high school Spanish for more than 18 years. A lover of language, she’s studied French, Arabic, and Italian and spent time living in Spain. Learn more about Joan here!
One thought on “Culture Shock: Life in Spain vs. Life in the U.S. [Infographic]”
I loved Spain and Madrid in particular where I’ve never seen a people that live so much in the streets.
The tapas bars are full from 8 pm onwards. Dinner is anywhere from 10pm to midnight or later .
The bars or cocktail establishments get packed from about midnight to 2 or 3 am then the club’s are pumping from 3 am till 6 am or later.
We once got home at 10 am which is apparently quite normal as we witnessed the metro carriages full with good natured clubbers going for breakfast or home.
Nightlife in Madrid is absolutely amazing. So much fun.