Social customs in Spain

Traditions and habits

All countries have their own particular social customs and Spain is no exception. As a foreigner you will probably be excused if you accidentally insult your host, but you may not be invited again.

When you’re formally introduced to a Spaniard you should say ‘good day’ ( buenos días señor/señora/señorita) or ‘good evening’ ( buenas tardes) and shake hands (a single pump is enough). Spanish men shake hands on meeting and again on departing, whether it’s a casual meeting in the street or a formal occasion. If you’re in doubt as to whether a woman is married or single, wedding rings are worn on the fourth finger of the right hand (not the left), although mature women should be addressed as señora. ‘Good afternoon’ ( buenas tardes) is used instead of ‘good day’ ( buenos días) after lunch, which can start as late as 3pm until 9 or 10pm. ‘Good night’ ( buenas noches) is usually used when going to bed or leaving a house late at night. ‘Goodbye’ is adiós or less formally you can say see you later ( hasta luego).

‘Hi’ or ‘hello’ ( ¡hola!) is used among close friends and young people, often accompanied by ‘how are you?’ ( ¿qué tal?) or ‘what’s new?’ ( ¿qué hay?). In more formal language, ‘how are you?’ is ¿cómo está usted?, to which the reply is usually ‘fine, thank you, and you?’ ( muy bien, gracias, ¿y usted?). A common reply when being formally introduced is ‘delighted’ ( encantado/a). Elderly friends are often addressed as ‘male’ ( don) and ‘female’ ( doña), followed by their Christian name (considerable courtesy and respect is shown to women and the elderly in Spain). When someone thanks you ( gracias), it’s polite to reply ‘it was nothing/you’re welcome’ ( de nada). When talking to a stranger it’s polite to use the formal form of address ( usted) and not the familiar form ( ) or someone’s Christian name until you’re invited to do so. However, nowadays the form is much more widely used and usted is reserved mainly for business and when addressing older people.

Kissing in Spain

Male and female acquaintances kiss each other, usually on both cheeks. If a lady expects you to kiss her she will offer her cheek. The ‘kiss’ is deposited high up on the cheek, never on the mouth (except between lovers), and isn’t usually really a kiss, but a delicate brushing of the cheeks. Close family and male friends embrace.

Talking on the phone

You should introduce yourself before asking to speak to someone on the telephone. Although the traditional siesta is facing a battle for survival, it isn’t advisable to telephone between the siesta hours (e.g. 2 to 5pm) when many people have a nap. If you call between these times, it’s polite to apologise for disturbing the household.

Spanish surnames

Family surnames are often confusing to foreigners, as the Spanish often have two surnames (possibly linked by ‘and’, e.g. y or i in Catalan), the first being their father’s and the second their mother’s. When a woman marries she may drop her mother’s name and add her husband’s, although this isn’t usual. Spanish children are usually named after a saint and a person’s saint’s day ( santo) is as important a celebration as their birthday ( cumpleaños), both of which are occasions on which it’s traditional to entertain your family and friends.

Appointments in Spain

If you have an appointment with a Spaniard don’t expect him to arrive on time, although being more than 15 minutes late is considered bad manners. If you’re going to be more than 15 minutes late for an appointment you should telephone and apologise.

The Spanish say ‘good appetite’ ( que aproveche/buen apetito) before starting a meal. If you’re offered a glass of wine, wait until your host has made a toast ( ¡salud!) before taking a drink. If you aren’t offered a (another) drink it’s time to go home.

Dressing style in Spain

Spanish men and women are almost invariably well groomed and style and fashion are important, although they often dress casually. It’s advisable to dress conservatively when doing business or visiting government offices on official business. There are few occasions when formal clothes are necessary and there are very few dress rules in Spain (except in respect to places of worship). Spaniards consider that bathing costumes, skimpy tops and flip-flops or sandals with no socks are strictly for the beach or swimming pool, and not for example, the streets, restaurants or shops.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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