Managing Cultural Sensitivities

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Since coming to Spain on May 24th, I have faced challenges when it comes to cultural differences between my hometown of Springfield, Missouri and the various cities throughout Spain I have lived in. For most of my life I lived in an even smaller town than Springfield, but for the most part I have always been used to the culture of Springfield. It’s a small town feel in a bigger city environment. While in Spain, there have been times where I felt unheard or unimportant. Whether I am visiting a small city or an international one, I have often been treated as a tourist instead of someone living and studying in Spain.

Going on four weeks living in Spain, often times I can feel that the people are rude, pushy, and impatient. While my feelings of being upset about this environment are valid, this week I stopped to have a conversation with my professor and afterwards did some reflecting on how I can better handle situations as they arise and better manage my feelings about it afterwards. For example, in the bigger cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, and Valladolid, almost every time I went to a restaurant I patiently stood in line to make my food order, buy something from the university book store, or purchase clothing, people native to Spain would simply push past me and get helped first and pleasantries are not cared for by staff. I even would be in the middle of telling a cashier what I wanted from an ice cream stand, and have native speakers come up beside me. The staff would pause what they were getting for me and complete whatever order the other person wanted then return back to helping me.

To better understand the cultural implications of why this was happening to me time and time again, I walked with my professor through a park in Madrid. I explained my situation and what he told me seemed obvious. He said to me, I said Spain was my favorite country, not that the people were nice. I needed to understand that despite me living in Spain, I still looked like someone touring their home city, associated with littered beaches, increased traffic, extra wait times at their favorite restaurants, and lots of other negative things that come with heavily tourist areas. I needed to realize that these cities are not the same as the slow Midwest where waiting your turn patiently pays off and please and thank you are welcomed. These cities in Spain are fast paced. People are simply trying to do their jobs or get what they need without anything slowing them down.

Once I had some time to really consider the people who live in Spain, I came to respect being ignored a little bit, but I also began to become more aggressive to get the things I want in a more timely matter, just as the Spaniards do. If I really wasn’t sure what I wanted at a cafe, I stepped aside to let others go. As soon as I figured it out, I would shove to the front and get an employees attention to give my order. This was a shock and uncomfortable for me to do, but I then better blended in with the people who live in these cities.

Nearly four full weeks into this experience has taught me to not be hostile towards being treated differently and to manage my feelings and actions to better fit into an unfamiliar culture.