Culture shock is real. My preconceived notions about moving to Spain were that it was going to be an easy transition because of my Hispanic background. This couldn’t be further from the truth. From the way the language is spoken to the cultural norms, it has been a process of acclimating to life in Spain.
From my personal experience, Spaniards have a more direct communication style. They tend to speak very openly and are comfortable showing emotion. In other words, they will not hesitate to let you know how they feel. From an outsider’s perspective, Spanish people may seem a bit hostile and unfriendly but they simply have a different way of communicating. For example, in the United States, we are used to saying “please” and “thank you” whenever making a request but these phrases are not habitually utilized in Spain. From their perspective, it is perceived as excessive to express profuse gratitude and kindness in everyday situations. I learned this quickly when I noticed that when I would say “gracias’ ‘ (thank you), they wouldn’t respond with “de nada’ ‘ (you’re welcome) as is common in North America. Also, the formal Spanish that you learned in high school or college will not fly out here. This was a huge shock for me because I expected Spain to use the most formal version of Spanish. On the contrary, if you refer to someone with the word “usted”, it is seen as disrespectful because it implies social distance. In other words, they may think you are calling them old. This phrase has proven quite difficult for me to temporarily unlearn because I am accustomed to using it as a sign of respect. Luckily the few times I have unconsciously utilized it I have not received any negative reactions because people quickly notice that I am not a local. From conversations with Spanish people, it has come to my attention that they can quickly spot a foreigner from slight differences in word choice and grammar. I thought that coming to Spain would be a streamlined process and I would quickly pick up on their culture but let me tell you that it has been a slow yet rewarding process. At first, these differences made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcomed but now that I’m exposed to this way of communication, I don’t think twice about interactions with locals.
There are also nonverbal communication tendencies that have stood out to me. For example, the idea of personal space is nonexistent out here. People are a lot more comfortable with closer proximity whether it is a friend you are conversing with or a stranger you are standing next to on the metro. As an American, this was quite difficult for me because we value our imaginary personal space bubble, especially around strangers.
Physical contact is an integral part of Spanish culture. It is very common for Spanish people to be tactile when conversing with you. This form of physical contact is meant to signify friendly affection and closeness. It is not uncommon for people to put their arms around your shoulders or fix your collar for you without consent.
Picking up on these differences in communication has made me more aware of my own culture. I find it fascinating that something completely normal to us may be questionable to a different culture and vice versa.
Image caption: Celebrating Mexico’s Independence at an event hosted by the Mexican Embassy in Spain