Nine Spanish culture shocks: Habits in Spain I can’t get used to

Nine Spanish culture shocks that I still can’t get my head around, even after living in Spain for nearly six years. Here they are…

1. Volume control?

According to the World Health Organisation Spain is the second noisiest country in the world after Japan. This would explain why several times a week I wish I had a universal mute button. Almost everywhere you go it’s loud.

In Spain people tend to live on top of each other in densely packed apartments which has created a phenomenon known as ‘radio patio’. The inner courtyards of apartment blocks act as perfect echo chambers broadcasting residents’ daily lives. With the windows open most of the year round you can’t help but hear it all. Family arguments, phone conversations, TVs blaring, food frying and a chorus of orgasms.

In bars you’ll need to bark your order to the waiter to stand a chance of getting served. I’ve realised that you need a certain kind of voice with a perfect pitch to cut through all of the ‘jaleo’. Something I do not possess.

In Spain the car horn is a preferred mode of communication. You’ll hear car horns more often than a Brit saying sorry. From a double punch on the steering wheel to continuous prolonged blasts the horn is used to announce your arrival, acknowledge a friend or scare a dog out of the way. If the traffic is particularly bad the driver will resort to simply leaning on the horn to get things moving.

3. Spatial awareness

Personal space in Spain is personal in the sense that it can be intimate. I’ve lost count of the times in bars when I’ve been moved to one side by a fellow customer and repositioned as if I were a bar stool. The pressing up against each other, pushing and the hand on the back manoeuvre are commonly adopted on the metro and on busses.

When having a long conversation with a group of friends, standing smack bang in the middle of doorways and pavements is preferred. They’ve seen you coming. Will they move out of the way? It doesn’t matter just dodge around them and into the road while carrying heavy shopping bags. Just don’t interrupt their loud conversation.

3. Adventures with customer service

Whether you’re in a bar, shop, restaurant or bank, when customer service is good in Spain it’s great. When it’s bad, it’s terrible. In my years of living here I’ve found that poor ‘ateccion al cliente’ is a regular occurrence. Now, I suppose it could be argued that the direct, abrupt and often surly interactions are preferable to the overly gushy, forced and fake “have a nice day!” approach of some Anglo Saxon countries.

Spaniards seem to have a high tolerance threshold and are rarely critical or demanding when faced with poor service. One solution is to become a regular. A bit like the tapas that get bigger and better with each round of drinks you buy, so the level of customer service tends to improve with each repeat visit. In the defence of poor customer service, I think economics has a lot to do answer for. ‘La crisis’ has caused a situation where many businesses try to offer everything with the absolute minimum of staff or resources.

4. Daily timetable

While Spaniards are still finishing off their ‘natillas’ from the daily lunch menu, back in the UK workers have already been back in the office for 2 hours. Yes, Spain is infamous for keeping late hours. This is something I still really struggle with. Especially when it come to mealtimes. I still can’t get my head around eating lunch at 2:30/3pm and sitting down to and evening meal at 10pm, sometimes later on a weekend. The pregnant pause in the middle of the day when many people still head home to eat lunch and therefore finish work at 7 or 8pm. Many of my Spanish friends are divided on this. Half of them agree that they would prefer to take 30 mins for lunch and get out of the office at 6pm. For others a longer break in the middle of the day is still sacred. Mealtimes tend to dictate the timing of everything else with prime TV shows starting at 10pm and finishing well after midnight. I guess that explains all the dark circles on the morning commute.

5. Eating out is as cheap as patatas fritas

Three words. Menú. Del. Día. A culinary tradition and phenomenon which is intrinsic to Spanish life and incredible value for money. It still amazes and delights me that it’s possible to get a three course lunch, often with a coffee, wine and bread for between 10 and 15 euros. In my local bar they offer a menú del día for a mere 8 euros and the quality is good. Wine too, is dangerously cheap in Spain at only around €1.80 a glass it pains me to pay a fiver or more back in the UK. And a three course meal for a ten quid. Forget it.

6. How civilised the Spanish are when it comes to drinking

It might be loud but it’s certainly way more civilised than you’re average British High Street on a Friday or Saturday night. Binge drinking is not something that has ever caught on in Spain, thankfully. Even the ‘botellón’ is less common than before and when you do stumble across a bunch of teenagers sitting around a bottle of whiskey or red wine and coke, it’s a jovial affair. Spaniards seem to have far more respect for alcohol even given how cheap it is. They drink more slowly and without the aim of getting hammered. At 2am in a Spanish city centre, you’re not going to see anyone puking into the gutter, getting to fights of staggering barefoot through the streets, shoes in hand. Well, unless they’re guiris of course.

7. The Spanish are touchy-feely

Spaniards are much more tactile than us Brits it seems and I love how expressive Spaniards can be. But for me and other British friends this used to be a source of confusion and even embarrassing misunderstandings. In Spain, people touch each other during conversations. It’s because Spaniards are warm and in some ways I think it’s a way for them to engage more deeply with the person they are conversing with, especially if they’re excited about something or feel strongly about something. This ritual of taps, stokes, prods and grasps on the arm, leg or shoulder can often be misconstrued by northern Europeans as flirtation. Not so. Well, maybe it could but it’s certainly not a given. In the past mistook these gestures to mean a girl was romantically interested. How wrong I was!

8. Viva small businesses!

What I love about Spain is that people still value and remain loyal to independent shops. In any Spanish city centre or everyday neighbourhood you still find dozens of independent greengrocers, butchers, bakers, grocery shops, pharmacies and ironmongers, all with their own unique character and dated, down-at -heel charm. Compared to the UK with its generic high streets monotonously lined with the same big chains of shops, bars and restaurants, for me Spain is like stepping back in time 30 years. In a good way.

9. Lack of respect for public spaces

There are times when I think litter bins, ashtrays and toilets appear to be fairly inconsequential. The street itself is multi-purpose and serves all three functions day or night. Cigarette flicking could become a national sport. That’s something that really surprises me, that people make no effort to even hide the fact that they’re littering the street. In my hometown there’s a mandatory on the sport fine of £80 for dropping litter.


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The When in Spain show is a weekly podcast show, recorded in Madrid (and other parts of Spain) where l talk about my ‘warts and all’ observations and insights on life and culture on the Iberian peninsular.

I cast an eye on everyday life, people, places, politics, culture and history and attempt to give an honest opinion from a Brit who has a love-frustration relationship with Spain. I shall attempt to dispel or indeed confirm Spanish stereotypes through my ramblings and see if I can delve into the Spanish psyche.



I’m Paul Burge, former BBC journalist, Hispanophile and Manchego lover. A Brit, born in Oxford and living in Spain for almost 5 years. I currently live in the centre of Madrid.