Manners in Spain

Published on 22/10/2007 in Real Life Stories

I went into the post office the other day to post a letter. You see post boxes are actually few and far between so it’s just as easy to go in the post office, although it does involve a trip into town. So, I approach the counter, manned with two staff, with my one little envelope. They continue to do their thing and after a couple of minutes one of them (furthest away) decides to acknowledge me with “She’s busy at the minute”(referring to her colleague nearest to me).

I have learnt not to react with any kind of expression or sign of annoyance. They carry on until they are ready and I stand there staring at them with blank expression. It’s the only way to deal with it otherwise you focus on the rudeness from a British perspective. And that’s just it, it was rudeness in my eyes but as far as they were concerned they had a task to carry out and finish before they could properly deal with me.

I am sure they didn’t intentionally make me stand for what seemed like forever while I waited to do what was supposed to take just a couple of seconds. In the meantime, a van blocked my car in but he too, like the ladies behind the post office counter, probably didn’t think it would matter if I had to wait a few minutes. I have to admit that unless I put all into perspective, I do start to simmer but just simmer because if I were to explode they would think that I was crazy because none of it was done on purpose to spite me.

Manners in SpainSo sometimes I just turn it around to my advantage and make the most of it. What I love about Spain is that when I am feeling rebellious I can go out and behave in a way that feels downright aggressive and rude and not offend anybody. I can get straight to the point when I pick up the phone with “Dime”, or “Dígame “(Tell me!, or Speak to me!). I can demand that people listen with a simple “Oiga!”. It’s all about getting to the point and being heard. There’s no faffing about with long winded, polite “softening” phrases such as “Would you mind….” or “If you don’t mind, I would like..”. Just know what you want and let others know.

Some days I just go wild like a real cavewoman just blurting out imperatives all over the place. The point is when the Spanish come across as a bit gruff, it is not intended in any malice or annoyance. That’s just how they are. You might think that your waiter is in a mood but I bet you he doesn’t forget a single item of your order and if anything is bothering you, wobbly table or whatever, he will do his best to put it right.

The gruffness can also carry through into your body language and behaviour. I haven’t got so far as queue hopping yet but I have been known to recklessly throw the money (but not in anger just as an experiment) at the cash assistant although she doesn’t seem to notice. Must try harder to see if I can get a reaction as it would be nice to know what the limit is!

I was at the checkout the other day packing my bags. I hadn’t even paid yet but the impatient customer behind me saw no wrong in blocking the area to pay with his trolley and had already started preparing carrier bags. A couple of years ago I would have been incredulous at such behaviour and would have expressed this. However, I have new tactics which include moving very slowly, packing very methodically frozens with frozens, eggs at the top, checking to see if I have everything a dozen times, double bagging and practising my best handwriting when it comes to signing the credit card receipt! By the end of it, I feel positively serene and unflustered whilst the guy behind me has steam coming out of his ears.

Some might argue that the whole American “Have a nice day ethos” is worse than the Spanish gruffness because it is often not genuine. At least you know that if you do receive a smile in a Spanish shop, it is heart felt. Surely it is better if someone greets you that they are doing it because they want to and not because they have been ordered to. The same applies to the whole please and thank you business that we value so highly. In particular, are our thank yous mainly just a force of habit. How often do we actually experience the sensation of real gratitude at the checkout in Tesco? So, why do we dish out so many meaningless and tiresome thank yous?  I can get through a whole day in Spain without a single please or thank you without raising a single eyebrow.

One’s experiences at the supermarket are actually quite a common reference point for manners. In Spain, don’t expect the smiles or chit chat that you are used to at your local Tesco. You have to remember that there is a language barrier in place and that the supermarkets in the UK do tend to employ older staff who are after the social side of work whereas in Spain, the young people working in Mercadona are there because they need the money. Hanging out with a child is a safe bet if you are looking for a bit of customer interaction with staff. Any child under the age of seven will guarantee a smile and a cheering up of whoever is behind the till. Don’t worry if the child messes around, climbs behind the counter or swings from the barriers as this won’t bother the staff. In fact, children are the best ice breaker where the Spanish service industry is concerned. 

The truth is there is nothing superficial about Spanish manners, in fact some would say that showing respect is more important than manners for the sake of being polite and adhering to convention.. A major part of it is saying hello and good bye. Although, we are on please and thank you auto pilot in the UK, we do tend to go out of our way not to greet people in the street, especially people that we don’t know. In Spain, when you walk into a local shop, bank, office it is customary to say hello to everyone else in the room and goodbye when you leave. In fact, it feels awkward when you don’t. It’s as if all interactions should have an opening and closure.

Its nice to be acknowledged with a smile and the tone of what is being said usually communicates a lot more than abiding by conventions of what should be said and when exactly it should be said. So when you do receive a smile or friendly tone in Spain, you can be comforted to know that it is genuine and hasn’t been forced. And when you don't, well that person is either having a bad day or needs a change of job. On the whole, people can be quick to be critical and superior about other people’s lack of manners. But what they fail to realise is that an important part of having real manners is actually about learning to accept other people’s cultural norms of behaviour and not impose our own.

Written by: Susan Pedalino

About the author:

Women In Spain




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Comments:

Peteman said:
23 November 2011 @ 03:24

Why not trying to find a half way between the British strict way of life and the Spanish spontaneous one?...Being polite in a natural way can be a sign of real empathy. Upbringing can share a place with frankness in our daily behaviour.


Blanco- Tudela said:
22 November 2011 @ 20:38

I quite agree with the author and I enjoyed reading it because of the ironic stile which it,s written. It is a fact that, behin those good english manners there is hypocritical behaviour. Whereas, the spanish way is more genuine, you can express what you are feeling. Admittedly, in same places (bar, shops....) in Spain, I,ve been treated in a rudeness way.
All in all, to accept other people`s cultural norms and not impose our own is the main point.




Nuria said:
20 November 2011 @ 14:26

I am somewhat agree with the writer, as sometimes English people apply for meaningless expressions, like `excuse`; `sorry` and so on, in a ridiculous situation (for example, when you walk on the street and someone come on you; she or he say: ' Sorry'.
I think it is not needed.
Otherwise, I admire English people on that way, because this is the result of a good ethos.
Anyway, Spanish are genuine and we act in favour of our feelings. So, as the writer says above wherever you go, try to accept the cultural norms of behaviour



Diego F. Tudela said:
16 November 2011 @ 23:35

I couldn't agree more with the ideas stated in the article. I come from Spain and currently I'm studying English. You can be sure that after five years I'm still not used to dealing with your concept about good maners.
When I first went to London, first of all it was funny I was saying "excuse me" and "sorry" the whole time. Afterwards, I realized that if I forgot it in my speaking, some people looked at me like if I were an animal. Eventually, I managed to have a rough idea that the really important is not what you feel. You only have to say the magic words. . Otherwise, you can be judge in a bad way.
You know, it's one of this things.



jday said:
24 October 2007 @ 17:02

Very well said!


raganp said:
24 October 2007 @ 06:40

try eastern europe if u want the ultimate in no manners


alimacb said:
23 October 2007 @ 19:36

You are 100% correct. I have lived here 18 months and my whole family were out here last week for my daughter's wedding. They couldn't understand the abrubt way they were being dealt with in some places but I explained as you did that you just accept it and sometimes use it to your advantage. They are amazed that I have fitted in with this way of doing this as I was the most impatient person in the UK.
As an aside, the venue my daughter got married in was a traditional Spanish wedding venue and in the eight months it took for me (and my Spanish friend as very little English was spoken there) to do all the arrangements, apart from having to wait weeks sometimes for info,they have been wonderful, it was their first British wedding and they presented me with a bouquet of flowers saying "Muchas gracias por haber sido uno de mis clientas mas agradables" As long as we make the effort we are accepted.
So like you when I went to the post office yesterday to post something that someone had left behind and I waited 25 minutes behind a local lady posting a couple of letters, and then went to the bank to find myself behind the same lady, I just smiled.



Roberto said:
23 October 2007 @ 18:07

Some very good points about accepting our "adopted" country's culture and customs, and in principle I agree. After all, if you can't stand the heat....
However, it has to be said that there are times and situations when no amount of smiling and positive body language can compensate for the fact that there is in general a complete lack of understanding of the term "customer service" in Spain, which often amounts to a total lack of respect for others who have paid for goods or services.
When, for example, after four years of trying to get a faulty communal garage door repaired by a completely unprofessional and uncaring company of cowboys, whilst at the same time trying to fend off angry neighbours who appear to not understand that "this is Spain", even if they are Spanish.....I am usually a very patient and forgiving guy, but in my opinion, if it's the easy life you are attracted to, choose the States every time, and just accept that if you want everything fixed today, you have to put up with the insincere "have a nice day" that comes with it. It's just their culture, you see!



Tish said:
23 October 2007 @ 09:56

Great blogg Susan!
We've just covered this topic in our Spanish class.



smccartney said:
23 October 2007 @ 09:00

I enjoyed reading that, have experienced a lot of it and would agree with most if it.
Although, I've never noticed a lack of smiles or friendly body language in Spain. For me, the smiles replaced the "pleases" and thank-yous" and like you say came across more genuine. When I worked in Spain for a short time a few years back, the first thing I learnt when approaching a local to conduct any sort of business was to say "hola" with a smiley face on first.

Stephen



alimacb said:
23 October 2007 @ 08:09

You are 100% correct. I have lived here 18 months and my whole family were out here last week for my daughter's wedding. They couldn't understand the abrubt way they were being dealt with in some places but I explained as you did that you just accept it and sometimes use it to your advantage. They are amazed that I have fitted in with this way of doing this as I was the most impatient person in the UK.
As an aside, the venue my daughter got married in was a traditional Spanish wedding venue and in the eight months it took for me (and my Spanish friend as very little English was spoken there) to do all the arrangements, apart from having to wait weeks sometimes for info,they have been wonderful, it was their first British wedding and they presented me with a bouquet of flowers saying "Muchas gracias por haber sido uno de mis clientas mas agradables" As long as we make the effort we are accepted.
So like you when I went to the post office yesterday to post something that someone had left behind and I waited 25 minutes behind a local lady posting a couple of letters, and then went to the bank to find myself behind the same lady, I just smiled.


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