What Makes Spaniards Spaniards?

Published on 6/9/2009 in Spanish Culture

As the son of Spanish immigrants, born and raised in the UK but having spent most of my working life doing business in Spain and the last seven years living here, I have given a lot of thought to try and understand what gives the Spanish the character they have - loud, opinionated, proud, autocratic, confrontational and individualistic.  Yes they can be kind, helpful and hopelessly optimistic but, in my experience, that is the exception not the norm.

Ok, so this is a rather negative view of them and is perhaps less true the further north you go, but it happens to be one shared by many outside observers who know them well - both professionally and socially.  I think the way they "ran" their Empire, in South America and Europe and the way the Civil War was conducted by both sides, provide ample evidence of some of these characteristics. 

More recently, the disputes and posturings of the larger autonomous regions are continuing examples of these characteristics - at least at a political level.  Also, just watch and listen to a group of Spaniards talking - it invariably descends very quickly into a shouting match - with no one listening and everybody expressing an opinion.  In fact, even after all this time, I keep expect to see a murder committed in front of my eyes but thankfully they all usually end up best friends - at least on social occasions!

SpaniardsSo what influences have contributed to the characteristics identified above?  My own view is that the main factors which provide the foundation for the character and culture of a race are:

  • Climate and natural resources
  • Geographical location
  • Topography

These in turn affect economic, social and political development.  In all three cases, Spain suffers from extremes - hot and cold with very few natural resources - other than sunshine; it is at the Western extreme of Europe; and, it is the second most mountainous country in Europe.

The size and topography of the country means until recently, and I mean the last 30 years or less, much of the country was remote and relatively inaccessible.  This, combined with poverty, meant that ordinary people did not usually travel.  Hence, although finally united under Isabella and Ferdinand, in the 15th century, Spain remained a country of insular and isolated regions.  At the same time, until the late 20th century, Spain was a largely agrarian society and wealth, mainly in the form of landownership, was concentrated in the hands of the state, the Church and a small minority of powerful families.

I believe that the method of managing this "wealth" also had a significant impact on the evolution of the Spanish character and culture.  For example, in the north a system of tenure/leases over small plots predominated which gave the workers - dare I say peasants, some sense of involvement and ownership, as well as economic benefit.  In the south, absent landlords owned vast estates which were worked on their behalf, and for their benefit, by the workers - leading to poverty as well as tension between the haves and the have nots.  These systems prevailed until relatively recently - Spain only became industrialised in the 1960s and was, in fact, one of the top 10 largest economies in the world in the early-mid 70s (before the oil crisis) - even then this was largely limited to Catalyuna and the Basque country.

Therefore, what we have is a large, geographically diverse country, with poor communications, few natural resources, where the land ownership (and hence wealth) was concentrated and which industrialised very late compared to most other western European countries.  Sounds like a recipe for disaster and I think goes a long way to explaining the characteristics I described above.

So, once united under Isabella and Ferdinand, how did the ruling classes stave off revolution a la francais or Cromwell?  Well I suppose the sheer size of the country and poor communications made it difficult for the peasants to revolt.  At the same time, the lack of natural resources forced Spain to look beyond its borders for wealth, mainly by conquering countries richer than themselves.  Spain's Age of Expansion as it was known, occurred between 1506 and 1700 and maybe this colonialism reinforced some of their more aggressive and autocratic characteristics?  One thing it definitely helped to do was to create a complex, and quite autonomous, set of regional bureaucracies, which meant that taxes, infrastructure improvement, etc. were defined independently by each region, leading to many internal customs barriers and tolls, and conflicting policies - sounds familiar?

Unfortunately, most of the wealth "acquired" from the New World was squandered in wars and Spain's economic position became weaker and weaker.  As a result, starting in the second half of the 17th century, it experienced a gradual political and cultural decline.  From here on in it was largely down hill with a series of civil wars, the Carlist Wars, racking the country in the 19th century.  As Spain's political and economic influence abroad waned, the country became poorer while wealth and land ownership remained concentrated in a very small minority.

Downtrodden, poor, with no political power and with the rest of the world around them going through industrial revolution and economic growth, Spaniards turned to republicanism and anarchism in the first half of the 20th century.  And then came Franco.  I'm not going to delve into that particular can of worms.  All I will say about him is that he delayed Spain's socio-economic-political evolution - not always deliberately - but he did not create the Spanish character as we perceive it today.  The seeds for that were sown centuries before and he was just the result of a long and slow process towards, strange as it may seem, democracy.

In 1976 Spain became a tentative democracy and a constitutional monarchy and in 1986 joined the then EEC becoming the single biggest recipient of EU funds, whilst having only gone through a short, sharp learning curve in political and economic terms.  This has had its pros, for example, reinforcement of democracy, a huge improvement in the national transport infrastructure network, etc. but also its cons, for example, a false sense of economic security (made worse, in my opinion, by joining the euro), which in turn has led to an unwillingness to take difficult decisions to improve the long term competitiveness and flexibility of the economy - a situation which exists to this day.

I think these are the most important factors which have shaped Spanish character and culture to date.  I have, perhaps, omitted one important factor which most people I have spoken to believe contributes to the Andalucian character - the Moors.  There is no doubt that 700 years of occupation will have had a huge impact on culture and also the genetic pool and this does go someway to explaining "typical" Andalucian behaviour, e.g. warlike/aggressive, but I'm personally not so convinced that this is a lasting legacy of the Moors.  The occupation ended over five hundred years ago, and as we have seen, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.  My own sense is that it is geography, climate and economic underdevelopment which continue to be the main drivers for the Andalucian character.

In talking with Professor Andrew Kakabadse, Professor of International Development at Cranfield University School of Management, about what influences the development of culture, national characteristics and leadership skills (he is writing a book on the reality of cultural differences using several countries as examples) one of his principle conclusions is that the re-distribution of wealth, combined with sustained investment in social and economic "assets", e.g. education, healthcare, infrastructure, etc., are major factors for any country.

He cited Germany as a good example where, over a relatively short period of time, approximately two generations, such policies have successfully created a unified country whose citizens, on the whole, feel they are part of one large family.  As he puts it - it has moved from a shareholder to stakeholder model.  On the other side of the coin, Ireland appeared to be moving in this direction with its new found wealth after joining the EU but this is now coming under pressure as the economy crumbles with "legacy" socio-economic characteristics coming to the surface because the re-distribution of wealth has not been sufficiently wide spread and investment has been poorly targeted.

Using all the information above, and your own knowledge and experience of Spain, I'll leave you to come to your own conclusions about why Spaniards are the way they are and what the future holds for Spain!

Written by: Robert Tenison

About the author:

An anglo-spaniard (born in UK of Spanish parents).  Ex banker, business consultanat and internet entrepreneur with 25 years experience of doing business in Spain and permanent resident for the last 7 years.  Publishing first novel, Deadly Secrets www.deadlysecrets.es (corruption, bribery and murder in Southern Spain) later this month.

Right arrow icon Send to friends   Right arrow icon Printer friendly version    Right arrow icon Submit your own article


Ghufron said:
Saturday, August 10, 2013 @ 10:36 AM

I only know of two people who are Spaniard in NYC. There are a lot of Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Ecuadorians and some Cubans. Very few Spaniards. Was this asnwer helpful?

History Teacher said:
Friday, October 5, 2012 @ 10:21 AM

I think that before making so broad accusations and comments you should learn Spain's History properly. You are ignoring so many things is amazing. For example, and just to name a few of your many mistakes and obviations, the Comuneros and Germanies revolts, the Comuneros, the Empire Administrative Counsels, made by University Scholars. Not even talking about how you embrace the Black Legend. I give you an F.

History Teacher said:
Friday, October 5, 2012 @ 10:15 AM

I think that before making so broad accusations and comments you should learn Spain's History properly. You are ignoring so many things is amazing. For example, and just to name a few of your many mistakes and obviations, the Comuneros and Germanies revolts, the Comuneros, the Empire Administrative Counsels, made by University Scholars. Not even talking about how you embrace the Black Legend. I give you an F.

Fer Dopar said:
Sunday, August 26, 2012 @ 2:18 PM

Sorry for my english. i read your post, i like it because you describe well and with swiss clock presicion the erratic history of Spain, BUT foreign person (not spanish person like me, people that not stay in Spain and don't know spaniards) won't be able to relate history that you describe and spaniards personality. I think that a couple phrase of that connection are needed for everybody understanding. Thank you.

Fer Dopar said:
Sunday, August 26, 2012 @ 2:17 PM

Sorry for my english. i read your post, i like it because you describe well and with swiss clock presicion the erratic history of Spain, BUT foreign person (not spanish person like me, people that not stay in Spain and don't know spaniards) won't be able to relate history that you describe and spaniards personality. I think that a couple phrase of that connection are needed for everybody understanding. Thank you.

Pruq said:
Friday, July 30, 2010 @ 8:30 PM

Hi Rod, I've read your article and I don't agree witn many of the coments you make, mainly from the historic point of view.
First of all I know you are making a BIG generalization about people (not race) and I agree on the influence of geography and climate, but let me say that, as I hope you know, not everybody is the typical way, indeed many people has it's own way of dealing with life. I have to concede that many of the cultural traits you talk about are roughly true but I have to desagree on the foundation of your information.
Let me pinpoint some:
- Spain is historically well known for it's natural resources, mainly ores, mined from prehistoric times till now.
- Industrialization. There war a first wave industrialization from english origin at the end of the XIXth century in the Basque country, but also in Andalusia, from Almeria to Huelva.
- Revolution. We had many revolutions in the past (XVI to XIX), and many of them were people revolutions.
- About the andalusian topic and the moor legacy, I don't see how the andalusians are warlike, at least not more than any people around the world.

I hope my opinion was useful.

robert said:
Wednesday, March 31, 2010 @ 1:40 AM

the spanish economy has done well due to EU money
Tourism and the property market
Also people in the main moving to Spain brought their money with them
One spanish characteristic is looking out for yourself even if that hurts someone else/ an ability to always put things off /
The underlying economy is not strong enough when tourism or the property market are not bouyant

rtenison said:
Monday, July 13, 2009 @ 2:03 PM

Thank you for your encouraging comments on this article. Today I am going to post a probably more controversial one on the impact of Sr. Zapatero’s solicialist policies which I hope Eye on Spain publish!

In response to Myra's second question about Spaniards inability to admit mistakes - I don't think it comes from Franco but much further back. If you think they were pretty arrogant when conquering South America then the traits of arrogance and not accepting blame were already in place. Nevertheless, I suspect the manner and nature of their conquest exacerbated these traits, which when combined with influence of the Church, lack of real socio-economic development compared to the rest of Europe in subsequent centuries and the very hierarchical society they had until recently continued to reinforce this (very annoying) characteristic. A recent example for me is a specialist doctor who, when I tried to discuss my condition with him based on research I had done on the internet, threw an absolute wobbly because I was a mere mortal questioning his professional judgement. At the end of the day “professionals” in Spain feel lay people should just accept what they say as correct, i.e. it is arrogance and a lack of respect. Same applies in most cases to customer service function of Telefonica, Endesa etc. I guess having had monopolies and poor consumer protection until recently doesn’t help. In my experience, foreign owned business provide much higher levels of customer service although I’d make an exception with Vodafone! Lets hope this crisis will make them realise they need to make fundamental changes to their attitude to customers!

As to envy – again I think its because Spain has been so slow in its socio-economic development versus other major European countries.

michel2 said:
Monday, July 13, 2009 @ 11:35 AM

Firstly I would like to thank Robert for a truly interesting read.

I agree with much of what he says. Medieval land ownership contributed to the clash of extremes (communism and fascism) that prolonged isolation and backwardness until the 70s. This, together with the demise of enterprise and initiative that was the surprising legacy of easy wealth from the Americas, caused Spain to fall into a deep slumber for over 2 centuries.

Now Spain is prosperous and has grown rapidly, yet I agree entirely that it is heading for economic problems. Basically, Spain has been building (quite literally) on quantative growth (mostly infrastructural development and construction), but soon it will reach a point where it will need qualitative growth. The latter demands serious investments in education, technology, service levels and the exporting of expertise.

Spain lags behind many other countries in this and seems wholly unwilling to make the changes required. So why are Spaniards largely production/quantity, not innovation/quality focused? Why don't they learn from previous mistakes but keep making them again? In my view because they are too easily pleased with themselves, a lack of self-criticism born out of inherent arrogance.

But where does this come from? Myra Cecilia seems to put the blame on Franco. Too easy. While the influence of the Moors on Spain is greatly exaggerated (people cite 7 centuries when it was much shorter in most of the country), and I feel the influence of Romans, Phoenicians, Jews and Celts is overlooked, I do think the haughty and somewhat sullen attitude of the Andalusians especially can be traced back to Moorish times.

The environment also plays a role: where life is easy people are easy on themselves. Whatever traits the Spanish have inherited from their ancestry and environment, though, it makes for a heady mix of both negative and positive factors - much like the rest of us.

For those interested in the ethnic potpourri that is Andalucía, have a look at http://michel-cruz.rimontgo.com/social-issues/the-ethnic-diversity-of-andalucia/

myra cecilia said:
Saturday, July 4, 2009 @ 5:12 PM

Thanks Robert a very interesting article. I would opt to disagree about the Spaniard having inherited aggression from the moors. Firstly the moors where only aggressive during their wars with Spain and of course what is war if not aggression. Spaniards, especially Andalucía’s Spaniards have always shouted waved their arms and postured like cockerels. But they rarely end up coming to blows. The moors during their rule were tolerant especially about religion. You could maybe answer my curiosity about two traits that the Spaniard has. Firstly and they are first to admit it, envy and the second, never accepting to having made a mistake. My friends will lie till the end rather than admit to errors. This includes all service providers as well. Does this stem from the years under a dictator where you had to lie not to admit liability? I love living here and am involved with the community therefore feel that I have the right to comment. I also proudly have Spanish blood in my veins from my great grandmother. It shows by your writings that you have been brought up under a different culture. Isn’t it strange that it is not our blood that defines who we are but a mixture of that and influences from parents and adoptive countries. I bet your friend call you El Ingles. Keep up the good work

Roberto said:
Tuesday, June 9, 2009 @ 7:53 PM

Thanks for an excellent, insightful article. Confirmed many of my own thoughts on the topic.
Good luck with the novel.

Only registered users can comment on this article. Please Sign In or Register now.

Comment Using Facebook:

Related articles in this category

A Culture of Benidorm

A Guide to Almeria City

A Guide To The Festivals Of Murcia

A History Of The Spanish Civil War

All About Albarino Wine

All About Tapas

All About Tempting Tempranillo

All You Need To Know About Spanish Wine

An American's Perspective of Spanish Food

Avoiding Misunderstandings In Spanish When You Like Somebody

Books Set in Spain - Five Novels to Read Before You Travel

Celebrating New Year's Eve in Spain

Christmas in Spain

Christmas Shopping in Spain

Devotion - Spain Celebrates Easter

Do you speak Spanish? What do we mean when we ask if someone speaks Spanish?

Easter in Spain

El Grumpy Gringo - Arts & Crafts

El Grumpy Gringo - At the Butchers

El Grumpy Gringo - Get A Heater!

El Grumpy Gringo - Good Old Telefonica!

El Grumpy Gringo - It ain’t ‘arf hot chum!

El Grumpy Gringo - Labels Over Labels

El Grumpy Gringo - Manners Maketh The Man (or Woman)

El Grumpy Gringo - Signposts

Experience Barcelona's Festival Spirit

Exploring The World Of Spanish Wines

Expose Your Child To Spanish

Five Ways Not to Insult the Locals in Barcelona

Flamenco Music - Is it really from Spain?

Follow The Festive Fun Across Spain

From Colonisation To Loss Of Empire; Nationalism And Decline In 19th Century Spanish And Colonial Art

From the Morris Dance to the Flamenco

Gaudi - Barcelona's Most Famous Attraction

Getting Close To The Spanish

Guggenheim Museum Bilboa

Halloween In Spain

Housing Bubble - Underground Living in Lanzarote

How not to give up learning Spanish

How To Kiss A Spaniard

How to Make Spanish Chorizo Sausage

Jamon Serrano - Typical Spanish Ham

La Tomatina Tomato Fight, Buñol Valencia

Language Swap

Learning Spanish - You can do it!

Learning Spanish with Speekee - A Review

Menu of The Day - A Cheap Meal In Spain

Old Friends in New Spain

Pollo al Ajillo - How to Cook the Classic Spanish Garlic Chicken

Processions, Processions, Processions: Semana Santa

Salvador Dali: Son of Girona

Save the Duero

Sherry or Jerez?

Spain After Franco

Spain/UK – A Study of Cultures

Spanish Cava Wine - A Better Alternative to Champagne?

Spanish Culture Has Been Shaped by Numerous Civilizations

Spanish Lies – Book Review

Spanish Sparkling Wine - Four Things to Know About Cava

Sporting Traditions on Gran Canaria

Stub it out in Spain

The Benefits of NOT Learning Spanish

The Magic of the Flamenco Guitar

The Mediterranean Modernistes of Barcelona

The Most Famous Spanish Explorers

The National Art Museum Of Catalonia

The Sirens of La Gomera

The Three Kings - Los Reyes Magos

This Must be New Spain

Top Tips For Learning Spanish - By A 'Mature' Expat

Tortilla Española - Spanish Omelette

Travel, Culture and Study in Spain

Watching TV in Spain

What Makes Spaniards Spaniards?

What We Can Learn From The Spanish

When Cultural Characters Conflict

Why is Spain One of the Most Corrupt Democratic Countries in the world?

Why Spaniards Can Survive La Crisis

Zapping in Spain

Click here for a list of all the articles from our magazine 

Spain insurance services

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse you are agreeing to our use of cookies. More information here. x