Spanish Cultural Commentary

10 February 2021

Culture in Spain

Spain Expat's cultural notes. The culture of Spain and cultural differences discussed by expatriates living in Spain.

Americans are obsessed and stressed about work -- individual achievement there is the measure of self-worth."
And now it’s the time for wild generalizations, which are always a lot of fun, and sometimes even contain an element of truth.

Differences with the USA (by Tom Strong):

At the risk of patronizing, to me Spain harkens back to a more wholesome time, like, say, the Eisenhower era in the USA. I think during the isolation of the Franco years, Spain got stuck in time. After Franco, the country worked overtime playing cultural catch-up (witness the El Destape movie phenomenon of the late 70’s). The generation gap between Franco-era parents and post-Franco children is enormous, and yet these Franco-era parents still dominate the picture, with their lead role in the extended family. Almost certainly the Franco-era mother was and is principally a housewife, while the husband was the breadwinner (just like in ‘Leave It To Beaver’!) That means the mother still knows how to clean and cook. A typical Spanish house is undoubtedly cleaner than an American house (and the Spanish are quick to tell you they invented the fregona). Were you surprised when you first saw someone mopping the sidewalk in front of their house or business? As for cooking, American grandmothers knew the art, their daughters lost it, and their yuppy grandchildren tried to recover it, but neglected the basics. (How many Americans can look at a slab of meat in the supermarket and tell its quality? How many can use a pressure cooker?) It also means the father does not know how to clean and cook. I was helping out in my Spanish mother-in-law’s kitchen last Christmas. Various visitors dropped by and saw a male in the kitchen. From all the ‘times have changed’ comments I got, it was clear that times hadn’t changed that much. The family is more important here than the individual. In the USA, a newborn baby gets a social security number. In Spain, the newborn gets added to the Libro de Familia. Countless TV programs feature children singing flamenco or in game shows (with numerous pans to the proud parents). Either because of the importance of the family, or because of higher unemployment, or because the mother’s main job is “mother” and would hate to lose her job, it’s not at all uncommon for the children to stay at home until (and beyond) age 30. More importantly, it’s not at all frowned upon. In the USA, of course, you’d be tagged with the word “loser”. Children in Spain are not thinking “I can’t take my parents another minute. I gotta get outta here”. Parent/child friction isn’t there, or it’s there but it’s accepted. Husband/wife friction is accepted too. In Spain, a judge in a divorce case can order the couple back to living together if the judge finds insufficient grounds for the divorce (and no mutual accord): lack of love, or “he’s a jerk” do not qualify. Groups are treated like extended families. The Sevilla feria is based on these groups—everyone belongs to a few. Do you see anyone eating alone at a restaurant (besides the tourist)? Americans need their space; the Spanish enjoy a crowd. A big event is El Gordo Christmas lottery drawing—a single person never wins: everyone buys fractions of tickets from everyone else. Why does Spain have such a paltry number of deranged murderers? There are no loners like in the USA; once you’ve lost touch with your family and everyone else, it’s much easier to lose touch with reality. Because there are (fortunately) so few deranged murderers and (unfortunately) so few immigrants with different cultural backgrounds, everyone becomes a “tio” of everyone else. That is, everyone tends to look out for each other. That’s great when someone at the bar notices that your baby has his hand in the door jamb, but not so great when someone stops you in the street in midsummer to tell you that your baby can catch a cold with those bare feet (short pants in winter, though, are okay here). Since the family gathers at mealtime, food is of great importance here. Look at the common expressions, like “está como un queso”, “es un chorizo”, “más buena que pan”. The Spanish are very proud of their gastronomic tradition, so for God’s sake, don’t tell anyone you prefer Thai. I’ve heard Spanish return from their New York holiday amazed that Americans will sit (alone) on a park bench to eat their lunch: how disrespectful! Americans have long lost any notion of tradition, and this is most apparent with food. The chemical food revolution arrived in the 50’s with a vengeance, then the pendulum swung far the other way with organic and fat-free food, leaving most Americans confused (yes, there is a difference between grease and olive oil) and still in worse health than the Spanish. Americans are obsessed and stressed about work—individual achievement there is the measure of self-worth. During their free time, they take self-improvement courses: try to learn a language, psychoanalyze themselves, learn how to cook. The Spanish take it easy. When the mother of the house has finally finished cleaning, she goes with her friends to take a walk to the other end of town and back; it’s not for exercise, it’s for no real reason!
The donkey symbol stands for solidarity, hard work, and reliability... but wait till you see the bumper stickers with the donkey doing the Spanish bull..."

Differences with the USA (by Ted Stresen-Reuter)

I (an American) realized that somehow I had grown up with the idea that I have to like my job or the work that I do or the people that I work with, that liking your job is a VERY important thing and should guide virtually every other aspect of your life (where you go to college, what city you live in after college, who you should date...). As proof, I would say that in most American first encounters, the question of what you do for a living comes up within the first three questions. In conversations with some of my Spanish friends, it becomes apparent that for the Spanish, a job is simply something to put up with until it's over for the day because unless you're rich, everyone has to work, so find something you can stand doing and do as little of it as possible and then go home (or more appropriately, go home, take a shower, and go out with your friends). Perhaps "laziness" is actually a virtue!

The Catalunya Factor

If you've heard about Barcelona, which inevitably you have if you're considering living in Spain, then be aware that Barcelona is not Spain. This is Catalunya, an autonomous region of Spain (this also applies to Valencia, the Basque Country, and Galicia). Consequently, the Catalans distance themselves at every opportunity. Signs are in CATALAN, then Spanish, then English. The traditions, the food and the culture all have a different flair than the rest of Spain. Having survived Franco's rule for decades when the Catalan language was forbidden, and now with the massive influx of foreigners to the Barcelona region, the people take themselves and their heritage very seriously. Expect occasional separatist protests and graffiti. Don't expect everyone to talk to you in Spanish (although almost ALL can and will in the city). They do, however, love to hear a few words of Catalan from the foreigners (try Si'us plau - please, or Merci - thanks, or Adeu - bye). It's a very bi-polar situation. Of course expats greatly favour learning Spanish for it's practical use; just dabble your speech with a few Catalan expressions and you'll be fine. It's just respect and courtesy I guess! Some of the more humourous aspects to this situation:
  • Signs that say the same things twice because the word is exactly the same in Catalan and Spanish. Eg. Entrada (Catalan) Entrada (Spanish) Entrance (English)
  • Signs that say "Volem Descans!" which means "we want sleep!", hanging from apartment balconies. The funny part is that it's often the drunken tourists that make all the noise and most of them can't read Catalan (it took me 6 months to figure out what those signs meant anyway).
  • Nothing to do with the language, but the new symbol of Catalunya is an ass. Yes sir, a donkey. This seems to have had something to do with the Spanish government taking another liberty away from the Catalans related to their license plates. The donkey symbol stands for solidarity, hard work, and reliability... but wait till you see the bumper stickers with the donkey doing the Spanish bull... price of the sticker? 1€. This sillouhetted image burnt into the minds of the Spanish? Priceless...
Despite their resistance, the Catalans have integrated some of the best of the Spanish culture. There's still a siesta here (good or bad? I'm not sure, depends when you need to do your shopping), the people have great family values, some truly world-class cooking (paellas are Catalan!), they work to live and not the other way around, and they know how to have a fiesta!
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