Life Lessons Madrid Expat Series

9 Shocking Cultural Differences Between Spanish and United States Culture

I am in a 6-year relationship with a Spanish. Along all of these years, we have faced many cultural differences. We met in 2012, back then he had been living for almost a year in Puerto Rico. At that time he was very used to our expressions and our lifestyle/culture. So there wasn’t a cultural shock back then besides how tall he is and his Spanish accent, of course. I started to notice the cultural differences the first time I visited Spain back in 2013. The culture shock was real. I do have to admit that Spain has changed a lot since I first visit, especially in big cities like Madrid and Barcelona. But in general, Spain continues to be very different from other European countries and very traditional/old fashion in smaller cities.

These are the most shocking cultural differences I have experienced.

1. Nightlife

So in Spain, the minimum legal drinking age is 18. But guess what, you will never get carded. For this reason, you will see very young teenagers drunk at bars, nightclubs or in the streets. Bars are open until 2 or 3 in the morning and nightclubs close around 6. Drinking and partying is very present in the Spanish culture. Since it has always been a very safe country, parents let their kids go out and party until late at night since teenagers.

2. Fashion

See Americans tend to value comfort over fashion and are more practical in the way we dress. Nowadays is very easy for me to identify an American in the crowd. I used to be one of them, no judgment here. Spain, the home country of Inditex, is plagued with fast fashion retail stores and trendy clothes. Inditex is the mother company of Zara, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Oysho, Pull and Bear, Stradivarius and more.

In Madrid, people dress up appropriately to take the trash out or go for a walk. By appropriately I mean, they do not take out the trash wearing pajamas.  Also, girls doll up to go to class. Which means, Yoga pants in college classrooms are not usual in Spain. Expect a lot of staring if you choose to wear them by the way.

3. Humor

Spanish humor is the one thing that I can say that I have not honestly adapted yet. Besides not being able to laugh most of the time, I find it to be offensive. Spanish humor is a bit dark and too mean for my taste. I always tend to open my eyes and mouth in shock instead of laughing. For example, in their traditional Cadiz Carnaval, one group of white Spaniards, painted themselves to look like they have dark skin and made fun of immigrants for hours.

For instance, you can see in the video below how they are signing that no one will kick them out of Spain, and yet ran away when the police show up. And one part of the lyric says that they are everywhere selling their stuff, even at funerals, because blacks look good with everything. On their presentation it’s not all jokes, they do criticize how immigrants are treated in Spain, but only after making fun of them first.

4. Consumerism

Most Americans are used to consumerism, giving and expecting gifts very often. See for example Valentines Day. Girls expect flowers, chocolates while boys receive a present as well. Although in Spain these marketing celebrations are getting more popular every year, is not common to buy something for your significant other and give it to them on that particular day. In our case, of course, we celebrate this “holiday.” But do not expect chocolates at the office or school because of it’s Valentines Day, it just won’t happen.

5. Language

Puerto Rico has English and Spanish as official languages. Even though we speak “Spanglish” most of the time, which is our way of talking using both languages at once, I have to confess that the first time I visited Spain I understood nothing. Just to be clear, Spain’s Spanish is very different from Latin America Spanish, not only in the pronunciation of the words but also what they mean. I was quite surprised with the number of words used to call the male private parts in Spain. In general almost every three words I speak I usually end up saying penis twice. Once, I complimented my colleague new backpack, and I ended up saying something like “nice P3Nis”. SO embarrassing!

6. Old people are rude

I have been pushed out of the way by old ladies multiple times and cut in line by old men quite often. I don’t get why older people in Spain are always in a hurry and treat others so badly.  For me, this was a total shocker. Of course, we have rude old people in Puerto Rico; I bet every country has.  But the usual grandma and grandpa on the island tend to be very social, fun and happy to run with to. But, in Spain, the norm is quite opposite.

Disclaimer: Not all old Spanish people are rude or mean, I do love my boyfriend’s grandparents, I think they are hilarious. But don’t be surprised to find yourself arguing with the oldest Spaniard generation out of nowhere and for no reason whatsoever.

7. Eating Habits

Have you ever read that eating after 7 pm is not ok? Well, I had read that multiple times and imagine my face when my boyfriend wanted to have dinner at 10 pm ( standard dinner time for Spaniards in Spain). Before moving to Madrid, I had dinner between 6 and 7 in the night. Me and my boyfriend work on an agreement I had dinner around 8:30 pm. So funny, most of the time we were the firsts only ones having dinner at restaurants “that early.”


8. Spain region stereotypes

Spain has 17 autonomous communities or regions. Every one of them is unique and different from the others. I have had the opportunity to visit 10 out of the 17 regions during the past 5 years. Some cities do feel like they belong to other countries since they have another language and a completely different architecture, cuisine and vibes. What surprises me most of the time is that all of them are Spanish citizens, have the same nationality and live in the same country. But, at the same time, Spanish people have stereotypes based on where someone is born. People from Andalusia are lazy, those from Pais Vasco are rough or Catalans don’t like to spend money. Not to mention, how divided the country while some of these autonomous communities or regions are fighting for independence.

9. The Air Conditioner Myth

So, most people in Spain believe that sleeping with the air conditioner on during the summer will make you sick. This myth turned into a fight during a friends summer vacation getaway. We were a group of four girls from different countries, only one of us was Spanish. Well, she refused to sleep with the AC on while it’s was over 90 degrees outside because you know, she had to take care of her health. You might think that this girl is crazy. But, my friend is not the only one who thinks this way, also my corporate job manager and colleagues who are very educated and well traveled have the same belief.

For this reason, in Spain flats that come up with Air Conditioners have them installed in the living room, it’s very unusual to see them in the bedrooms.

So, these are the nine most shocking cultural differences that I found between Spain and the United States. Have you experienced any of them? Or perhaps, have some shocking cultural differences experiences to share? Leave them in the comments below 🙂

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