Cultural Differences between Spain and the United States – 4 more things I’ve noticed

July 12, 2017

Living abroad is an eye-opening experience.

A guy like myself — coming from a place in the US that’s not very cosmopolitan, not incredibly exciting, and not super touristy — has a lot to learn from European life.

And in the last decade or so I’ve learned a lot about the cultural differences between Spain and the United States.

I went through four big things I’ve learned from Spanish life in my last article.

There, I talked about how Americans work too hard, how we’re all secretly Puritans, how the Spanish dream is at about the same level as American rock-bottom, and how what you consider “fat” is probably relative to the size of people around you.

So this is the continuation of that article…

You didn’t think I only learned 4 things in a whole decade, did you?

Ready for more cultural differences between Spain and the United States?

Let’s go for it…

Cultural differences between Spain and the United States: We’re terrified of physical contact

My boss – back when I had one – was an older, bearded Spanish guy.

He wore brown suits with tan ties, and I suspect he kept a bottle of whisky in a desk drawer for emergencies.

On weekends, he used to go back to his hometown (population 12) and tend to his sheep. During the economic crisis, he was pretty philosophical about the collapse of Spain as I knew it.

He said, and I quote, “If the shit hits the fan, I’ll just go back home. The sheep aren’t in crisis.”

(I’m not exaggerating about any of this.)

But the thing the new recruits from the US talk about most is his habit of putting his hands all over you.

I’m sure the women at work could have him fired (and potentially sue him for millions) if we were back in the States, but here, a bit of touching is perfectly acceptable.

Maybe more than a bit.

#metoo

In my ex-boss’ defense, he always keeps it “above the belt.” But when I used to come back from spending Christmas in Italy, for example, his default greeting was to rub my belly and say, “You must have eaten well over there… You’re nice and fat!”

Update: that school closed. I assume he’s back in his tiny-ass town with his herd sheep these days. Good for him.

cultural differences between spain and the united states
Just a couple of typical Spanish women doing typical Spanish things…

Of course, I grew up in the middle of the desert, where seeing a dozen people at a time was an event. My personal bubble is about 10 feet across — saying hello where I’m from means standing out of arm’s reach, waving and saying “howdy.”

In Spain, among friends, you’re supposed to kiss people on the cheek when you’re introduced. There’s a whole unwritten code of etiquette around this.

Left cheek, then right.

Girls kiss girls, guys kiss girls, guys don’t kiss guys (unless they’re your typical Lavapiés leftist with the fake dreadlocks, in which case they do kiss guys, and then pat themselves on the back about how liberal they’re being.)

For some reason, when you come back to work after the New Year, it’s necessary to kiss everyone you know, even if you don’t generally do so. And even if it’s April, you should wish a hearty Happy New Year to anyone you haven’t seen since last December.

I always find it amusing when Americans get together over here in Spain, because nobody knows what to do. Should we shake hands? Should we wave from a distance? Should we kiss? Hug?

The horror!

Usually, we circle around each other awkwardly for a moment, waiting for the other person to make a move.

Sometimes there’s some awkward kissing, sometimes not.

Moving on…

Another cultural difference: In the US, we have no food culture

When I first arrived, years ago, I was still on the American schedule of eating dinner at 6 o’clock.

This infuriated my flatmate Javi to no end. He would come home and see me in the kitchen eating some pasta and say, “Daniel, what the hell are you doing? Is this lunch? Is it dinner? It’s 6 PM for the love of God!”

He didn’t know what to do with me, and I discovered, eventually, that it was because the Spanish can be quite strict about their food culture.

Meals are eaten at specific times. Sunday means, without fail, paella with your mother in law –perhaps every Sunday for decades! Christmas Eve, New Year’s and Epiphany all mean, apparently, that we must eat prawns.

It’s serious business.

bocadillo de calamares madrid plaza mayor
A typical Madrid afternoon snack: fried squid sandwiches on Plaza Mayor.

Contrast that to the Standard American Diet where you can have Pop Tarts for dinner and a bowl of ice cream for dessert and nobody will think anything of it.

I guess the reason is that the United States started industrializing everything long before Spain did. We’ve had a lot longer to get used to the idea of pre-packaged pseudo-food.

High fructose corn syrup is in everything… So it must be healthy, right?

Add to that the fact that the percentage of Americans working as farmers has been in decline for generations — a lot of people don’t have any sort of reference for what pre-industrial food was like.

Most people just imagine that food comes from the supermarket — an illusion that agribusiness is quite happy to promote. It seems much more sanitary than the reality.

If you’re happier thinking your T-bone steak just grew under plastic wrap, they’re certainly not going to burst your bubble by showing you a butcher hacking a dead cow to pieces in the back of your local Safeway.

In Madrid on the other hand, almost everybody I know has family or friends back on the farm, growing vegetables or making some sort of homemade cheese, sausage or table wine.

They’ve participated in picking grapes or slaughtering hogs. They know exactly where food comes from, and they know the difference between real food and Pop Tarts.

And then there’s the culture of fear…

We live in constant fear of all the wrong things

Back in the States, news isn’t really information.

It’s infotainment.

It’s designed to jerk your emotions one way, then swing them back in the other, and more than anything, to keep you from changing the channel.

When I was growing up, the evening news usually started with the in-depth report on a local quadruple homicide — any American city worth living in has at least one of those every week…

Followed by an uplifting piece about a high school quarterback who recently lost his leg in a tragic weed-whacking accident, but who swears he’ll be back on the field in time for Homecoming.

After that, it was the transcendentally important footage of firemen rescuing a cat from a tree (and a touching interview with the cat’s owner), followed by an investigative report on how the sponge in your kitchen is even now being colonized by flesh eating bacteria, which will kill your whole family…

But only if you change the channel during the commercial break. So stay tuned!

differences between US and Spanish culture
Plaza de la Villa in the center of Madrid. One of the oldest and most beautiful squares in town.

Of course, this kind of thing keeps you glued to the screen, but it’s not what much of the world considers to be news.

Spanish news is quite boring by comparison. Long clips of the day’s debates in Parliament, real reporting on relevant national issues, and even stories of things that happen in other countries…

Yes, other countries!

Apparently, the Spanish realize that Spain is only one country out of dozens — perhaps hundreds — of others. The education I got back in the US did its best to gloss over that fact, and you didn’t see much international news on television either.

Besides keeping Americans glued to their TV screens, the point of the news seems to be to ensure that people live in constant fear of what might happen.

Renegade bacteria might eat your whole family. Ethnic minorities might decide to make you part of their next quadruple homicide. Terrorists might be planning something big, and it might happen soon.

Of course, according to actual facts, you’re much more likely to be killed by obesity, heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure, suicide or a traffic accident than by some ferocious sponge-borne bacteria or marauding gang of angry teenagers.

And furniture is more dangerous than terrorism. (Sorry, furniture. No offense.)

But really, the news is not about actual facts. It’s about keeping you in front of the TV, scared stiff and ready to watch some advertisements.

And also…

We’re extreme individualists with no concept of the public good

Back in my hometown, nothing infuriates the average person more than public transport.

“My tax dollars,” the thinking goes, “shouldn’t be spent on transport for people too lazy to be able to afford a car.”

All throughout the Real Gun-Toting Evangelist America you hear otherwise reasonable people say similar things about all sorts of government programs. “If my house is on fire, then dag-nabbit I’ll hire somebody to put it out for me… Enough with these lazy firemen and their entitlement attitudes, sitting around the station all day on my dime!”

spanish culture vs american culture
Is this donkey being subsidized by the Spanish government as part of a socialist plot to ruin America? I honestly have no way of knowing…

Not to mention my personal favorite: “Social Security is nothing but a Ponzi scheme. Hard working Americans like me shouldn’t be forced to subsidize a bunch of old folks playing shuffleboard and waiting for death!”

In Europe, on the other hand, people consider infrastructure and pensions to be valuable social goods.

Even national healthcare (which apparently scares the bejeezus out of fat midwesterners, for some reason I cannot fathom) is accepted by basically everyone. For a politician to suggest a reduction of old-age pensions or the public health system would be political suicide.

I think American individualism is a good thing, in moderation.

I’ve spoken to a lot of Europeans who have grown up with some form of socialism and whose entire life philosophy seems to be “if you sit around complaining long enough, eventually the government will take care of it, send you a check and solve all your problems.”

On the other hand, being able to go to the doctor any time without worrying about the cost sure is nice. And getting around by public transport is much better than being stuck at home all the time without a car.

En fin…

Cultural differences between Spain and the United States – What’s better?

So what’s better? Spain or the USA?

It’s hard for me to say.

And of course, everybody is entitled to their own opinion. Everybody has strong feelings about things like this – based, mostly, on the idea that whatever they grew up with must be better.

I’m much happier living in Spain than I ever was in the US.

But it’s funny, because the longer I live in Spain, the more American I feel.

I’ve come to appreciate a lot of things I would probably never have enjoyed if I had stayed back home. I eat hotdogs and drink Budweiser on the 4th of July.

I’ve even started listening to Johnny Cash.

On the other hand, I don’t actually want to go back. I’m happy with the idea of American life I’ve built up over the years, why ruin it by flying over and confronting the reality?

That’s all I’ve got for today.

Humbly yours,

Daniel.

P.S. I hope you’ve enjoyed my article about cultural differences between Spain and the United States. What have you learned from living (or travelling) abroad? Let me know, right here in the comments. Thanks!

P.P.S. If you want even more fun, here’s 32 reasons why I love Spain. And I’ve also got an article about the 4 reasons why I hate Spain. Or hey, whaddya say to an exciting new article about the pros and cons of living in Madrid? Enjoy…

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Daniel, I don’t know if you can even imagine how much I enjoy your writing, enough to say that I am actually crying of happiness right now. Once more I think you hit the nail right on the head about Spain and certainly about the US in general. I think that in a very special way, what you say about the Spanish culture is why in my heart I want to go back even though, as I have said before, after some years I probably would want to come back precisely because of that culture. You mention Health Care and that is one thing I can not understand here. Why is it those in power don’t copy the system established in Spain or any other European nation? why is it they are trying to make it so difficult to make it work li9ke for example, why must the Insurance companies be a part of the health care solution when they aught to be completely left out of the equation?. Another thing you mention, the touchiness, several years ago when I was at the Radiology school in the University of Virginia, I was told by a good friend that the girls had told him to tell me to keep my hands to myself. I did not understand because there wasn’t even the slightest sexual intention on my part and the thing is that even after 60 years, I still have the touchiness syndrome acquired in Spain from my birth, but my touchiness actually includes males. I love to touch, in a loving way, everyone that comes close to me

    1. Thanks Antonio, I love making Spanish people cry 🙂

      Seriously, though… the health care thing is a joke but the doctors and insurance companies have a lot of money to spend on keeping things as they are. And about touching people… well, in the US we just don’t.

      Thanks for commenting as usual, and I’m glad you like my writing.

      1. THE HEALTH CARE THING IS INDEED A JOKE WHICH VERY UNFORTUNATELY MAKES ME WANT TO SHOOT EVERY SINGLE ONE INVOLVED IN IT LEGISLATIVELY, FROM EXTREME LEFT TO EXTREME RIGHT, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM. PRAISE GOD HE PUT SOME EXTREMELY EFFICIENT FIRE WALLS IN ME THAT PREVENT ME FROM DOING WHAT I DREAM OF DOING, WHICH GOES AGAINST HIS WILL. BUT I DO WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW WHAT IS IN MY HEART SO I LOVE TO SAY IT IN PUBLIC. You are, of course, 100% correct (I have a very good friend who is a Doctor and so I know personally) in that doctors and insurance companies have a lot of money to spend on keeping things as they are and I would burn every single one of those companies and every single one of those doctors, including my friend, if only I could, because they will never change in their attitudes, not that they don’t have a perfect right to think and believe and act according to what they believe is the best for them, they do have the right, but I just wish I had the right to carry out my dreams. Fear not, my love of God and His Will is so firmly set and strong I would never do such a thing even if I could, but that does not stop me from dreaming because that is only temptation and everyone is tempted, even Jesus Christ was tempted. About the touching, it is almost unbelievable, but that is changing a little for some, I, for example do hug a lot of people openly and publically in Walmart and other places, men and women, and they hug me back. Here is an electronic hug for you, as they say in Spain…..Un fuerte abrazo Daniel

      2. Hola Daniel.
        En realidad disfrute mucho este articulo, y aunque algunos pudieran pensar que al ser norteamericano (muy imparcial diria y esa es la clave)como te das cuenta de todos estos conceptos de diferencia en nuestras culturas.
        Por otro lado como tu lo mencionas y es en mi sentir, que la interaccion humana con todo lo que ello significa;vernos, hablarnos, tocarnos, besarnos (o no😄)intercambiar ideas (y bacterias) es lo que en nuestras culturas hace una gran diferencia a la hora de mantenernos saludables sin tanta medicación como ellos quieren hacer pensar a su gente, pagando sumas millonarias en la industria de la salud.Hoy es mas la gente que se da cuenta que un buen guiso hecho en casa, un beso y un abrazo mantienen mas saludable a la gente (pues no solo nutres el cuerpo sino tambien el alma)que toda una gama de medicamentos, suplementos y tratamientos.
        Gracias por tu articulo y me sirvió para seguir practicando nuevo vocabulario
        Soy uno mas de tus suscriptores en tus clases de ingles de YouTube.
        Desde México te envío un saludo y un fuerte abrazo.
        Sinceramente
        Roberto.

  2. Great article! After living here for 1 1/2 years I can identify with a lot of this article..especially news… I’ve had Spanish people assume I know their past presidents (blank stare and head nod). Also the longer I’ve lived here the more American I feel but still love my life over here more. Thanks for sharing!!

    1. Hi Alison, I envy you as I envy Daniel and wish there were something different in me that would allow me to actualize my dream of going back to live in spain, because that something is what is keeping me here. I do love my home in Covington VA, I do love the topography of the region which is mountainous (the Alleghenies)and I love the people. But there is something about Spain that keeps me thinking about it every day. I don’t know if you have read my comment to Daniel when I told him I lived there from 1986 to 1993, but what I told him was that after seven years I could no longer stay living there because I missed America too much and could not take the living style in Spain any more, but what I did not say is that I was living in a small town surrounded by family and that I was sort of forced to live according to their ways and the truth is I no longer was a real Spaniard, I was much more American than Spanish. But maybe if I live in Madrid, which I do love, it would be different….who knows?, maybe…………….

  3. Hola, Daniel: SO SO true! I am a madrileña transplanted to NY 23 years ago, and I totally see the cultural differences between Spanish and American culture you outline. I still have problems trying to figure out how to greet people here: one kiss, two kisses, a hand-shake, or just a hi! (With our without eye contact?) At some point I’ll go back to Madrid, though I’m sure I’ll then miss what I enjoy here. Anyway, love your Chorizo Chronicles (great name, by the way) and the Lonely Planet travel guides.

    1. Thanks a lot Elena! I just called my blog the Chorizo Chronicles “temporarily” – I was expecting to have a better idea soon. And that was like 4 years ago 🙂

    2. Hola Elena, when I was transplanted to America 60 years ago, I too was transplanted to NY where I lived for 7 years then moved to Philadelphia where I lived for 6 years then moved to Charlottesville in Virginia where I lived for another 7 years from there to Harrisonburg, VA where I lived for 10 years and from there to Staunton, VA where I lived for 9 years and finally came to Covington where I still live. The importance of mentioning where I moved to is that each time I moved to a smaller place ending up in Covington that is a very small rural town with only 12 thousand inhabitants. I now am a truly country loving person but with the desire to live for short periods of time in a big city. I am now having the very strong desire to move back to Spain and specifically to Madrid. I am putting into action that desire and will be asking people to help me carry it out so if anybody can tell me how much it would cost to live there (monthly) I would appreciate it very much. Daniel, I hope you don’t mind my saying this in your blog but you are a very popular person read by thousands and if you allow it I may actually be helped. Elena, yes you will miss what you enjoy here and you may find it necessary to come back even if for short periods of time, but that is fine. I know from my own experience that my visits to Spain do help me to be able to come back home and when I was living in Spain, coming back restored my well being for a time. I too love the name Chorizo Chronicles because I do love Chorizo tremendously and Daniel’s writing equally.

  4. Buongiorno Daniel, I enjoyed the article.I am from Italy and we were stationed in Rota Spain for three years. The lifestyle is pretty similar to what I grew up with back home. I have lived in different parts of the US and always took some part of my culture with me and used it with the right people after due lessons. I now live in Georgia and sure I miss home, but let’s keep on moving. Awesome article!

  5. Estimado Daniel la segunda foto empezando de arriba para abajo o sea la que está debajo de las ¨niñas¨ jajajajajajaja es un monumental despropósito como oferta alimentaria….Es increíble que en pleno siglol XXI todavía ofrezcamos a los estómagos humanos ese producto conformado con harina blanca totalmente desvitalizada y lo llamemos pan.
    Lamento mucho que ofrezcas este engendro como ejemplo de plato a tener en cuenta ya que está lejos de ofrecer salud.
    Ya se que lo mío es predicar como en el desierto del Sahara o en el de Arizona ………….da lo mismo, pero es necesario mostrar que las conciencias dormidas están degenerando a esta raza.
    Abrazo

  6. Hi, Daniel. I really enjoyed your article; I too am confronted with the dilemma of Europe or the U.S. Would you recommend NYC for someone who loves both continents and the cosmpolitan features of such a big city?

    1. Hey Bardamu, I’m not really sure… I haven’t spent time in New York, all I know is that it’s really expensive. But a lot of people seem to love it, and yes, it’s more “European” than most things over there in the US. Thanks for commenting!

  7. I loved this piece – actually, I find your blog and writing style delightful! I lived in Spain for years as a child (longer ago than I care to remember – or divulge) and have always had a food in several cultures (I’m French and I’m Canadian, so that’s already a complicated mix). When I’m not in Spain, I feel very Spanish, and when I’m in Spain, I feel sooo North American! I live in France now and return to Spain often, where I feel utterly at home even though this is not the Spain I knew as I child. (Hint: France was alive).

    I did almost choke on my Coke when I read about the Sunday paella… how true! And coming from countries where socialized medicine is the norm rather than the exception, I’m afraid I still shake my head in confusion when I read Americans don’t actually WANT free or cheap medical care. I’d understand if only the rich felt that way, but the poor do too…

    After leaving Spain as a young adult and moving back to Canada, I’m sure I surprised most of my college friends when I entered a room and proceeded to kiss every single person in it – don’t worry, I got wise after a couple of days, but people gave me a wide berth for quite some time!

    Thanks for the great piece 🙂 So many great memories!

    1. Hey Leyla, thanks a lot! I’m glad you liked the article. There are plenty of things about US culture I’m sure would shock me if I went back… But so far I’m not planning on it. Have a good one!

  8. Great article, Daniel. I stumbled across your blog looking for advice on Cuenca and got hooked. We have been in Madrid for 2 years and are sadly returning to the US soon for my husband’s job, but I have loved our lives here. You can really see the individualistic mindset of America with its Covid-19 response and the protests over mask-wearing. Personally I feel Spain has done a great job managing the pandemic, but most locals I talk to think it’s a disaster.

    1. I’m not sure if it’s been a disaster or not, but I will say that about 1/3 of Barcelona businesses seem to be closed still… so, maybe disaster. We’ll see in a few months.

      Anyway, I’m glad you like my blog. Thanks!

  9. I know this is an old post but figured I'd share my Euro-ex-pat alcohol story. I went back to the U.S. some years ago and went to lunch with some potential co-workers as I was considering moving back. I'd lived in Europe 7 years at that point and ordered a glass of wine with my Macaroni Grille lunch. Uneasy looks from at least one person at the table who quietly asked "do you have a drinking problem?" I looked down at my shirt and lap and said "why? Did I spill some?" True story. An ex-co-worker from over here said "no, no, he's been living in Europe a long time where having wine with lunch is normal." Oddly, this was the same company where one manager I knew was arrested for having sex with a teenager in the church youth group he chaperoned, a VP was arrested for arranging to meet someone underaged for lascivious activities and the guy I was replacing was fired for viewing "questionable" content on his work computer. Yet my having a glass of wine with lunch was a scandal. 😛

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