How to integrate into Spanish culture (or not) – a sort-of guide

May 5, 2022

A couple of days ago, I went to the police station.

Actually, it was a special occasion: I was picking up my new residence permit.

Yes, I’m officially “legal” again – a loyal, taxpaying non-citizen resident of the Kingdom of Spain, for another 5 years.

The best part is, it’s been 10 years since I became one. Now I can apply for nationality, if I choose to. You know, and become a “real official Spaniard”, at some point.

LOL.

Actually, the idea of being a real official Spaniard still seems pretty ridiculous to me. And I’ve been here most of my adult life.

integrate in spanish society
Me and Alfonso el Sabio, in el Puerto de Santa María.

If integration even exists, I probably haven’t done it. Or have I?

Read on…

Today we’re going deep. So deep. Oh yeah. Ahh…

How to integrate / assimilate into Spanish culture and society

Back in the day, there was a teacher at the language school where I worked.

Big guy. Annoying.

He once complained to me about immigrants in the US: “I feel like previous generations were trying their best to integrate. Not like these new people who come in now…”

This statement struck me as more than a bit ironic, given that the gentleman in question was an immigrant himself, and steadfastly refused to move past a “beginner” level of Spanish.

But it got me thinking: what does it mean to integrate? Or assimilate?

Is it even possible – or desirable – to do so?

And if it is, how should one go about doing it?

All questions I’ll try to answer here.

Step one…

What does it mean to integrate or assimilate into another culture?

If you’re like me, you might have gone through life thinking that “integrate” and “assimilate” are basically synonyms.

And in a way, they are. One definition, from Oxford, even uses the word “integrate” as part of the definition of “assimilate”: to absorb and integrate (people, ideas, or culture) into a wider society or culture.

But a lot of people see them as being slightly different things.

Assimilation, according to some definitions, involves giving up your native culture and values to accept those of the “host” culture. It can even be forced.

Integration, on the other hand, allows people to keep their home culture while also being (more or less) fully participating members of their host culture and society.

But those are just some definitions. A lot of people, like me, use the words interchangeably.

Here’s my usual disclaimer: if you want some deep sociology, click off this blog now, and go read a textbook.

I won’t be making a huge distinction between integration and assimilation from here on out.

So, how do you go about this mysterious integration thing?

Step one…

Learn the local language

Back in the US, I’d never be the kind of asshole who goes around telling people to “learn English or go home”. That’d be awful.

On the other hand, if you move abroad, knowing the local language will definitely make your life easier on a practical level.

So if you’re here in Spain, it’s highly recommendable to learn at least enough Spanish to get around.

Say a solid intermediate level.

Don’t do it to please the locals: do it to make your own life better.

Because what else are you gonna do? Spend your whole life looking for dentists, lawyers and plumbers who speak English? Rely on friends who have learned the language to translate for you?

Not exactly ideal.

Here in Barcelona, to be perfectly honest, I could probably live my whole life in English if I wanted to.

My landlord speaks English, and my rent contract is bilingual. My local café is run by a woman from Wisconsin, and some Californian brothers run the bar where I get my vermouth on weekends. (Just kidding: it’s the bar where I get my vermouth on weekdays and weekends.)

You don’t really need Spanish to navigate a supermarket or a big box store. And being in a touristy location means a lot of people have some idea of English.

But of course, there’s always the chance of something happening that absolutely must be done in Spanish.

What if I need to call an ambulance? Go to the unemployment office? Talk to the electric company?

They might not have someone who speaks English on hand to help me… in fact, they might just hang up the phone rather than deal with me.

I actually did an experiment about it in Madrid, years ago. I spent an afternoon pretending to speak only English, and wrote about it on my other site. One lady at the Corte Inglés actually just turned her back and walked away from me when I spoke to her in English. But mostly, people had no problem.

(As usual, though, if you don’t happen to speak Spanish or English, you’re probably just outta luck. Try getting around Barcelona speaking Hungarian, or Tamil, or Igbo.)

Unrelated side note: here in Catalonia, people actually tell me to “learn Catalan or go back to my country” with some regularity. Local hospitality, they call it.

Anyway…

Adopt local culture and customs

Okay, let me be real.

I just googled “What is Spanish culture?”

Because even after living here almost half my life, I still feel like I might be missing something.

The first things that cross my mind, when I think of typical Spanishness, are – of course – bullfighting, flamenco, and sangría.

The big three.

The Holy Trinity of Spanishness.

Funny thing is, many modern Spaniards hate bullfighting, most would rather watch The Sopranos than a flamenco show, and no Spaniard EVER drinks sangría.

Facts: bullfighting was very popular decades ago, flamenco is regional, and sangría is garbage.

Other than that, Spanish people (on average) tend to have an obsession with football. Catholicism is popular in some places. And back in the 17th and 18th centuries, they had some really good painters.

But I challenge you to find a lot of enthusiasm, on the street level, for Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco.

Go ahead. Ask around. I bet it’s about 1000 times easier to find a lifelong fan of AC/DC than it is to find someone who can tell you two things about Spanish Baroque art.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Diego Velázquez.

And believe it or not, Spanish kids don’t grow up hoping to be the next Gaudí or Cervantes. Word has it they mostly want to be YouTubers (or maybe even TikTokkers).

Another relevant aspect of Spanish culture is food, of course. The eternal debate about what exactly makes something a paella, and what is just an “arroz con cosas”. The vacuous argument over whether onion has any place in a tortilla de patatas.

And that’s about all that springs to mind.

Culture: what is it, anyway?

Many Spaniards work long hours, live in small flats, and spend a lot of time outside.

Is that culture? Well, I guess it is. But I also think that if almost everybody is doing something, it’s probably “invisible” most of the time.

If you live in the US, you might have heard (or even believed) the meme that “Americans have no culture”.

Well, we do.

It’s just not immediately obvious that your trip to Walmart for some Cheetos is a cultural event, just like someone in Barcelona might swing by La Boqueria to pick up some freshly-gutted sardines.

If you see people doing it while you’re on vacation, you think “Oh, how quaintly cultural!”

But if you do it every day at home, it’s just something you do.

Tapas and Propaganda in Madrid.

Anyway, like I said, I just googled “What is Spanish culture?”.

And according to donquijote.org (the first result on the search page, of course) Spanish culture includes “physical contact during conversation” which “is not considered an invasion of personal space”. That’s literally in the second line of their article.

Other useful information from ol’ D.Q. dot O.R.G. includes little nuggets like these:

  • Teenagers in Spain like “water parks” and “going out”.
  • Spanish weddings “always end very very late”. And…
  • Typical Spanish music “goes a lot further than the omnipresent, unsinkable Macarena, which became a worldwide sensation in the 1990s.”

Interestingly, I never thought of the Macarena as a Spain thing. I guess I figured “Los Del Río” were Puerto Rican, like J.Lo or Ricky Martin. But it turns out they’re from Sevilla.

Oh well.

So, uh, feel free to develop a strong opinion about paella, or bullfighting, or cante jondo, if that makes you feel more integrated. Definitely try all the Spanish food you can. And by all means, visit the museums to see the art. Admire the architecture. Learn some history.

Let’s move on to the final option of the day…

Make Spanish friends / sleep with the locals / marry a Spaniard

So. You’ve been living in Spain for a few months. You’ve got a job, a landlord, a water bill, and a local SIM card. But something’s missing.

You’re not quite feeling integrated yet.

Maybe it’s time for the nuclear option: get married!

Or just make friends or follamigos with some of the locals.

Marrying into a Spanish family will definitely get you a circle of cuñados, tíos, abuelos and primos to hang around with. But from what I’ve heard, it’s not exactly a cakewalk. Spaniards from outside the big cities might not be used to dealing with foreigners, and they probably won’t be tuned in to your version of political correctness.

It might be occasionally awkward.

(A friend from the Philippines once told me she was affectionately known as “la china” by her in-laws. Another, from Scandinavia, was “la guiri“. If you can’t learn to have a sense of humor about such things, it might be difficult having a mostly-Spanish family.)

Sleeping with the locals can also be fun. I’ve got an article about dating Spanish girls and another about sex in Spain if you want to know more about that.

dating in spain
Lovers in Barcelona.

But is it cultural integration? Well, yeah. Or at least the closest thing that I’ve achieved. You’ll definitely be having an “immersive cultural experience” once you’re all naked and sweaty. And if you become more than follamigos, so much the better.

Being the token guiri at a Spanish birthday party can even be sort of enjoyable.

Another option is to make Spanish friends.

Some people (reportedly) have good luck with this, but most foreign people I know don’t. The language barrier is an issue, plus the type of jobs people from abroad tend to get here in Spain.

Also, Spaniards tend to have close-knit groups of friends who they’ve known since elementary school (or at the very least, their first year at university). A group like that might invite you out for cañas, but as usual, you’ll always be the token guiri.

Which brings us to our last point…

Is integration or assimilation even possible in Spain?

Well, maybe. Spain doesn’t have the US’ long history of mass immigration.

But the last 20 years have certainly seen a lot of people moving in from all over the world. I suspect that the next few generations of Spaniards are going to be a lot different than what’s come before. (Walk past a big-city elementary school playground and take a look at the kids, if you don’t believe me.)

On the other hand, I’m a 6-foot-tall bearded ginger.

I’m pretty sure that even if I live to be 100, nobody is ever going to look at me and say “Oh, look, a typical Spanish person!” I’ll probably always look (and feel) foreign, no matter what passport I get.

But your mileage may vary. There are plenty of people out there who look generically Mediterranean (or something) and blend right in. Maybe you’re great at accents. You might even convince yourself, after a while, that you “feel Spanish” – whatever that means.

Hey, you might even be some kind of citizen of the universe. (Just do me a favor and never use that expression in front of me. Thanks.)

In any case, the other relevant question is: should you assimilate?

My large annoying coworker back in the day seemed to think that immigrants in the US should make some huge effort and give up their whole identities to please “the locals” in his town in Missouri.

Personally, I think that’s bullshit.

Just live your life. Most people aren’t judging you much anyway, and if they are, they’re probably morons.

Personally, I’m doing my best here. I’ve got my residence permit, my hefty tax bill, my mortgage, and my C2 level of Spanish. The opinions random strangers might have about my lifestyle matter very little to me.

So, that’s all I’ve got for today.

Hope you’re having a good one, wherever you are. I’ll be back soon, with more fun from here in Iberia. Thanks for reading! Until next time…

Not-quite-Spanishly yours,

Mr Chorizo AKA Daniel.

P.S. What do you think it means to integrate or assimilate into Spanish society? Let me know, right here in the comments…

P.P.S. Thanks to Spanish Twitter for helping me out with a bit of research here. And actually, as they mentioned, some Spanish people do occasionally drink sangría. But it’s not nearly as common as tinto de verano. More on that in my article about how to order wine in Spain. Cheers!

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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. Dear Daniel! Thank you so much for contacting me and sending me so many interesting pages about You and Spain. And your photo on the last page is simply wonderful. How did you get my e-mail address? Have we ever met? If you go to LINKEDIN you will find a “lot” about me, Edwin from Austria. ….On the the24th of May, I will go to Sevilla and stay there till the beginning of August. Wonderful greetings from Paris, Edwin

    1. Hey Edwin, the only way I have your email address is if you entered it on my website, which (according to my app) you did on Oct 21, 2017. That was a long time ago! And I didn’t send any emails for a while there, so you may have forgot about me. Anyway, thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great day out there in Austria… greetings from Barcelona!

  2. Why haven’t you considered learning some catalan? Don’t get me wrong, in your situation I’d likely do the same and focus on Spanish;so i am not judging. But it’s a bit striking that an article talking about integrating to Spain and specifically to Barcelona ignores a ~50% of the local population and their culture.

    I am curious about what is your perception on that. As an expat, do you feel that there’s no difference on catalan/Spanish culture and you feel it’s just the language (hence no brush to learn it as you can live with Spanish)? Or are you intentionally ignoring this bits to stick to the blog topic? Have you experienced backlash or issues for not knowing catalan?

    1. I guess it’s a long story, but the short version is: people who harass me about speaking Spanish instead of Catalan are doing it to make a political point, and it’s a point I’m not taking. If someone is trying to force me to speak their language, they’re just idiots and I’m not playing their game. They same way I wouldn’t tolerate “speak English or go home” if I saw it back in Arizona. (P.S. I can read Catalan and I know a lot of vocabulary. I just don’t kowtow to ethno-nationalist morons.)

  3. Hi! I’ve lived in Spain off and on since the early 80s (which btw was the BEST time ever to be here). Came after studying one year in Segovia because I fell in love with the country and its history (minored in History, one of my passions). Met the Spanish hubby a few years later. Anyway, I’ve always had Spanish friends (definitely helped that I speak the language well) because I wanted to be a part of my “adopted” country, but usually have felt a little on the outside. I worked many, many years in a bilingual school so made lots of international, English-speaking friends as well……and, to be honest, we just get along better, understand each other better. I have a wonderful Spanish family (in-laws) who have always treated me well. I’ve renewed my residence several times and yet don’t really have any desire to become a Spanish citizen although that could easily change as I have no desire to ever live in the US again. Hate having to go thru tax declaration and all every year but it’s pretty much obligatory even if taking on Spanish nationality as I would never totally severe my American citizenship. Anyway, it isn’t always easy to fully integrate into Spanish life but certainly depends on the individual as well.

  4. This reminds me of an online disagreement I had with someone recently. He took offense at me calling myself an expat and not an immigrant and I told him that I often describe myself as an expat, immigrant or even guirri depending on the situation.
    I looked into it, and I think an expat is someone residing in a country other than their native country, (usually educated professionals, skilled workers, or artists taking positions outside their home country, either independently or sent abroad by their employers or others who have chosen to live outside their native country).

    In contrast to an immigrant, an expatriate maintains many cultural ties such as language of their country of origin—thereby not assimilating. Expatriates usually also do not seek to become citizens of their new country.

    In my case, although I have been here in Barcelona for almost 20 years and would more than qualify for a Spanish passport, I still feel far too British to want to change. The idea of giving myself a Spanish name, speaking to my son in Spanish so he doesn’t feel different or switching my cup of tea for a café con leche, all seem laughable to me.
    I personally choose to speak in Spanish rather than Catalan most of the time as the vast majority of my friends and neighbours are also from other countries and much to the chagrin of the indepes, Spanish is definitely the lingua franca in most of Barcelona city. The building I live in now has more residents from Argentina than Catalan natives and in the place I lived before, I would hear more Portuguese on the stairwell than Catalan.

    I think wherever you live, you will always find the odd dickhead who simultaneously wants you to go back to your own country and lose all traces of your dirty foreign identity and become indistinguishable from the natives. Like you, I have bigger things to worry about than what that dipshit thinks about me.

  5. Hola Daniel! I was just surprised when I saw this article literally two hours after I was thinking about this subject. I’m a student from Poland who’s studying right now in Spain and after almost 4 months here I can say, this is not that easy question to answer. But as I thought, you put it excellent as an expat who has the point of view of living in at least two countries that long. I’d love to read the story of how was your beginning here, what you would’ve done differently and how you look at it from the perspective of time. Saludos!

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