The 4 big things I’ve learned about American culture while living in Spain

October 31, 2016

I’m from one of those “red states”.

One of those places in the US where people go through life heavily armed, with a Bible in their front pocket and can of chaw in back, ready to go to war against whoever threatens their American Way of Life.

It’s the real America.

Gun-totin’, bible-thumpin’, patriots, as far as the eye can see.

(Well, that and cacti.)

And according to everybody around me back there, I was getting a pretty good deal, growing up in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona.

Because most people in the rest of the world were living barefoot in mud huts and wishing they could someday come to America, where everything is awesome all the time.

When I was a kid, that attitude seemed ridiculous, but at least it was “normal”.

How could I argue?

It was all I knew.

If you spend your whole life living in one place, you tend to think that what’s happening around you is just human nature.

And moving to another country is an eye-opener, because you find people acting very differently – yet also believing that what they’re doing is “normal”.

Actually, living abroad teaches you a lot about your own culture, and perhaps a thing or two about human nature as well.

I didn’t know it when I was stepping off that airplane at Barajas airport at the tender age of 21, but I was going to learn a lot about American life by living in Spain.

Here are just a few things that have become clear to me in my years in Madrid:

Spain vs USA: Americans work too hard

On one of my first days in Madrid, a European friend took me to Parque Retiro.

Once we were there, she sat down on the grass, took off her shoes, and proceeded to do absolutely nothing for the next four hours. (Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. She did roll and smoke several cigarettes in that time.)

Sitting and doing nothing was an activity I had managed to spend more than 20 years of life without attempting. It was surprisingly difficult. But the whole park seemed to be full of hundreds of people doing the same thing: just sitting.

spanish culture and american culture from an expat in Madrid
Not even the dogs work like a dog in Spain. In fact, they spend a lot of time lying around.

When I started working as an English teacher, I was soon shocked by the number of holidays. A holiday on December 6th and another one on December 8th. The seemingly never-ending holiday period period going from Christmas through New Year’s and on to Epiphany on January 6th.

All the saints and all the important events in the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary have a public holiday.

Corpus Christi?

Whatever that is (not even most Spanish people know), it’s a day off work.

And in Spain, even if you are working, there are plenty of excuses not to work too hard.

The main concern, apparently, is just to put in as many hours as possible. What you do there is largely irrelevant… Go ahead and update your Facebook page. Go outside for a smoke. Have a half-hour-long conversation on your mobile. Take another coffee break.

It’s all fair game, as long as you’re spending eleven or twelve hours a day in and around the office.

Known locally as “la cultura del presentismo“, it’s a stark contrast to the American idea of “Work yourself to death’s doorstep during the week and then shop till you drop in your free time”.

But Spanish people seem to believe that relaxing and enjoying life are important activities that are worth dedicating time to, when you’re finished clocking those long hours at the office.

And I agree.

(I guess I should add the disclaimer that this point applies mostly to people who work in offices. Service industry schedules are much different – and much worse.)

Moving on…

Because of American Culture, we’re all secretly puritans

We might not dress like the Pilgrims in an elementary school Thanksgiving re-enactment, but we Americans are puritans just the same.

Do you remember the Super Bowl in 2004, when a half-second of Janet Jackson’s nipple shield caused a national controversy that went all the way to the floor of the Senate?

What is a nipple shield anyway?

Doesn’t matter…

‘Cause that’s about when I decided I needed to leave the country.

Apparently, in middle America, it’s okay for children to spend their early years sucking on nipples. But after about age three, seeing a woman’s nipple will turn them into some sort of sex-addict degenerate.

Spanish TV, on the other hand, has its fair share of nipples, not to mention asses, and as far as I can tell, nobody’s childhood has been ruined.

The original puritans, it must be said, weren’t necessarily the dour, humorless fanatics we portray them as these days. They enjoyed alcohol in moderation, and considered sexual pleasure (within the bounds of marriage) to be a gift from God.

So I don’t know exactly what happened, but at some point in American history, the most boring elements of society managed to take over and convince everyone that they had to be bland and inoffensive –– that enjoying your life too much was somehow immoral.

Modern American puritanism shows itself in many other ways, besides the classic nipple-aversion: we’re also terrified of colloquial expression and alcohol, two things that any sane European recognizes to be part of what makes life enjoyable.

Spanish proverbs are full of references to healthy mammalian behavior that would shock and awe your parents, and strangely, nobody seems to mind.

Of course, in the States, you’d better be prepared to use some four-syllable latinate euphemism for any anatomical or sexual references; the children might hear you using four-letter words and somehow end up in prison, or worse, in hell for all eternity.

things I've learned about american culture living in Spain
Drink wine and enjoy life… you’re in Spain! That impressive wall of wines is at El Tempranillo, Cava Baja 38 right here in Madrid.

Drinking is also much less stigmatized in Spain.

Do you want to have a glass of wine with lunch? Nobody’s going to think you’re an alcoholic for doing so!

Have two. Or three. And then stop.

Binge drinking is still frowned upon – in fact, it’s mostly an activity enjoyed by pathetic British and American tourists.

The point of alcohol is to enjoy yourself, not to get falling-down drunk and end up hung over, having no idea of where you were the night before.

Prostitution is also “more or less” legal (and more or less accepted as a social institution), and I believe you can grow some small amount marijuana at home in Spain.

Okay, okay.

Consult a lawyer before doing either. Don’t tell the judge you read it on this blog.

But if the lawyer says it’s cool, go have fun!


The American Dream is very different than the Spanish Dream

We all know about the American Dream –– it involves lots of extraordinarily hard work, accumulating wealth, and then moving to some sort of gated community in the suburbs to tend to your front lawn and buy expensive things that you don’t have time to use.

Well, Spaniards dream too.

But what do they dream of?

Something totally different.

For large segments of the Spanish population, in fact, the dream is to get a government job where they can work as little as possible and never be fired until the happy day when they retire and can continue living out their long lives receiving a government pension.

the american dream and spanish culture
Donkey ownership: no longer a big part of the Spanish dream. (At least for most people I know.)

Accumulating personal wealth doesn’t factor into most people’s Spanish dream. Why save money if the government is always there to take care of you?

If you ever hear an American telling a story about hitting rock bottom, it usually goes something like this: “Well, after my divorce I ended up living in an 1100 square foot apartment by the side of the highway. It was hell, but I guess it was either that or live in my car.”

What they don’t know is that their version of rock bottom is someone else’s highest aspiration.

Having 1100 square feet in Madrid sounds positively luxurious.

And being able to afford to live there alone? Sheeiiittt.

That’s almost too much to imagine. Not to mention that even at rock bottom in the good ol’ US of A, you still own a car!

You’d have nothing to complain about if that described your life in Spain – except, perhaps, that you’re “throwing your money away on rent” when you could just buy your 1100 square foot apartment and live there forever.

(Or just live with your parents at age 50. But that’s another story.)


Your idea of “fat” is relative

I’ll always remember the day that the conservative talk radio station in my home town started talking about the Body Mass Index.

The government had just decided on the BMI as the official measurement for obesity, and Paul Harvey (or someone) told us all how to calculate it.

So we all sat down as a family and worked it out, dutifully squaring our height in centimeters or whatever. My parents both clocked in at obese.

Their reaction?

“That’s impossible! I’m not obese, I’m the same size as everyone else at the office!”

And they went on living their obese lives as if nothing had happened, walking from the front door to their car, from their car to their desk, and maybe once a week getting winded going up and down the aisles at the supermarket.

things i've learned about american culture while living in spain
Just another day in Parque Retiro, without an obese person in sight.

Across the pond in Madrid, I’d hear people referring to mi hermano el gordo and think, “That’s ridiculous. He’s not fat, he’s just a little big boned!”

What was going on?

Well, in the US, obesity is epidemic, and fat is the new normal.

In Europe, most people’s lifestyles involve at least a moderate amount of walking and natural healthy food.

So, while obesity is on the rise, it’s nowhere near US levels… yet.

And life goes on, on both sides of the Atlantic

I can hear what you’re saying already: “But Daniel, you’re generalizing. We’re not all like that! My cousin Nuria is a hard working obese Spanish puritan with an investment account!”

Or maybe you’re saying: “I’m American and I just got out of rehab for my sex and drug addiction –– caused by seeing a nipple once when I was a child! Now my highest aspiration is to share a 900 square foot flat with two other people and be able to afford a bus pass, just like people in Spain!”

Well, you’re right. I am generalizing. It’s impossible to talk about large groups of people without making some generalizations.

In any case, I have come to appreciate that most people aspire to be “normal” and that their definition is based on whatever the people around them are doing.

That’s just how societies work.

Relativistically yours,

Mr Chorizo.

P.S. What have you learned about your culture while living abroad? Let me know in the comments… thanks! And if you want more, I’ve got part 2 of this article here: Cultural differences between Spain and the US… Part 2!

P.P.S. If you really want to integrate into the way of life, you should learn Spanish. And I’ve got a Spanish language school that will help you: Spaneasy here in Madrid.

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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. Hi, I’m British and although our cultures vary in many ways I really appreciated the sentiment and found you’re style of writing thoughtful and amusing. If I might, one of the things I might have been tempted to mention is the difference in attitude towards food here. I’ve found the idea of eating healthy, home-made food and spending a lot more time doing it (including at lunch time… we in the U.K. Grab a sandwich and eat it at our desk and most people here bring a home cooked feast in Tupperware or go for a menu del día and spend at least an hour eating) is one of the things I’ve really noticed while living here. Well done though, great article!

    1. Thanks Francesca, I’m glad you like the article. I’ve got a part two kicking around somewhere in which I might mention food… you’re right, the attitude is much different. Have a great day!

  2. One thing that we (Europeans) find always bizarre when in the US is the «drinking games» at a party. That mix of the need to prepare organised «entertainment» (not just find yourself people to talk and laugh while eating and drinking even if the party is a bit slow in the beginning) and the need to get drunk, quickly and hardly, as a goal for the night, above having a great time, collecting funny anecdotes or meeting cool new people. I think here (Europe in general) we just chat and play music and drink and probably end up dancing or kissing someone in the spirit of the moment 🙂 But I must say I had a great time living in the US too, always. At the end of the day, is who you hang out with, and the good thing about the US is its amazing variety of people! Some of my best friends are American 🙂

    1. Yeah, Carmen, people tend to be really repressed and need large amounts of alcohol to stop feeling miserable. I prefer the drinking culture here, for sure. (Another big generalization, but hey.)

  3. Hola Daniel. Vivo en Puerto Rico, una isla en el caribe que fue colonizada por los españoles y ocupada por Estados Unidos hace casi 120 años. Aquí se pretende vivir de ambas maneras, trabajar duro, pero con todos los días feriados posibles, y tener de todo, pero gastando el dinero en comida y bebida todos los fines de semana. Si algún día visitas nuestra bella isla, estoy seguro de que encontrarás muy interesante el hibrido politico y cultural que vivimos. Un abrazo.

    1. Ha! Gracias Luis. Aquí en España he conocido a algunos puertorriqueños y ésta fue mi impresión: que no quieren ser estadounidenses realmente – y son muy críticos aunque nunca han pasado ni un fin de semana en Florida – pero están encantados de serlo cuando se les pide el pasaporte. Cosas de la vida. ¡Gracias por comentar!

  4. Jajajaja Mr. Chorizo, that’s funny. It’s the first time I visit your page and it’s so interesting, I speak English but I need practice more and I’ll follow you.
    Thanks, “you saved the day”.

    Greettings from Mex.

  5. thanks for shared your culture Daniel. I found it very difficult to believe because I had thought that had occurred in this wayr about the middle of 1950 – 1960, when the world war II had finished in Europe

  6. Very interesting the article. The Spanish Way of Life is better, no doubt 😉
    Welcome to Madrid, Daniel!

  7. haha! like always, very funny.
    But, the thing about the U.S is that from state to state and family to family you can have AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT point of view and experience.

    Being from California and having hung out around liberals my entire adult life in a state where there is not much of a stigma (at least with anyone living in or near major cities) around alcohol or any of the pesky alcohol laws found in other places. We can buy any kind of alcohol anywhere and on any day of the week. We can have wine with lunch (unless you work for the government or something).

    In the U.S in general though there is a very different culture around alcohol. Though no worse than European countries such as Scotland, england, etc England where, when people drink, they often drink far too much. We ,and the U.K, and some other countries look at alcohol as entertainment and that is unhealthy. Though our idea of what ‘normal’ is is far lower than a country like the U.K where 8 pints after work is something many people don’t think makes them an alcoholic we have extremes here. Those who think ever having more than a glass of wine is too much adn then those who chug cocktails and take shots until they are on the floor.

    I have always noted that my U.K friends drink far more, on a daily basis, than my U.S friends. And, my Spanish and Italian friends drink less per sitting than my U.S friends but they have drinks more times per week or more days per week. I think the Spanish/Italian/French alcohol traditions are much healthier than U.S/U.K/Ireland. But then I don’t know too many people in their 30s or 40’s now in my life in California who overdo it as often as they did when they were young so it seems to balance out over time once the novelty of ‘drinking’ has worn off. Don’t get me started on how laws make things seem more exciting……..:)

    Re- Working too hard in U.S. For sure. We have to work hard to compete since in the U.S you can’t just be shit at your job and keep getting paid. In metropolitan area the competition is fierce and therefore the culture of being better and better and working more and more is just something that naturally came along with having so many other high performers around and not having a system in which it is super expensive to fire someone and you can do so for any reason at any time.

    That said, I have equal issues with the Spanish work ethic.

    In Spain there are arbitrarily long days that serve no purpose because people are (most often) not working very hard at anything nor accomplishing a great deal with all of those hours. It’s all about how to spend as little time as possible working but there is a lack of initiative taken to shorten the hours and simply do more (and better) with the hours you have. This is a tough cultural norm to change since it’s so hard and expensive to fire people, and if you have bosses who also don’t care about doing a great job well then no one cares and everyone just continues on, inefficiently, forever.

    In my experience on both sides-I’d rather work my butt off doing something stimulating and actually getting shit done for 8 hours than sit around for an arbitrarily long day with a long lunch simply because it’s ‘what we do’

    I’d say both are equally bad. I’d recommend the vacation time and the off-work relaxation from Spain added to the work ethic of the U.S as a good combo. I think having to be good at what you do, and stay sharp and be efficient is better for us and our brains and our sense of accomplishment and our potential to do more with our lives in the future. This is why I’m an entrepreneur now! 🙂

  8. soy venezolano español sobre estados unidos me gusta y me encanta su país es hermoso su gente siempre me a tratado muy bien cada vez que voy pero la explotación laboral es grande por lo que se el jefe estadounidense es muy bueno generalmente los jefes latinos son muy explotadores en cuanto a nuestra vida los que tenemos 2 tierras en nuestra vida el latinoamericano es mas pro americano y su vida esta mas centrada en costumbres americanas y Europa tiene una vida mas ligh que a veces necesitamos para sacar el stress de nuestra vida a veces olvidamos que la vida es una sola no objetos ni riquezas que pocos disfrutaran o vivir para pagar cuentas todo tiene su limite me encanto que te guste España como a mi me encanta Estados Unidos

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