FOR those of us who live in a city which could be regarded as a tourist destination, foreign tourists stand out like a sore thumb.
With their huge backpacks and their constant photography, it isn’t hard to spot the difference between a group of tourists excitedly visiting your city’s landmarks and locals on their lunch hour, quietly walking past them.
This isn’t to say that there’s a stigma attached to being a tourist, the way that those who aren’t local seem to stand out is just a fact of international tourism. The only real downside of this is that if it’s obvious that you are not a native of the country you are visiting, you could find it considerably harder to have the kind of ‘genuine cultural experiences’ which are so popular nowadays. Modern travellers generally want to see sights far off the usual tourist paths and engage fully with local cultures.
One of the best ways to avoid being immediately pigeon-holed as a tourist or an expat is to read up on the country you are visiting’s etiquette. Locals will react to you better, other tourists will learn by your example and you will get the chance to really live life in the shoes of another people for the duration of your stay.
Spain is a country with many such traditions and etiquettes, so here we look at some of the biggest mistakes foreigners make when visiting Spain, how they can avoid them and why they are mistakes to begin with.
1. Spanish dining
Spain is well known for its unusual eating habits. What is unusual here though isn’t what is eaten but when it’s eaten. Breakfast is eaten at the usual time, between 7 and 10, but breakfasts are often small and rich, sometimes consisting of hot chocolate and churros or maybe even just a milky coffee.
The next meal, lunch (or la comida), doesn’t come for a very long time after breakfast, sometimes as late as four o’clock in the afternoon, although it is more common to eat between half one and three. It is this period which tends to betray foreign tourists and expats. Nothing is more of a give-away of your foreigner status than turning up at a restaurant at midday clutching a rumbling stomach. Lunch is typically the biggest meal of the day for Spaniards, something most other cultures are not used to. This has the entertaining side effect of making the uninitiated incredibly sleepy. A large hot lunch is usually reserved for lazy Sunday afternoons, especially in Britain.
If you can stay awake long enough, dinner is typically taken between nine o’clock in the evening and midnight and consists of light fare like omelettes, salads or fish. Turning up at a restaurant any time before seven PM is likely to earn you some very strange looks and some uninspired lunchtime leftovers.
2. Tú versus Usted
Attempting to speak the language during your tenure in Spain is a fantastic idea. It really lets people know that you are trying to be courteous and engage with the Spanish culture. One thing to watch out for however is your use of Tú and Usted. Both of these words mean you, but they have very different connotations. Tú is generally used when talking to someone with whom you are friendly with, think family members, friends and acquaintances or, if you are so inclined, pets. Usted is reserved for times when you are talking to someone whom you wish to show respect, or someone that you don’t know particularly well. Examples would be a person significantly older than yourself, someone with authority over you (like the Guardia Civil) or your employer.
It isn’t the end of the world if you forget this rule, people will be impressed that you are making the effort regardless, but this is an easy way to get bonus points.
3. Watch what you wear
This is a pretty simple one and something which you wouldn’t do in your home country anyway, but ensure that you don’t wear your swimsuit out on the street and especially don’t wear it into shops. Some councils are even banning skimpy bikinis, with the president of the group Family Beaches, formed in 2007, stating that “as things stand at the moment, children are having to see things they are yet to be taught by their families”. This may seem like an extreme reaction, but if you want to fit in it is best to try and be at least slightly modest, more so in rural areas of Spain.
4. Take a break from shopping
Out of main towns and cities, it is not uncommon for shops to shut between two and five in the afternoon while the shopkeeper eats their main meal of the day and maybe even catches up on some rest. This is perfectly normal and knocking on the window of said shop to attract the attention of those inside would be considered incredibly rude. If the sign says closed, just come back another time.
5. If you learn one phrase in Spanish, make it this one…
Repeat after me and commit it to memory, “¿habla usted Inglés?” This means “do you speak English?”
It might sound trivial, but asking someone if they speak English, in English, is usually considered a sign of laziness and cultural ignorance. It is especially infuriating for those who actually don’t speak English, as they may not even understand the request, causing embarrassment and confusion. How would you like it if someone started bombarding you with questions in a language you don’t understand, especially if you were in your native country?
Also, note the use of usted instead of tú in the example above. As you probably don’t know the person you are approaching, it is necessary to use the formal you so as to not come off as brash or cocky. For more help with the language, see this guide.
6. In Spain for the long term? Sort your finances out
It can be boring, but there are numerous things to consider if you are moving to Spain for the long term, especially if you are seeking employment in the country. If you aren’t an EU citizen then it is important to apply for a visa through your local Spanish embassy. This will need to be backed up by a number of important documents including a sponsorship letter from your new Spanish employer.
It is also important to consider your tax responsibilities are taken care of. Spain offers a special flat tax rate to expats, set at 24%. To benefit from this you must apply within the first 6 months of arriving in Spain. There are also other things to consider such as your healthcare coverage (although there is a public system in place) and education for your children. Which Offshore wrote a great guide about the administrative intricacies of setting up a life in Spain which can be found by following the link above.
7. Change your tipping habits
Although tipping isn’t particularly common among the Spanish, especially at low-end venues, it isn’t uncommon either. Because of this, tourists should try to tip as much as possible. Most people are well aware that in America tipping is customary and will find it a bit rude if you stop your tipping habit when visiting another country. These assumptions will extend to English speakers in general, so even if you’re not a regular tipper back in Australia, make the effort.
If you do decide to tip, remember to be generous. Unlike in the States, where a 50 cent tip from every customer adds up over the course of the day to a considerable amount of money, in Spain it wouldn’t be uncommon to go a whole day without receiving a tip. This means that if you really want to show your appreciation, anything less than a couple of euros simply won’t cut it.
8. Smoking in public
At the start of 2011, Spain adapted their policy on smoking in public from their former position which allowed bars and restaurants to choose whether to ban smoking or not, only requiring the largest cafés and restaurants to provide non-smoking areas. Now the laws have changed and smoking in public areas is strictly prohibited. Interestingly, it is also illegal to smoke near hospitals and schools, as well as to appear on a public television broadcast while smoking. Spain used to have one of the highest concentrations of smokers in Europe, so this was a pretty alarming change for many.
To stay on the right side of the law remember not to light up after your meal, and try to limit your smoking to uncrowded outdoor areas. Even if you aren’t breaking the law, most people don’t appreciate having smoke blown in their face whilst walking down a busy high street.
9. Grab yourself a bargain
As in the rest of the world, haggling or bargaining is very uncommon in shops. However, when it comes to market stalls and street traders, negotiating a good bargain is half the fun. Despite this, it is important to remember that once you have established the lowest price a vendor will sink to either pay up, or walk away. Street vendors and market traders are there to make a living and continuing to badger them about prices once they have already told you their lowest price is considered rude and insulting.
10. Get used to Spanish drivers
Some would say that Spanish motorists have a tendency to be reasonably forceful, which can be intimidating for a newcomer. Try and stay out of the fast lane unless you intend on going over the speed limit or be prepared to be bumper to bumper with a frustrated Spanish driver who might even blow their horn and flash their lights.
There are also a few driving laws which you may not be used to in your home country, including the mandatory requirement for seatbelts, the ban on listening to in-ear music devices and the need to restrain all pets.