Spain · Study Abroad

What you need to know before studying in Spain

If you’ve ever been curious about how Spanish culture differs from that of the United States, then this is the post for you. I’m going to explain just a few—but certainly not all—of the differences between Spanish and American culture that could help prepare you for your own study abroad experience here.

1.) The Siesta

The first point I must make is, of course, about the siesta. This is something that many Americans already know about Spanish culture, but our conception differs greatly from reality so I think it is really important that I clarify what it is. Basically, the siesta is a dedicated portion of the mid-afternoon where businesses close down shop to give their employees a rest before facing the rest of the day (or night, as the case may be). There is no fixed time for the siesta, but it could be anywhere from 2–5PM or 4–8PM, depending on the type of business. Many cafés, clothing stores, restaurants, etc. will close down during this time before reopening again later in the day. For many Spaniards, dinnertime doesn’t begin until after 10PM, so the siesta can be a much-needed break for an otherwise long day. However, this doesn’t mean that every Spaniard just packs up their stuff and goes home to take a nap. Many people continue working or studying during this time, and some might even go for a long walk to get some sun and exercise.

It definitely took some adjusting to the siesta, especially coming from a culture that values convenience and profits above all else. The siesta really made me confront how we in the United States are always going, going, going, usually at the expense of taking time to slow down and appreciate the little things.

2.) Meals

Meals in Spain can be quite different than in the United States. First of all, the schedule is very different. Breakfast is largely at the same time, but lunch and dinner differ drastically. In Spain, lunch starts at around 2 or 3PM and dinner not until after 10PM. Lunch is considered the most important meal of the day, so Spaniards usually only have something small for breakfast, like toast and a coffee, and a smaller dish at dinner, such as a sandwich. At school, the daily lunch special includes a small salad, a first course such as a soup, a second course/entree, a drink, and a dessert.

Because lunch is the main meal of the day, it is not unusual to spend up to two hours eating and talking after the meal. This has been such a change for me, considering lunch is usually a quick affair with friends before heading off to class or the library to study, but it has been a change for the better. My lunches with friends will honestly be some of my favorite memories that I take away with me from this trip.

While I’m on the topic of food, I will take this moment to issue a very important PSA: the Spanish concept of a tortilla is very different than what we would consider a tortilla. Spanish tortilla is a bit more like what we would call a quiche, without the crust and with fewer ingredients. Basically, it is a really fluffy omelet with potatoes and potentially onions or other vegetables. It can be served hot or cold, alone or in a sandwich. It is a very typical dish that you should expect to come across if you spend any amount of time in Spain, although know you are armed with the knowledge that a tortilla is not always a tortilla.

3.) Salutations

Greeting and saying goodbye is really such a small thing, but it really can be a make-or-break moment, especially when meeting people for the first time. Before arriving to Spain, I thought the only difference would be the whole European cheek-kissing thing that I always saw in the movies, but in reality salutations are a bit more complicated that that.

Now, it is true that the people of Spain do the European cheek-kiss, although it is important to note that the nuances of such may vary country to country. In Spain, the proper way is to touch your right cheek to the other person’s and make an audible kissing sound, and then repeat on the other side. (And you really do need to touch cheeks, otherwise you may get called out on it, such as happened to a friend of mine.) It is typical, and even expected, to do this when meeting someone for the first time, or after not seeing one another for a bit of time. It has been a bit difficult to judge exactly how often it is normal to do this because my American identity usually precedes me and thus makes people hesitant to approach me since they know that we generally have a wider understanding of what constitutes personal space.

Nonetheless, it is polite to greet every person with at least an “Hola” upon entering a room, when sitting down at a table, etc. It is polite to greet people even if you are strangers. Thus, it is common courtesy to greet employees when walking into a store or when encountering others in an elevator. And if you are colleagues/friends it is also polite to ask how the other is doing and wait for a real response. Likewise, it is courteous to say goodbye to everyone before making your departure. Depending on the situation, it may even require another kiss goodbye.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem all that different from how we behave in the United States, but in practice they are very distinct. After all how many times have you answered the question “How are you?” by simply saying “How are you?” back to the other person. Or, how many times have you looked at your phone or stared straight ahead to pretend you haven’t seen an acquaintance so that you don’t have to stop and make conversation? Overall, expect to say hello and goodbye more in Spain than you would in the United States.

And with that I conclude three of important take aways between Spanish and American culture that I have come across while studying in Alicante. Overall, our cultures are more alike than different, but it is nevertheless fun and even helpful to analyze the differences that exist between cultures.

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