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Cultural Differences in Spain

When you hear about going to a new country, you often hear the phrase “culture shock”. Culture shock can be defined as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes” as noted by the Oxford dictionary. Coming to Spain, I expected to feel culture shock, however it has not hit me as hard as I had expected it to, which I attribute to being fully aware that it was going to happen no matter how much preparation was involved.  Luckily, I had an open mind coming to Spain, so any culture shock I experienced, I took as an opportunity to learn about and grow in a new culture. Here are just a few cultural differences I have noticed in Spain that are different from the United States:

1. Food

This is an obvious one, as food differs by country. Breakfast is usually just a piece of toast with either olive oil or some jam, which is very different than eggs, pancakes, or cereal, which are typical in the states. For lunch, I often have pasta, chicken, fish, pork, or a sandwich, which is easy to carry to school for lunch. Dinner in my homestay usually consists of some type of eggs, salad, or croquettes.

2. Meal Times

In addition to the different types of food, culture shock hit me a bit harder with the meal times. Breakfast is at a regular time compared to America, however lunch is usually sometime between 2 and 3 pm. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day here in Spain, hence the need for siesta time after. Dinner is normally between 9 and 10 at night, and is lighter because it is so late. Dinner was hard to get used to because I normally do not eat anything past 10 pm at home. However, I quickly adjusted and now I’m on Spanish meal time schedule. 

3. Time

In the United States, we like to be very punctual. Time is definite, and therefore we must respect one another’s time because we are all about being productive and getting things done quickly. Just look in New York and you will find people walking at a fast pace or even running, which is not uncommon. Sevilla is much more slow paced, and it is common when meeting a friend to be up to 20 minutes late. In America, that is considered very rude, however in Spain it is very typical. My professors even noted that they start on time in order to satisfy the Americans. Young people don’t even leave for the clubs until after midnight, often staying until 6/7 in the morning. Spaniards also consider the morning to be until you eat lunch, which sometimes get confusing when the call 1:00 (during the day) the morning!

4. Fashion

Before coming to Spain, I knew that the people were going to dress nice, and they are living up to and exceeding my expectations. Both men and women, boys and girls, and even small children are always dressed to the nines. I have noticed that in Spain, people are not as concerned with brands as they are with simply looking put together. It’s almost as if they never sweat wearing jeans in the summer! Even going to bars and clubs, women are wearing heels and men must be wearing a collared shirt to even get in. Leggings are unheard of unless you’re going to the gym. Dresses, skirts, and jumpsuits are the norm for daily life around here. Additionally, in the summertime, all women and girls wear are sandals, however, do not confuse them with flip flops, as those are strictly for the beach.

​5. Household Practices 

Living in a homestay, I quickly picked up on the cultural differences between a typical American home and a Spanish one. In Spain, it is customary to always wear shoes in the house, as your bare feet on the floor is considered impolite. Another common practice in Spain is to minimize electricity and water. This means turning off light switches when you’re not using them, opening windows, and showering quickly (possibly even turning the shower off when you’re not rinsing).  Another difference I have noticed is to always greet the family when entering or leaving the house. This can be done with a simple “hola” or “adios”, but it is very much appreciated to let the family know if you are home or not.

6. Water is (an expensive) luxury

As mentioned in #5, water is very expensive in Spain. Being an only-water drinker back in the states is considered very weird here. Spaniards are big on drinking juices, coffee/tea, alcohol, or some type of soda with meals. At restaurants, if you order water, you will be given a bottle of water that is quite expensive. This is probably what I have found the hardest about living in Spain because they almost never drink water and that’s just about all I drink! Additionally, reusable water bottles are quite rare to carry around, which is very different than the current fad of carrying “Hydroflasks” in the United States.

7. Directness 

In America, we are conditioned from a young age to always be polite. That includes always saying “please and thank you”. In Spain, a dead giveaway (besides my horrific accent) that I’m American is the fact that I say “gracias and por favor” too often. When ordering at a restaurant in America, it is customary to say “Can I have…”, while in Spain you would say phrases in Spanish which translates to “I want..” or “Bring me..”. Additionally, in America, it is very rude and taboo to bring up someone’s weight, however in Spain it is not uncommon at all to hear a person calling someone “Gordito/a” which translates in English to “little fatty”. This is common for parents with children or boyfriends to their girlfriends, which would essentially be considered abuse in America. It is a term of endearment here which represents their directness. Additionally, it would not be uncommon for your host mom to point out that you have put on some weight. While this would be considered very rude in America, it is normal in Spain. Luckily, I do not have first hand experience with this. 

8. Greetings

In the United States, upon first meeting an individual, you generally give them a handshake, or possibly even a hug. In Spain, when you first meet someone or see your friends, you give them “dos besos” which translates to “two kisses” on either side, moving your head to the left side first so that you kiss each other’s right cheeks. This is to be done with either two girls, or a girl and a guy. Two guys normally just give out a hand for a handshake. This is very culturally different for me as I normally only give handshakes or hugs to friends I am close with when seeing them. 




Melissa is President and Campus Correspondent of Her Campus at Bentley University.  She is a senior majoring in Marketing and minoring in Spanish and Psychology.  Melissa studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain!  In her free time, she loves to read, write, play tennis, volunteer, and spend time with family and friends.  You'll usually find her exploring new places and restaurants and then writing articles about them!       
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