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Nine unwritten rules that explain how Spain works 

What makes Spain and Spaniards tick? These unwritten rules will help you understand some of the traits of the national psyche, from the Spanish attitude to work to what Spaniards prioritise in life.

Nine unwritten rules that explain how Spain works 
Having trouble understanding Spain and Spaniards? These unwritten rules will help you. Photo: Cristina Gottardi/Unsplash

Talking to complete strangers is allowed

Some northern Europeans may shiver at the thought of someone they don’t know approaching them to speak, but in Spain this kind of spontaneous small talk is part and parcel of daily life.

Whether it’s a grandmother sparking up a conversation with you at a bus stop, someone asking for the time or a light and then chatting, in the vast majority of social situations it’s okay to chat.

This explains why to many foreigners, Spaniards are straight-talking, genuine and friendly people.

The same usually applies to personal space and physical touch; it’s perfectly acceptable to swoop in for two kisses if you’ve just been introduced to someone for the first time, or for a group of old ladies to fuss over a stranger’s baby whilst leaning over the pram and pinching the newborn’s chubby legs.

Someone falls over in the street, you help them

In the same vein, if there’s someone in distress in Spain, your civic duty is to help them. 

Coming across different forms of solidarity is very common here. If someone falls over in the street, within a split second a flood of pedestrians will rush to their aid. If a new mother needs help carrying her baby’s pram up a flight of stairs, someone will offer to help. If you’re lost and need directions, a passer-by will have the time for you.

As a more recent example, there’s the Spanish population’s general acceptance of wearing face masks during the pandemic, higher than in other European countries, with the fact that so many elderly Spaniards died in the early days of Covid-19 creating a zeitgeist of supportiveness. 

Spaniards are by and large always willing to help others. (Photo by Jorge Guerrero / AFP)

It’s not what you know, but who you know

Cronyism is alive and well in Spain, for better or for worse. And we mean from a grassroots level – someone’s uncle getting his unqualified nephew a job at his company – to the higher echelons, as evidenced by crooked politicians giving tenders to close friends for the past decades. 

It may be a shame that Spain’s labour market doesn’t operate like a meritocracy, nor is it necessarily good for productivity, but then again, many people could well be without a job if it wasn’t for someone they know doing them a favour. 

In Spain, word of mouth is king when it comes to business. Spaniards may well be using the internet more to find what they’re after, but the opinion of someone they trust or know will always count more.

READ ALSO: Is Spain as corrupt as it was a decade ago?

Mañana, mañana

Spain is not a country of lazybones and the siesta isn’t the national pastime, but if there’s one stereotype that rings truer than most it is the mañana mañana attitude, in particular when it comes to bureaucracy.

Getting anything official done in Spain takes longer and is more complex than in the majority of European countries. Be it setting up a business, buying a property, applying for a grant, getting official documents processed, everything is unnecessarily drawn out.

Spain’s civil servants (funcionarios) have a reputation for washing their hands of responsibilities, passing the buck and showing no accountability, although in many cases they’ll argue that their departments are understaffed.

Whatever it be, there isn’t the sense of streamlining important processes in Spain, no general rush to get things done quickly.

Spaniards have become acceptant of this, even though it unfortunately hampers business and entrepreneurship.

spain unwritten rules
Drawn-out bureaucracy is a scourge for Spain, and yet still widely accepted. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

You don’t live to work, you work to live

When it comes to career prospects, many Spaniards don’t aspire to run their own successful businesses or move up the ladder of an important company.

Instead they ‘dream’ of a mid-paygrade stable job, such as working for supermarket chain Mercadona or, wait for it, becoming a civil servant.

Whether it’s down to the chronic insecurity of the country’s labour market, the struggles of being self-employed in Spain or due to a lack of professional aspirations, many Spaniards are content with the idea of having a run-of-the-mill job where wages are guaranteed, lay-offs are unlikely and they can focus on enjoying life outside of work.

Work is generally treated as a means to an end in Spain: earn money to enjoy life. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

Hedonism is a national sport

Eating good food, spending quality time with friends and family, going out partying until the early hours – frequent socialising is the standard in Spain. It’s all about enjoying life today and now, personal freedom, carpe diem through and through. 

A 2021 study found that 43 percent of Spaniards save less than €100 of their wages every month, which reflects how even during difficult economic times, you cannot prevent a Spaniard from heading out to have a good time.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why foreigners perceive that Spain offers such a good quality of life.

Interrupting others is fair game

For many foreigners, Spaniards are loud and speak quickly, but one other point ‘guiris’ quickly pick up on when they engage in conversation with Spanish people is that talking over others isn’t a social faux pas. 

It’s not meant to be disrespectful, it’s rather just how conversations often go as get-togethers become boisterous and everyone tries to chip in with the first thought that comes into their head. 

You’ll see it in the bars, on TV debates, interrupting others rather than waiting your turn to speak is acceptable in the vast majority of social contexts in Spain.

READ ALSO: Why are Spaniards so ‘loud’?

Being late is mostly okay

Ernest Hemingway famously said that Spaniards “delay the day”, and when it comes to punctuality, it’s perfectly normal to arrive late to a social gathering. 

That’s not to say that Spaniards all rock up at work an hour late, or that they turn up for dinner as everyone else is getting the bill, but arriving on time isn’t a priority and turning up 15 or 30 minutes after the agreed time is common and socially acceptable. 

Spaniards know that the best way to enjoy life is in the company of others. Photo: Gabriel BOUYS /AFP

You don’t need a lot in life to be happy, but you do need people

Spaniards are by and large extremely social beings who don’t like having too much time alone to reflect on life. 

They don’t need a large home or a high-paying job to feel satisfied, instead they find happiness in the company of others, enjoying a beer and good conversation as they sit outdoors at a bar terrace on a sunny day. 

Learn to enjoy these simple pleasures and you may well find that you don’t need a lot to be happy either, and that Spain is a country which allows you to achieve such bliss without having a lot of money in the bank.


Member comments

  1. Having recently encountered the Bureaucracy in the UK in the manifestation of the Home Office I cannot agree that the Spanish system is slow….

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For members


The real reasons why Spaniards don’t want to have children

The data shows Spaniards are having fewer children than ever. Is this fall in Spain's birth rate by choice or necessity? And if so, what are the reasons that Spaniards are so apprehensive about having kids?

The real reasons why Spaniards don't want to have children

Spain has the second lowest birth rate in the entire EU. According to a study by business school TBS Education-Barcelona, in Spain there are now only 7.6 births per 1,000 inhabitants, only ahead of Italy, with 7.1.

Spain is below the European average, too, which is 9.3 births per 1,000 inhabitants, and the total number of births reached its lowest number in history in 2021 with just 338,532 babies born in the country. That represents a huge 39 percent drop compared to a decade ago.

Economic and work reasons are often cited as the primary reasons why Spaniards are shying away from parenthood. Is this all that’s at play in a society where children and family have traditionally been venerated?


One of the main reasons that Spaniards are having fewer kids is, of course, money. That is to say, many may like to have kids but don’t feel like they can in the current economic situation. With low salaries, high unemployment rates (particularly among young people), rising cost of living and, above all, rocketing rental and mortgage prices, many Spaniards are forced to stay at home with their parents into their thirties or share a property, hardly ideal living situations for raising children.

In 2019 Save the Children estimated that the minimum cost to be able to raise a child ranges between €480 and €590 per month, a figure that has surely risen even higher in the last few years as inflation has pushed the cost of living skyward.

Catalina Perazzo, from Save the Children, told ABC: “We are facing a hostile scenario for families who want to have children, as the economic situation is not good for them and they are forced to delay the age of having children until they have more job stability.”


Career over kids

Naturally, in such uncertain economic circumstances, many Spaniards are focusing instead on their careers. Sadly, many women know that having a child and taking maternity leave, then returning to work, could put them at a disadvantage when it comes to career progression.

But then the paradox is that if young mothers are able to arrange flexible working hours (not something all workplaces are willing to allow) reduced hours will also mean reduced pay.

Cadena Ser looked at the study by TBS and found that the most significant long-term variable in the reduction of Spain’s birth rate was the incorporation of women into the workplace. In fact, there is a high correlation between the number of women working in Spain and the birth rate (-0.74 from 2017 to 2021). This indicates that while the number of employed women increases, the birth rate decreases.

Personal freedoms

The third reason is more of a choice. Some Spaniards are not having offspring (or delaying having them) due to the increased responsibilities and loss of personal freedoms that come with caring for a child.

According to a University of Málaga study, researchers found that the survey answer “my personal freedom would be reduced” by having children is gaining strength as an explanation as to why some hedonism-seeking Spaniards don’t want kids.

“In-depth interviews with these couples reveal the interesting social construction that they make of the happiness of life as a couple without the need for offspring,” says the study, which concludes: “They don’t want to take on responsibilities that are for life”.

Added to this, it seems among younger generations of Spaniards – as is arguably the case around the world – an emphasis on the individual as opposed to groups (whether it be the family unit or wider community) is on the rise. 

READ ALSO: The perks and quirks of having a baby in Spain

Changing relationship models, or no relationships at all

Similarly, this increased individualism and emphasis on personal freedoms also manifests itself in the dating and relationship sphere, something that has a knock-on effect on birth rates.

There seems to be a growing desire among Spaniards to have casual dating experiences without the commitment of a relationship. The study by the University of Málaga concludes that some young people in Spain now view love as an object of ‘consumption’.

This, combined with an increased want for personal freedoms and limited economic opportunities, has been exacerbated dating apps, which are often used in order to quickly and easily engage in short-term, commitment-free relationships rather than solid, long-standing commitment that could result in marriage or children. In other words, no-strings-attached dating and sex rather than traditional relationships and marriage.

There are also currently more singletons than ever – 14 million Spaniards – 52 percent of whom are men and 48 percent women, according to INE figures.

Among those who do want to be mothers, Spanish women would prefer to have an average of 2 children compared to the 1.2 they actually have. Photo: Ratna Fitrey/Pixabay.

Lots more worries and uncertainty about the future

In 2022, Spanish daily El Español interviewed 30 Spaniards aged 30 and under about why they didn’t have and/or didn’t want to have children.

Their answers revealed many of the issues raised above – a lack of financial means, job instability, prioritising career growth, the impossibility of finding a proper work-family life balance, fear of being limited, not wanting the responsibility – all of which leave young Spaniard living day by day, incapable of planning long-term for the future. 

Nonetheless, other answers were also given, such as arguing that the world is already overpopulated, that more children contribute to climate change and overconsumption, fear by women of the effects of pregnancy on their bodies, that they wouldn’t be able to provide their kids with a proper education and the need to take care of themselves and save up as they won’t be getting a Spanish pension (even though the lack of children is contributing to precisely to this risk).

Those who have a child have second thoughts about repeating

According to figures from Spain’s National Institute of Statistics, Spanish women who do take embark on motherhood would prefer to have an average of 2 children compared to the 1.2 they actually have.

Half of the Spanish women say that they would have liked to have been a mother five years earlier. Most, when asked, claim to want to have at least 2 children, and almost 1 out of 4 women who have passed the optimal reproductive age would like to have had more offspring. 

In an article by national broadcaster RTVE, finding an ideal work-family life balance once there’s a child in the mix is cited as being a “utopia”, meaning that adding another child could lead it all come crumbling down. They say it takes a village, and for parents in Spain the help they get from grandparents is often the only way to keep everything afloat. 

Foreign mothers picking up the slack

As The Local has covered before, Spain’s worryingly low birth rate presents some pretty stark demographic problems for the future. The combination of declining birth rates and increasing life expectancy means that the Spanish population is getting older, with the percentage of the population over 65 years of age predicted to peak in 2050, when almost one in three will be 65 years old or older.

READ ALSO: Older and more diverse: What Spain’s population will be like in 50 years

This presents added stresses to Spain’s healthcare and pension systems and will create gaps in the labour market.

Fortunately, migrant mothers in Spain are having far more children than Spaniards. In fact, Spanish society will be made up of more first, second and third-generation immigrants in the future, with the INE figures predicting that Spain will gain over 4 million (4,236,335) people by 2037, with the population set to reach 51 million. That represents an increase of 8.9 percent.

Currently, one in three children born in Spain have at least one foreign parent.

READ ALSO: Foreign residents in Spain top 6 million for first time