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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.

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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Meet the Spanish youth reframing the news for TikTok, YouTube

In the suburbs of Madrid, four young women are hard at work creating videos summarising the news that is viewed every day by millions of people on TikTok.

Meet the Spanish youth reframing the news for TikTok, YouTube

They are part of a growing army of young people making content about current events which attract more viewers on social media than videos published by the traditional media.

The idea emerged when two of the women were studying in London between 2016 and 2020 as Britain was preparing to leave the European Union.

“We would read a bunch of articles but we weren’t able to get a broad understanding” of the topic, said 26-year-old biotechnology graduate Gabriela Campbell. “We thought if it’s hard for us, there must be more people like us too,” she told AFP.

So the pair joined forces with two other friends to launch an account on TikTok called “ac2ality” in June 2020, just as the popularity of the Chinese short-video sharing app was soaring among young people.

Nearly three years on, the account has 4.3 million followers – more than the majority of major media outlets. That makes ac2ality the top news account in Spanish on TikTok, according to the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The four do not consider themselves journalists, saying instead they “translate the news” in one-minute videos made with a smartphone and a circular light to ensure well-lit images.

Their video narrating the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, was seen over 17 million times.

Lighter tone

Social networks like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have become the main source of news for young people, according to several studies, including one by Britain’s media regulator Ofcom.

Some initiatives offering news content “designed by young people for young people”, such as French firm Brut, have already become heavyweights, said Reuters Institute researcher Nic Newman.

Thanks to algorithms, news accounts run by individuals and “not necessarily companies” can now “reach huge numbers of people” on social media, he said.

In France, HugoDecrypte is one of the most followed news accounts on social media and has broadcast interviews with French President Emmanuel Macron and Bill Gates.

Its founder, 25-year-old YouTuber Hugo Travers, told AFP he knows “how to talk to a generation” that simply “tunes out” when news is presented in a more traditional format.

Susana Perez Soler, a journalist and digital communications expert at Barcelona’s Ramon Llull University, said such accounts owe their popularity to their lighter tone, creative formats and short lengths.

In cases like ac2ality, they are providing a “summary” of the news and “not journalism”, which requires “investigative work, finding sources and checking their reliability”, she added.

‘I’m my own editor’

The millions of subscribers these accounts attract have aroused the envy of major media outlets which struggle to reach young people.

A large Spanish media firm made a bid for ac2ality but the four founders wanted to maintain their independence.

Co-founder Daniela Alvarez said “one of the keys” to ac2ality’s success was “not being associated with the mainstream media” which can sometimes be “politicised” or burdened by cumbersome procedures.

Some journalists who work for traditional media outlets also run their own news accounts on social media.

Sophia Smith Galer, a 28-year-old British journalist with Vice News, has an account on TikTok where her videos on sexual health have been watched more than 130 million times.

“You don’t have to convince a gate-keeping news editor why a story is important,” she told AFP. “I am my own editor on that,” she said. “What young people consider to be newsworthy is not necessarily what
traditional news media think is newsworthy.”

Those between 15 and 30 do still turn to traditional media in some cases, said the researcher, Newman.

“When you talk about something like Ukraine, a lot of young people don’t want that presented to them by 18-year-olds,” he said. “They want the news presented by people who are actually in the war zone
and really know what they’re talking about.”