The Direct Etiquette of Spain

December 20, 2016

“Am I crazy, or are they staring at me?” This is a common question posed during one’s first few days in Spain. It can be a bit jarring at first, feeling like someone is watching you, analyzing your every detail for far more than an appropriate amount of time by American standards. They say that Spaniards are more appreciative of beauty in the world, and it’s certainly made evident by their shamelessness to stare in public. If they see something they like, they are going to make it known. This “Spanish gaze” hints at a far larger cultural norm that encompasses all of daily life in this country: directness.

In the United States, speaking plainly and bluntly is often frowned upon. The most common example is someone asking, “Do these pants make me look fat?” and the popular response being “Of course not!”...even if they do. We would rather be lied to and made to feel better than hear something we might not like. In Spain, if you ask the same question, you are more likely to get the honest response and will probably be chided jokingly for being a gordito (a little fat one). Spaniards have a way of cutting to the chase.

Take, for example, the bis bis or the traditional Spanish greeting, something that would certainly be considered an invasion of privacy in the United States. It is customary when making a new acquaintance in Spain to give the person two quick short kisses on the sides of both cheeks. Similar to a handshake in the United States, the bis bis signifies the start of a friendship. Except instead of kicking things off with a distant and abject shaking of hands, they go right in for a welcoming kiss and embrace. This directness extends beyond individual relationships (although Spaniards are just as direct in their public romantic endeavors) and to society as a whole.

Ask any Madrileño on the streets where the best place to buy a cheap bottle of water is, and sure enough they will recommend the nearest chino. This bluntness does not indicate that Spaniards are racist; but rather that they don’t have a conception of political correctness like we do in the United States. By using this derogatory (by our American standards) term, they refer to small businesses, usually owned by Asian immigrants, and thus they get straight to the point and call it what the owner typically is—a chino. Political correctness is a foreign concept to Spaniards; they are quick to describe individuals by their physical characteristics—an adolescent girl will usually be addressed as guapa, or beautiful, even by strangers, and if you happen to be of darker skin, negro is widely used and accepted.

By living and visiting Spain, one accepts the inevitable discomfort that comes with encountering such directness in everyday conversation. Much like their general behavior in common spaces, Spaniards aren’t afraid to act as they wish and to express themselves plainly. I was flattered and made slightly uncomfortable one day while studying in my university’s mainly vacant library when one of my female Spanish peers sat down right next to me and began relentless flirting. I was shocked with her boldness and tenacity to approach me, a male foreigner, out of the blue and to express her interest.

It is quite refreshing to live in a place where honesty and forwardness are commonplace, and while I still do a double take every time I catch a stranger staring, I have learned to embrace the directness of Spanish society. I know that when I return to the United States in a few weeks I am in for a rude awakening: I will be the one who is now shamelessly gazing in public.
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