Cultural Differences between Spain and the United States – 4 more things I’ve noticed

Living abroad is an eye-opening experience.

A guy like myself — coming from a place in the US that’s not very cosmopolitan, not incredibly exciting, and not super touristy — has a lot to learn from European life.

And in the last decade or so I’ve learned a lot about the cultural differences between Spain and the United States.

I went through four big things I’ve learned from Spanish life in my last article.

There, I talked about how Americans work too hard, how we’re all secretly Puritans, how the Spanish dream is at about the same level as American rock-bottom, and how what you consider “fat” is probably relative to the size of people around you.

So this is the continuation of that article…

You didn’t think I only learned 4 things in a whole decade, did you?

Ready for more cultural differences between Spain and the United States?

Let’s go for it…

Cultural differences between Spain and the United States: We’re terrified of physical contact

My boss – back when I had one – was an older, bearded Spanish guy.

He wore brown suits with tan ties, and I suspect he kept a bottle of whisky in a desk drawer for emergencies.

On weekends, he used to go back to his hometown (population 12) and tend to his sheep. During the economic crisis, he was pretty philosophical about the collapse of Spain as I knew it.

He said, and I quote, “If the shit hits the fan, I’ll just go back home. The sheep aren’t in crisis.”

(I’m not exaggerating about any of this.)

But the thing the new recruits from the US talk about most is his habit of putting his hands all over you.

I’m sure the women at work could have him fired (and potentially sue him for millions) if we were back in the States, but here, a bit of touching is perfectly acceptable.

Maybe more than a bit.


In my ex-boss’ defense, he always keeps it “above the belt.” But when I used to come back from spending Christmas in Italy, for example, his default greeting was to rub my belly and say, “You must have eaten well over there… You’re nice and fat!”

Update: that school closed. I assume he’s back in his tiny-ass town with his herd sheep these days. Good for him.

cultural differences between spain and the united states
Just a couple of typical Spanish women doing typical Spanish things…

Of course, I grew up in the middle of the desert, where seeing a dozen people at a time was an event. My personal bubble is about 10 feet across — saying hello where I’m from means standing out of arm’s reach, waving and saying “howdy.”

In Spain, among friends, you’re supposed to kiss people on the cheek when you’re introduced. There’s a whole unwritten code of etiquette around this.

Left cheek, then right.

Girls kiss girls, guys kiss girls, guys don’t kiss guys (unless they’re your typical Lavapiés leftist with the fake dreadlocks, in which case they do kiss guys, and then pat themselves on the back about how liberal they’re being.)

For some reason, when you come back to work after the New Year, it’s necessary to kiss everyone you know, even if you don’t generally do so. And even if it’s April, you should wish a hearty Happy New Year to anyone you haven’t seen since last December.

I always find it amusing when Americans get together over here in Spain, because nobody knows what to do. Should we shake hands? Should we wave from a distance? Should we kiss? Hug?

The horror!

Usually, we circle around each other awkwardly for a moment, waiting for the other person to make a move.

Sometimes there’s some awkward kissing, sometimes not.

Moving on…

Another cultural difference: In the US, we have no food culture

When I first arrived, years ago, I was still on the American schedule of eating dinner at 6 o’clock.

This infuriated my flatmate Javi to no end. He would come home and see me in the kitchen eating some pasta and say, “Daniel, what the hell are you doing? Is this lunch? Is it dinner? It’s 6 PM for the love of God!”

He didn’t know what to do with me, and I discovered, eventually, that it was because the Spanish can be quite strict about their food culture.

Meals are eaten at specific times. Sunday means, without fail, paella with your mother in law –perhaps every Sunday for decades! Christmas Eve, New Year’s and Epiphany all mean, apparently, that we must eat prawns.

It’s serious business.

bocadillo de calamares madrid plaza mayor
A typical Madrid afternoon snack: fried squid sandwiches on Plaza Mayor.

Contrast that to the Standard American Diet where you can have Pop Tarts for dinner and a bowl of ice cream for dessert and nobody will think anything of it.

I guess the reason is that the United States started industrializing everything long before Spain did. We’ve had a lot longer to get used to the idea of pre-packaged pseudo-food.

High fructose corn syrup is in everything… So it must be healthy, right?

Add to that the fact that the percentage of Americans working as farmers has been in decline for generations — a lot of people don’t have any sort of reference for what pre-industrial food was like.

Most people just imagine that food comes from the supermarket — an illusion that agribusiness is quite happy to promote. It seems much more sanitary than the reality.

If you’re happier thinking your T-bone steak just grew under plastic wrap, they’re certainly not going to burst your bubble by showing you a butcher hacking a dead cow to pieces in the back of your local Safeway.

In Madrid on the other hand, almost everybody I know has family or friends back on the farm, growing vegetables or making some sort of homemade cheese, sausage or table wine.

They’ve participated in picking grapes or slaughtering hogs. They know exactly where food comes from, and they know the difference between real food and Pop Tarts.

And then there’s the culture of fear…

We live in constant fear of all the wrong things

Back in the States, news isn’t really information.

It’s infotainment.

It’s designed to jerk your emotions one way, then swing them back in the other, and more than anything, to keep you from changing the channel.

When I was growing up, the evening news usually started with the in-depth report on a local quadruple homicide — any American city worth living in has at least one of those every week…

Followed by an uplifting piece about a high school quarterback who recently lost his leg in a tragic weed-whacking accident, but who swears he’ll be back on the field in time for Homecoming.

After that, it was the transcendentally important footage of firemen rescuing a cat from a tree (and a touching interview with the cat’s owner), followed by an investigative report on how the sponge in your kitchen is even now being colonized by flesh eating bacteria, which will kill your whole family…

But only if you change the channel during the commercial break. So stay tuned!

differences between US and Spanish culture
Plaza de la Villa in the center of Madrid. One of the oldest and most beautiful squares in town.

Of course, this kind of thing keeps you glued to the screen, but it’s not what much of the world considers to be news.

Spanish news is quite boring by comparison. Long clips of the day’s debates in Parliament, real reporting on relevant national issues, and even stories of things that happen in other countries…

Yes, other countries!

Apparently, the Spanish realize that Spain is only one country out of dozens — perhaps hundreds — of others. The education I got back in the US did its best to gloss over that fact, and you didn’t see much international news on television either.

Besides keeping Americans glued to their TV screens, the point of the news seems to be to ensure that people live in constant fear of what might happen.

Renegade bacteria might eat your whole family. Ethnic minorities might decide to make you part of their next quadruple homicide. Terrorists might be planning something big, and it might happen soon.

Of course, according to actual facts, you’re much more likely to be killed by obesity, heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure, suicide or a traffic accident than by some ferocious sponge-borne bacteria or marauding gang of angry teenagers.

And furniture is more dangerous than terrorism. (Sorry, furniture. No offense.)

But really, the news is not about actual facts. It’s about keeping you in front of the TV, scared stiff and ready to watch some advertisements.

And also…

We’re extreme individualists with no concept of the public good

Back in my hometown, nothing infuriates the average person more than public transport.

“My tax dollars,” the thinking goes, “shouldn’t be spent on transport for people too lazy to be able to afford a car.”

All throughout the Real Gun-Toting Evangelist America you hear otherwise reasonable people say similar things about all sorts of government programs. “If my house is on fire, then dag-nabbit I’ll hire somebody to put it out for me… Enough with these lazy firemen and their entitlement attitudes, sitting around the station all day on my dime!”

spanish culture vs american culture
Is this donkey being subsidized by the Spanish government as part of a socialist plot to ruin America? I honestly have no way of knowing…

Not to mention my personal favorite: “Social Security is nothing but a Ponzi scheme. Hard working Americans like me shouldn’t be forced to subsidize a bunch of old folks playing shuffleboard and waiting for death!”

In Europe, on the other hand, people consider infrastructure and pensions to be valuable social goods.

Even national healthcare (which apparently scares the bejeezus out of fat midwesterners, for some reason I cannot fathom) is accepted by basically everyone. For a politician to suggest a reduction of old-age pensions or the public health system would be political suicide.

I think American individualism is a good thing, in moderation.

I’ve spoken to a lot of Europeans who have grown up with some form of socialism and whose entire life philosophy seems to be “if you sit around complaining long enough, eventually the government will take care of it, send you a check and solve all your problems.”

On the other hand, being able to go to the doctor any time without worrying about the cost sure is nice. And getting around by public transport is much better than being stuck at home all the time without a car.

En fin…

Cultural differences between Spain and the United States – What’s better?

So what’s better? Spain or the USA?

It’s hard for me to say.

And of course, everybody is entitled to their own opinion. Everybody has strong feelings about things like this – based, mostly, on the idea that whatever they grew up with must be better.

I’m much happier living in Spain than I ever was in the US.

But it’s funny, because the longer I live in Spain, the more American I feel.

I’ve come to appreciate a lot of things I would probably never have enjoyed if I had stayed back home. I eat hotdogs and drink Budweiser on the 4th of July.

I’ve even started listening to Johnny Cash.

On the other hand, I don’t actually want to go back. I’m happy with the idea of American life I’ve built up over the years, why ruin it by flying over and confronting the reality?

That’s all I’ve got for today.

Humbly yours,


P.S. I hope you’ve enjoyed my article about cultural differences between Spain and the United States. What have you learned from living (or travelling) abroad? Let me know, right here in the comments. Thanks!

P.P.S. If you want even more fun, here’s 32 reasons why I love Spain. And I’ve also got an article about the 4 reasons why I hate Spain. Or hey, whaddya say to an exciting new article about the pros and cons of living in Madrid? Enjoy…


How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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