It is finally Spring Break or your much longed for summer vacation, and Spain is your vacation destination. Get ready for dry heat, dry countryside, with castles dotting every once in a while, as you drive down the Spanish freeway. Before you start immersing yourself in the Spanish countryside, cuisine, and culture, there are at least 5 things to know about Spanish culture before traveling to Spain.
When meeting someone new you may be greeted with a handshake, but more likely-- like most Hispanic cultures-- you will be greeted with a kiss. It is a cheek-to- cheek kiss, not a lip-to- cheek or lip- to- lip kiss. And you will do it on both cheeks from left to right. You will place your right cheek on the left side of the person you are greeting (which is also their right cheek). You will make a brief kissing sound. Then pull your head back to switch cheeks. Do not pull your head too far back or you will end up looking like a chicken going in for a peck. You will again make a kissing sound, and then you are done with the typical cultural greeting in Spain! The kisses may be prefaced or followed up with asking how they are doing ("cómo estás"). You should definitely say "hola" before doing the "besos" though. You do not want to be kissing random people without acknowledging them first. That would be a little weird.
The culture in Spain is unique compared to the rest of the Spanish-speaking countries. The main thing you will notice was just covered in the greetings. Spaniards kiss twice, whereas most of Latin American countries only kiss once for their greetings. Another difference is that Spaniards are very informal in their language. Spaniards address their teachers by their first names, never by a last name. It does not matter how advanced in age the teacher may be. You will not hear Mr., Mrs., Or Miss preceding the teacher's name when students are addressing him or her. Another thing that differentiates Spanish culture from the rest of the Spanish-speaking world is that Spaniards are pretty direct with their speech. They are not going to beat around the bush or sugarcoat things. They will tell you exactly what they think. And that is normal.
The version of Spanish spoken in Spain is labeled by Spaniards as "castellano" (Castilian). And the Spanish in Spain is different enough from other versions of Spanish that it may warrant a different name. They use the informal version of you "tú" with everyone, including the nice little old lady down the street. Do not even try to use "usted" because you will be corrected and asked to use "tú." That is part of the informal culture in Spain. They also use "vosotros" instead of ustedes for "you" in the plural form. "Vosotros" comes with its own verb forms as well. So, make sure you learn how to use this form of plural you before heading to Spain. Another thing that may surprise you about the Spanish spoken in Spain is that cussing is considered normal, and words that would be seen as extremely vulgar in Latin America are commonly used in Spain.
Food plays an extremely important part of Spanish culture. Imagine a warm summer night. Air conditioning is used sparingly in Spain, so sitting in the cooler outside air is ideal. You are sitting at a small table on the cobblestone sidewalk beside a narrow cobblestone road. Your waiter brings you a different "tapa" (appetizer, small plate) with each drink you purchase. Quite a way to experience typical Spanish culture. Another cultural thing in Spanish restaurants to know before you go is that if you go to a sit-down non-tapas restaurant, you will likely be faced with a 4-5 course menu. It is great to experience once or twice but may become tiresome for every meal. The good news that you need to know is that you do not have to order all the courses. Just tell the waiter exactly what you want and leave off whatever courses you want.
Many a tourist or foreigner who is used to the very customer-oriented shopping experience in the US that travels to Spain needs to know that their experience is likely to be a bit different. When doing your grocery shopping in Spain, you will likely not be greeted with an overly radiating grin with a sweet-as-honey greeting that you might get in the US. You may get a nod, a brief moment of eye contact, or a slight tight-lipped smile. Questions will be answered quickly and shortly quite likely without a smile.