Spanish Culture

Core Concepts

  • Regionalism
  • Language
  • Francoism
  • Uncertainty Avoidance
  • Pride
  • Sociability
  • Late-Night Culture

 

Spain is a southwestern European country located between France and Portugal. It borders the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, occupying roughly 85% of the Iberian Peninsula. Each region/state of Spain has a unique cultural identity that residents are very proud of. One finds that many of the things thought of as distinctively ‘Spanish’ often have a local or regional origin. For example, the flamenco style of music and dance originated in Andalucía (southern Spain). Despite the diversity of Spanish culture, the country also has a strong and unifying national identity. The culture is famous for having a strong social dimension, with many fiestas (celebrations) punctuating the year. Spaniards are renowned for being proud people with a deep love of Spain and a strong awareness of their personal honour. Their open and lively communication style often gives foreigners the impression that they are confident and enthusiastic people.

 

Regionalism (Regionalismo)

Spain is most densely populated along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, as well as in the major inland cities of Madrid, Sevilla and Zaragoza. There has been a consistent pattern of migration from rural areas to the industrial cities over the past century. Today, only 20% of the population lives rurally.1 Some Spaniards identify a cultural difference between rural and urban dwellers, with the former being more religious and socially conservative. Those living in smaller towns and villages also tend to enjoy a slower pace of life. Meanwhile, the major cities are densely populated and quite loud. 

 

Cultural differences are also very noticeable between the regions of Spain. Spain contains a number of different historical provinces and localities that each have their own distinct identity, cultural practices and traditions. For example, some regions have their own language, cuisine and literature that have developed through history. In appreciation of these provincial identities, Spain is split into 17 different regions, known as autonomous communities (comunidades autonomas). Each follows the constitutional law of Spain, but has a degree of self-governance to make regionally specific laws. One may hear people speak of “Las Españas” (the Spains) in reference to this system. The powers of the autonomous communities vary considerably. For example, the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia are recognised as having a “historic nationality” that grants them special status and extensive powers. There has also been a historical Moorish influence in Spain due to its close proximity to Morocco. Generally, this cultural influence becomes more visible the further south one travels, with Islamic architecture still visible in many places.

 

National Identity and Language

The topic of national identity is a sensitive subject in Spain, as there are large points of difference within the country. For example, an index measuring Europeans’ attachment to their region, local area and country found that Spain had the most internal variation in Europe.2 The country is home to some of the most nationalistic regions (such as Madrid) where national loyalty and pride is very strong. However, Spain also has some of the most regionalist provinces in Europe (e.g. the Basque Country and Catalonia). In these places, loyalty and affiliation to one’s local identity is more important than the national identity for many people. 

 

Language is deeply linked to identity in Spain as it is one of the most obvious indicators as to which region people live in. Many Spaniards speak a local dialect at home or in daily life and business. These are generally people that live in regions with very strong provincial identities, such as Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. It is estimated that between 11% and 28% of the population speak a local language as their first language.3,4 While the exact figure is still undetermined, the number of Spaniards speaking local languages is at least many million. 

 

Nonetheless, the majority of Spaniards speak Spanish (Castilian), and almost all citizens who have a local language are bilingual in Spanish to some degree. It is the only language with an official status throughout the entire country. The constitution of Spain allows for its autonomous communities to recognise their dominant regional languages and dialects. Some of the most widely spoken regional languages are Catalan (also known as Valencia or Balearic), Galician, Basque and Aranese. These all have a co-official status in the regions they originated in. 

 

Local Nationalism and the ‘Catalan Question’

The sensitivity surrounding the topic of local nationalism is demonstrated in the developments surrounding the independence of Catalonia. Catalonia is one of Spain’s most distinctive autonomous communities. According to statistics from the Government of Catalonia, roughly 80% of the region’s population can speak Catalan, with approximately 36.3% speaking it as their primary language.5 

 

Local nationalism is strong in Catalonia. For example, it is more common to see the regional flag flown in public than the national flag. A sizeable proportion of the population claim to feel ‘Catalonian, not Spanish’. There has been an ongoing political debate as to whether the region should secede from Spain to be an independent state. In 2017, the regional government held a referendum on the matter in which less than half of the population participated, but 90% of participants voted for independence. Upon this result, the Catalonian government declared independence, which was deemed illegal by the constitutional court. This event led to mass protests and political upheaval. 

 

Ultimately, the Catalan bid for independence has become the biggest political challenge facing the country in decades. The developments have divided public opinion both within Catalonia and Spain more broadly. The push for regional independence has also driven some Castilian-speaking Spaniards to be more loyal to the nation state in order to promote unity. Meanwhile, some in Catalonia feel that the central Spanish government’s prevention of their independence echoes the crackdowns of the previous fascist dictatorship (see Francoist Spain below).

 

Francoist Spain

Spain was ruled by an army general, Francisco Franco, from the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975. His era of fascist dictatorship has come to be known as ‘Francoist Spain’. Over this period, democratic institutions were inhibited, freedom of the press was controlled and political dissent was suppressed. 

 

Franco sought to build a unified vision of the Spanish national identity. He promoted the power of the monarchy and Catholic Church, seeing these as foundations of the country. However, his rule also suppressed cultural diversity across different regions of Spain. Many regional customs and local languages were censored. The traditions that were chosen to be representative of the homogeneous national identity were largely up to the government’s discretion. For example, flamenco was promoted as a long-standing ‘Spanish’ tradition, despite its origins being largely affiliated with the Gitanos of Andalusia in southern Spain. The official statuses of regional languages were revoked, meaning the use of Spanish was enforced in all government, legal and commercial settings – despite millions of Spaniards speaking local languages. 

 

There is still a lot of contention over the facts surrounding this time in history as different narratives of events continue to circulate. Overall, it is not socially acceptable to be an open Franco ‘supporter’ or ‘sympathiser’. However, one cannot generalise Spaniards’ individual opinions on the dictatorship. Over 70% of Spaniards were born after Franco’s death or were children during his rule.6 Therefore, the majority of the population have grown up in post-Franco Spain that quickly transformed to be secular and democratic after his death. The social effects of Franco’s regime are still noticeable as the injustices of his rule continue to be felt by the older generation and the families of those he persecuted. 

 

However, today the era of Francoist Spain is thought of more as a point of reference. Social and political decisions continue to be compared and measured against those of the regime and there is commonly major pushback against ideas that appear to be affiliated with his vision for Spain. Many people feel sceptical or uncomfortable with patriotism, unable to detach it from the devastating effects of Franco’s nationalist dictatorship. Therefore, overt signs of national pride in Spain (such as having the national flag in your house) may make people think you are a Franco supporter. It is more common for people to be proud of Spain for its culture and people, rather than its politics.

 

Instability and Change

According to Geert Hofstede’s dimensions, there is a strong tendency to avoid uncertainty in Spanish culture. People prioritise permanent solutions over those options that are risky or more ambiguous. This is unsurprising considering that almost every Spaniard was heavily affected by the Global Financial Crisis. The country went into recession in 2008 and the unemployment rate peaked at over 25% in 2013.7 Almost everyone knows someone who either lost their job or has been out of work for years. Conditions have improved a lot and there is less paranoia surrounding economic insecurity than there was five years ago. However, the experience has led many to feel a strong desire for stability and security in one’s life. For example, civil services positions have become highly sought after, as these jobs ensure lifelong employment.8

 

The effects of the economic crisis have hit the younger generation of Spaniards harder than anyone else. The youth unemployment rate peaked at over 50% in 2013; as of March 2018, it is estimated that 35% of young adults are unemployed.9 This has left many feeling disaffected with their options as career pathways that worked for their parents are no longer assured. Young Spaniards have had to find new ways and places for opportunity, meaning most are prepared to go abroad to look for work. Indeed, a 2015 Cambridge study showed that millennials believed the ability to speak English was more useful for them than a university degree.10 In the meantime, a common term has emerged to describe those who have essentially given up on their job search: "ninis" (short for "Ni estudian ni trabajan" or "They neither study nor work"). 

 

Rules and Authority

Cultures with high uncertainty avoidance typically have a preference for rules. While this may be the case in Spain, there is not very much respect for following them. The phrase, “Quien hizo la ley, hizo la trampa” (Whoever made the law made the loophole) summarises many Spaniards’ attitude that rules are made for the benefit of the lawmaker rather than the people. For example, it is generally assumed that the political sphere is corrupt and people’s taxes are being syphoned to the wrong place. Resentment for the government is especially strong among the younger generation. A recent study by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies found that the majority of young people believe that politicians are more interested in their own generation than in them.11

 

There is a cultural affection for the role of the rogue or anti-hero (el pícaro) in Spain. Spaniards often love to support the underdog. Many folk stories follow the adventures of low-class outsiders, such as bandits, who can beat the system of a corrupt society. In reality, very few Spaniards are likely to be pleased if they are the target of a pickpocketer. However, these stories reflect the general scepticism of government systems and mistrust of authority figures. This attitude can encourage spontaneity and a light disregard for law and order in daily life (i.e. getting out of a car stopped at a traffic light). 

 

Organisation of the Day

One of the most obvious cultural differences between Spain and the English-speaking West is the organisation of the day. Spain has some of the longest working hours in Europe – from 9am to 8pm with a two- or three-hour break in the afternoon (roughly 2pm to 5pm). This break is traditionally for a siesta (nap) between jobs that has become ingrained in the culture. The custom of the siesta has developed a stereotype of Spaniards as slow-paced, laid-back people. However, the majority of Spaniards (58%) do not actually nap during these hours.12 In some parts of Spain, such as rural towns, the streets may still fall quiet to allow people to sleep indoors. However, many people do not have the ability to commute home for a nap and choose to socialise at restaurants and bars instead. 

 

Due to how late the working day finishes, there is a very big late-night culture in Spain. Shopping centres and convenience stores are often open until 10pm, meaning there is a continual bustle in towns and cities later into the night. Meanwhile, most restaurants will only open up for dinner at about 9pm. Dinner (la cena) is rarely eaten before this time, or usually even later on weekends. Therefore, people normally go to bed around or after midnight, including many children. Indeed, Spaniards have the latest bedtimes in Europe.13 There is currently a national debate as to whether these working hours are still suited to modern Spanish life. With fewer people actually sleeping during the hours of siesta, longer hours of work and late evenings, many Spaniards are sleep deprived. Nevertheless, the organisation of the day and late-night hours allow people to fit in time to see one another. 

 

Socialising and Public Spaces

Spanish culture has a deep social dimension. It is considered normal for people to stay up late talking with friends after a meal, sometimes into the early hours of the morning (a period of time known as ‘la sobremesa’). Those people that do not engage with this aspect of the culture may feel a slight social barrier with Spaniards, as they often bond and build closer friendships over these late-night conversations. Colleagues and friends also often meet during siesta hours and talk over a small beer (caña) to pass the time.

 

Public spaces play a large role in Spaniards’ social life. Plazas (public squares) provide a place for people to mingle without having to necessarily plan an occasion, and most towns and suburbs of major cities generally have restaurants, cafes and bars within walking distance. These popular places provide Spaniards the opportunity to see the public, catch up with friends and hear the latest news. As most socialisation tends to occur outside of people’s homes, people can get to know many of the locals in their suburb or town, reinforcing a sense of community belonging. For example, elderly people may be able to maintain a healthy social life simply by sitting at cafes on popular streets, watching locals and waiting to be spoken to by those passing. 

 

Communication and Interaction

The Spanish are generally observed as being quite informal people. It is common to move on to a first-name basis quickly after meeting someone. Once close acquaintance has been made, Spaniards are generally quite candid and outwardly emotional in comparison to other cultures. This can give people from more reserved cultures the impression that they are very confident people. They tend to be very honest about their opinions and encourage the free flow of ideas. Open expressions of anger, sadness and affection are generally acceptable unless there is a feeling that the situation is going to escalate. For example, people may have discussions that appear heated due to raised voices. However, in most cases, these emotional conversations are lighthearted and the tone of the speaker’s voice is simply an indication of their conviction, sincerity or passion.

 

Many Spaniards cannot bear to cut a conversation short. It is common and acceptable for friends to interrupt and talk over one another as people get excited about conversation. In 1983, Pope John Paul II famously said, “The Pope would like to speak too” (El Papa tambien quiere hablar) as he tried to be heard over the rabble of a Spanish crowd. Spaniards are not particularly comfortable with silence in social situations. Indeed, if a conversation falls quiet, it can reflect badly on the friendship.

 

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1 Central Intelligence Agency, 2017
2 Fitjar, 2009
3 BBC, 2014
4 European Commission Eurobarometer, 2006
5 Government of Catalonia, Directorate General for Language Policy, 2013
6 Central Intelligence Agency, 2017
7 BBC, 2013
8 Geert Hofstede, 2018
9 Eurostat, 2018
10 Jones, 2015
11 Jose Mateo, 2017
12 Simple Logica, 2016
13 Kelley, 2017
 
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