Understanding a new culture can be hard, especially when it is your first time traveling internationally. Culture is defined by the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society. It’s pretty much anything that defines a group of people or contributes to how they function as society.
Traveling to Spain was such an eye-opener to me because I don’t think I ever realized how different two places can really be. It was a little frustrating at times, too, because the things that would be considered rude or disrespectful in my culture would be the social norm for Spaniards. But, like the famous quote says, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” Accepting that neither culture is wrong, but merely different, is key.
1. Smoking is not uncommon.
One of the different cultural norms I experienced was smoking, which often resulted in smoke being blown in or near my face. This was a major adjustment because I am never around smokers. I would often find myself coughing or worried about being a product of second-hand smoke. However, because a large percentage of people in European countries smoke this act was the norm for them. So in order to adjust to their culture, sometimes I would just wrap a scarf around my nose when walking through a lot of people or just hold my breath so I wouldn’t inhale it so much. Who knows if it actually worked but it was my way of adjusting because I was the one who needed to adjust to them.
2. Literally bumping into someone on the street doesn’t warrant an apology.
Another social difference was getting accidentally bumped while walking. Where I come from, if someone accidentally bumps into you while walking the response is usually an “excuse me” or “I’m sorry.” Here I’ve seen and — even after talking to some of my professors — found that locals really just don’t care. No one takes offense to getting accidentally bumped and, in their culture, it’s not considered rude because it’s just a social norm. Interesting, right? I’m sure you can imagine how I felt my first week in Spain after being bumped left and right without anyone saying anything. Once I got some information about this from locals, I realized I really appreciated how their culture was so relaxed and not easily offended.
3. Mid-afternoon siestas are real.
Another new cultural norm for Spaniards that I would be crazy for neglecting to mention is siesta. This break right after lunch was definitely a cultural difference that I wouldn’t mind being implemented on an international level! Siesta is a rest period of about two hours after lunch. In Spain, everything is pushed back as it relates to time — at least compared to the United States. Breakfast is around 11 AM, lunch is around 3 PM, and dinner is around 10 PM. Because Spaniards eat so much for lunch (lunch is considered their dinnertime), they have a period of rest where everyone goes home to eat and nap! All the shops, stores, and businesses close down and the streets are empty during this time.
Now, while I won’t be taking these social norms home with me (well, maybe the siesta), I think learning and experiencing different cultures is so important — especially in the society we live in today. Keep an open mind about the experiences you face when studying abroad and realize that you are the foreigner. See yourself as a guest in their society and approach this with an open mind and most importantly, respect.