The most common mistakes foreigners make when greeting people in Spain 

The most common mistakes foreigners make when greeting people in Spain 
Photos: Jorge Guerrero, Cesar Manso, Gabriel Buoys/AFP
Saying hi and goodbye in Spanish can’t be that hard, right? Well, if you’ve been using your home country as your frame of reference you may be getting some simple Spanish greetings wrong.

Getting the kisses wrong 

Obviously, as a result of the pandemic, this quintessential Spanish habit is technically on hold for the time being. 

But it’s still worth pointing out where foreigners in Spain often go wrong with this traditional greeting as in normal times it can happen on a daily basis and it can be a bit awkward if you get it wrong. 

Most of the time, when a man and woman, or a woman and another woman, meet or are introduced to each other in a social setting, they give each other two kisses. If it’s two men then they shake hands or hug depending on how close they are. 

It’s two kisses on the cheek, always starting on the left side. This can be particularly confusing for kiss-giving nationals like the French who start on the right. 

It doesn’t necessarily have to involve lip-cheek contact either, often it’s rather cheek to cheek, lightly brushing against each other. 

And yes, there are certain cases where people only give one kiss, which can lead to some slightly awkward head bobbing as you head in for the second beso. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a regional rule to warn you of this. 

In business settings handshakes were becoming increasingly common in Spain but there were still instances where los dos besos (the two kisses) were the official greeting. 

There is nothing wrong with not abiding by Spain’s kiss greeting rules (in normal times that is) but a Spanish person may be slightly offended if you pull back and avoid their kisses in a social setting (known colloquially as hacer una cobra, doing a cobra).

Foreigners who weren’t a fan of this standard Spanish habit in the first place may be glad that they don’t have to worry about taking part in it for the foreseeable future. 

Elbows at the ready!

READ MORE: Is it the end of the two-kiss greeting in Spain?

When you greet someone without stopping

It may seem weird to English speakers, but if you pass someone you know in the street but don’t actually stop to talk to them, the normal thing to say is ‘bye’ or ‘see you later’ rather than ‘hi’ or ‘hello’.

So rather than saying hola or buenos dias/tardes, the more normal way of greeting someone on the go in Spain is by saying ‘adiós’ or ‘hasta luego’.

This is starting to remind us a bit of a certain song by The Beatles.

Lunging in for a hug too soon 

Here’s another physical greeting that’s been temporarily paused in Spain, but it’s worth going over the social rules. 

Some foreigners might assume kissing is higher up in the (wait for it) pecking order and therefore think that hugs are a step down from this.

The reality of it is that hugs – abrazos in Spanish – are generally not given when you’ve just met someone (unless you hit it off straight away, and quite possibly when there’s alcohol involved). 

Spaniards are definitely more touchy-feely than the average nation but if there isn’t a friendship established yet, hugging someone might catch them a bit by surprise. 

It’s a far safer bet to opt for the two kisses or handshake early on. But again, for the time being it’s better to opt for the elbow, the fist bump or the pat on the back. 

Bono enjoys a hug with Penélope Cruz. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA / AFP

Mixing up buenos días and buenas tardes

Saying good afternoon exactly after midday -12 o’ clock – isn’t something that many Spaniards do. 

So saying buenas tardes when the clock strikes 12 might spur a Spanish person to check their watch as for them that’s morning still, or mediodía (midday), which still allows for the greeting buenos días

There’s a general consensus here that the afternoon only officially starts at or around lunchtime, which tends to be at around 2 or 3pm. 

This isn’t necessarily a mistake that foreigners make and should change, but it’s worth remembering, especially to understand the Spanish mentality better and to resolve any doubts they had about it.

What’s the easiest way around it? Just say buenas, a perfectly acceptable and formal greeting which can be used to say hello to someone at any time of the day. And yes, hola also works. 

Forgetting there isn’t a way to say good evening in Spanish

It’s 7pm in Spain, you go into your local supermarket and the cashier says buenas tardes. It’s 10pm in Spain, and the barman at your local bars greets you with buenas tardes once again. When do the afternoons actually end in this country?

Technically you can use buenas tardes as a greeting all the way until midnight; the time concept of evening isn’t one that’s defined in the Spanish dictionary or in popular use. 

Some foreigners may think that buenas noches – good night – might work as a way of saying hello once it’s dark, but most Spaniards only use it to say goodbye at night when it’s time to call it a day.  Again, the easiest way around it is to use buenas or hola


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