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The most common mistakes foreigners make when greeting people in Spain 

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.

The most common mistakes foreigners make when greeting people in Spain 
Photos: Jorge Guerrero, Cesar Manso, Gabriel Buoys/AFP

Getting the kisses wrong 

As a result of the pandemic, this quintessential Spanish habit was technically on hold for a time, but now it’s back in most social settings.

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

Kissing on the cheeks isn’t all that common around the world, meaning that foreigners in Spain sometimes get this traditional greeting wrong, which can be lead to some awkward situations. 

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, starting on the left side (as in your head goes to the left and your right cheek presses against theirs) . 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 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).

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 all Spaniards do. 

Technically, you should be saying buenas tardes when the clock strikes 12 but if you say buenos días at 1pm you won’t necessarily get any weird looks from Spaniards. You may do however if you say buenos días well into the afternoon at 5 or 6pm.

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

READ ALSO – Wet the doughnut: Ten hilarious Spanish expressions to refer to sex

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¡Me cago en! Seven things Spaniards verbally defecate on 

Barça’s Gerard Piqué stained his farewell match by getting sent off after telling the ref “I crap on your b*tch mother”. As harsh as it may sound, this kind of swearing is far from uncommon in Spain. Here’s what else Spaniards verbally defecate on.

¡Me cago en! Seven things Spaniards verbally defecate on 

Profanities are both routine and widely accepted in most social situations in Spain.  

Whether it’s mierda (shit), coño (c**t) or puta (bitch), pretty much anything goes.

Swear words tend not to carry as much clout as they do in English, so much so that calling someone a clown (payaso) or an imbecile (imbécil) can often cause more offence.

Not everyone in Spain has a potty mouth though, so don’t feel obliged to start hurling palabrotas (swear words) to sound like a local. It also depends on how the obscenity is delivered. 

READ ALSO: How to ‘swear’ politely in Spanish

One of the most colourful habits Spaniards have when it comes to swearing is the expression me cago en… (I shit/crap on…). They use it to express frustration or anger about something, or if it is followed by the possessive adjective tu (your), it’s more likely to be an insult directed at someone.

Although what you choose to verbally defecate on is completely up to you, there are some particularly evocative expressions that Spaniards use very often. 

I crap in the milk – Me cago en la leche

As weird and off-putting as this may sound, Spaniards ‘crap in milk’ a lot. It’s a bit like saying ‘shit’ or ‘damn’ to express disappointment about something.

I crap on the Virgin – Me cago en la Virgen

As you will see in this list, blasphemy and defecation go hand in hand, and as the Virgin Mary is important to Catholic Spain, she often gets brought up. Spaniards also ‘crap’ on the Almighty when saying me cago en Dios.

I crap on the sacramental bread – Me cago en la hostia 

Shouting ¡hostia! (communion wafer!), as in the host that Catholics eat during mass, is part and parcel of the daily lingo in Spain when something surprises or angers you. With that in mind, it’s logical that Spaniards also express their intent to crap on sacramental bread when they get frustrated.  

I crap on your dead relatives – Me cago en tus muertos

Here’s where things start to get personal. Verbally defecating on someone’s ancestors is a way to let them know that you’re very disappointed with them. Again, it all depends on the context, but more often than not it won’t cause too much offence, especially if they deserve it. 

I crap on your molars – Me cago en tus muelas

If you don’t want to mention the person’s deceased family members, you can avoid this by instead crapping on their molar teeth. It’s a euphemism given that muelas (molars) and muertos (dead people) start with the same syllable.

I crap in the salty sea – Me cago en la mar salada

We know what you’re thinking, as if the sea needed any more toxic waste dropping into it. This poetic expression is another euphemism, this time to avoid expressing what Gerard Piqué said about someone’s madre (mother), which could well be considered the worst insult in Spain. 

READ MORE: What’s the worst possible insult in the Spanish language?

I crap on your bitch mother – Me cago en tu puta madre

It’s not a mental image anyone of us wants but bizarrely this is a widely used insult in Spain. People also replace the madre (mother) with padre (father), although they usually drop the puta for that. Remember that this is an offensive expression in most people’s eyes and it could involve an unpleasant reaction. Saying me cago en la puta (I crap on the bitch) is different as it’s not aimed at someone’s mother. 

READ ALSO: ¡Joder! An expert guide to correctly using the F-word in Spanish