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‘Spain is different’: Why do Spanish people say this in English when criticising Spain?

What was once a successful English-language tourism slogan has become a way for Spaniards to be critical about their country whenever it’s at odds with global trends. 

'Spain is different': Why do Spanish people say this in English when criticising Spain?
A tourist tries his luck in a Spanish bullring in the 1960s. Photo: Teresa Avellanoa/Flickr

“Spain is different”. These three words are often uttered in English by Spaniards when summing up something they think is not particularly good about their country. 

Spanish people are generally proud of many elements of their society and culture but they can be fairly critical, in some ways self-deprecating, about the state of affairs and mentality here. 

According to Spanish history expert John Elliott, Spain has been holding on to this inferiority complex since the 17th century, always expecting more from itself and its institutions since the ‘glory days’ of the Spanish empire. 

Spanish diplomat and novelist Juan Valera wrote in 1868 that “foreigners have asked me if we hunt lions in Spain” and that  the Napoleonic era cliché that “Africa starts at the Pyrenees” was frequently used across Europe. 

Following the country’s crippling Civil War and ensuing dictatorship, the image of Spain as backward and isolated compared to the rest of Europe was perpetuated throughout the first half of the 20th century.

By the 1960s and the advent of international tourism, Spain wanted to clean up its image. 

Franco’s Tourism Minister Manuel Fraga (some claim it was his predecessor Luis Bolín) decided that the best approach was to embrace Spain’s marked differences in wealth and cosmopolitanism. Spain wouldn’t be known as worse or better, it was “quirky”, “exotic”, “unique”.

And so the slogan “Spain is different!” was coined and just like the industry it was meant to promote, it’s lived on to this day.

Here are three examples of the “Spain is different” tourism campaign. Source: Instituto de Estudios Turísticos

Spain no longer needs a catchy slogan to let everyone know it’s special and worth visiting. 

But the expression “Spain is different”  has acquired an ironic new meaning. 

Nowadays it serves to describe bizarre or negative situations or events that Spaniards feel could only happen on home soil. 

The reason why Spain is the only country which allows young northern Europeans to turn some of its towns into boozed up hellholes? That’s easy, because “Spain is different”. 

That corruption was so rife in Spain a few years ago that even the princess’s husband set up fake NGOs to syphon off millions of euros he didn’t need? Bueno, “Spain is different”. 

When the Spanish capital was the only region in the country that inexplicably eased restrictions when the third wave of the virus was taking hold of Spain? El País ran with the headline “Madrid is different”.

Ask any Spaniard what frustrates or embarrasses them about their country and they’re likely to offer you a few more “Spain is different ” examples, or ‘Espain is díferen’, depending on how good their English pronunciation is. 

They may also refer to Spain as país de pandereta (tambourine country) or Españistán as a way of slamming their nation as backward, although both of these are slightly harsher than “Spain is different”. 

What’s clear is that many Spaniards recognise that the nation has a bit of an inferiority complex, instigated by foreigners and locals alike, which objectively speaking isn’t necessarily justified.

Yes, official matters in Spain are marred by arduous bureaucracy to the lack of jobs and political cronyism, which means northern European countries probably have the upper hand in this regard. 

But when it comes to history, culture, nature, architecture, food, national psyche and more there is plenty to write home about. If not, ask the 5.8 million foreigners that have made Spain their home. 

No country is perfect. But maybe Spain is different.


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Spanish Expression of the Day: ‘No dar un palo al agua’

What do a stick and water have to do with working in Spain?

Spanish Expression of the Day: 'No dar un palo al agua'

One of the main clichés foreigners perpetuate about Spaniards is that they’re work-shy hedonists with a “mañana mañana” attitude towards any sort of responsibility.

Even among Spaniards themselves, there are regional stereotypes about southerners that claim they’re all vagos (lazy), especially those from Andalusia and the Canary Islands. 

Studies have actually shown that people in Spain work longer hours than Germans and other northern Europeans, so it’s understandably frustrating for many Spaniards to hear the same stereotypes regurgitated again and again.

Without a doubt, there are idle people in Spain, just like anywhere else in the world. So what’s one way to describe this laziness in Spanish?

No dar un palo al agua, which in its literal sense means to ‘not hit the water with a stick’. 

In fact, it’s the equivalent of saying in English ‘to not lift a finger’, ‘to never do an ounce of work’ or ‘to do sweet FA’ (FA standing for ‘fuck all’, or Fanny Adams, but that’s another story). 

Even though we initially thought that this Spanish metaphor drew a parallel between not being able to do something as simple as throwing a stick in a lake or a river, the origins of this saying are actually from the world of sailing.

Sailors who weren’t willing to put in the work and let everyone else do the rowing were called out for loafing around and told ¡No das un palo al agua!, in the sense that their oars (the palo or stick refers to the oar) weren’t even touching the water. 

So the next time you want to describe the fact that someone is not pulling their weight, remember this interesting Spanish expression. You can also use the shortened version – ‘no dar ni palo’.

It’s an expression which is widely used in all manner of settings (including formal ones), so you don’t have to worry about offending anyone, apart from perhaps the person who you are describing as working very little or not at all. 


Pedro no da un palo al agua. Se pasa el día en las redes sociales aunque haya un montón de trabajo que hacer.

Pedro doesn’t lift a finger, he spends his days on social media even if there’s loads of work to do.

¡No das un palo al agua! ¡Eres un holgazán! ¡A ver si te pones las pilas!

You do sweet FA! You’re a right lazybones! Get your arse in gear!