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Nine unwritten rules that explain how Spain works 

What makes Spain and Spaniards tick? These unwritten rules will help you understand some of the traits of the national psyche, from the Spanish attitude to work to what Spaniards prioritise in life.

Nine unwritten rules that explain how Spain works 
Having trouble understanding Spain and Spaniards? These unwritten rules will help you. Photo: Cristina Gottardi/Unsplash

Talking to complete strangers is allowed

Some northern Europeans may shiver at the thought of someone they don’t know approaching them to speak, but in Spain this kind of spontaneous small talk is part and parcel of daily life.

Whether it’s a grandmother sparking up a conversation with you at a bus stop, someone asking for the time or a light and then chatting, in the vast majority of social situations it’s okay to chat.

This explains why to many foreigners, Spaniards are straight-talking, genuine and friendly people.

The same usually applies to personal space and physical touch; it’s perfectly acceptable to swoop in for two kisses if you’ve just been introduced to someone for the first time, or for a group of old ladies to fuss over a stranger’s baby whilst leaning over the pram and pinching the newborn’s chubby legs.

Someone falls over in the street, you help them

In the same vein, if there’s someone in distress in Spain, your civic duty is to help them. 

Coming across different forms of solidarity is very common here. If someone falls over in the street, within a split second a flood of pedestrians will rush to their aid. If a new mother needs help carrying her baby’s pram up a flight of stairs, someone will offer to help. If you’re lost and need directions, a passer-by will have the time for you.

As a more recent example, there’s the Spanish population’s general acceptance of wearing face masks during the pandemic, higher than in other European countries, with the fact that so many elderly Spaniards died in the early days of Covid-19 creating a zeitgeist of supportiveness. 

Spaniards are by and large always willing to help others. (Photo by Jorge Guerrero / AFP)

It’s not what you know, but who you know

Cronyism is alive and well in Spain, for better or for worse. And we mean from a grassroots level – someone’s uncle getting his unqualified nephew a job at his company – to the higher echelons, as evidenced by crooked politicians giving tenders to close friends for the past decades. 

It may be a shame that Spain’s labour market doesn’t operate like a meritocracy, nor is it necessarily good for productivity, but then again, many people could well be without a job if it wasn’t for someone they know doing them a favour. 

In Spain, word of mouth is king when it comes to business. Spaniards may well be using the internet more to find what they’re after, but the opinion of someone they trust or know will always count more.

READ ALSO: Is Spain as corrupt as it was a decade ago?

Mañana, mañana

Spain is not a country of lazybones and the siesta isn’t the national pastime, but if there’s one stereotype that rings truer than most it is the mañana mañana attitude, in particular when it comes to bureaucracy.

Getting anything official done in Spain takes longer and is more complex than in the majority of European countries. Be it setting up a business, buying a property, applying for a grant, getting official documents processed, everything is unnecessarily drawn out.

Spain’s civil servants (funcionarios) have a reputation for washing their hands of responsibilities, passing the buck and showing no accountability, although in many cases they’ll argue that their departments are understaffed.

Whatever it be, there isn’t the sense of streamlining important processes in Spain, no general rush to get things done quickly.

Spaniards have become acceptant of this, even though it unfortunately hampers business and entrepreneurship.

spain unwritten rules

Drawn-out bureaucracy is a scourge for Spain, and yet still widely accepted. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

You don’t live to work, you work to live

When it comes to career prospects, many Spaniards don’t aspire to run their own successful businesses or move up the ladder of an important company.

Instead they ‘dream’ of a mid-paygrade stable job, such as working for supermarket chain Mercadona or, wait for it, becoming a civil servant.

Whether it’s down to the chronic insecurity of the country’s labour market, the struggles of being self-employed in Spain or due to a lack of professional aspirations, many Spaniards are content with the idea of having a run-of-the-mill job where wages are guaranteed, lay-offs are unlikely and they can focus on enjoying life outside of work.

Work is generally treated as a means to an end in Spain: earn money to enjoy life. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

Hedonism is a national sport

Eating good food, spending quality time with friends and family, going out partying until the early hours – frequent socialising is the standard in Spain. It’s all about enjoying life today and now, personal freedom, carpe diem through and through. 

A 2021 study found that 43 percent of Spaniards save less than €100 of their wages every month, which reflects how even during difficult economic times, you cannot prevent a Spaniard from heading out to have a good time.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why foreigners perceive that Spain offers such a good quality of life.

Interrupting others is fair game

For many foreigners, Spaniards are loud and speak quickly, but one other point ‘guiris’ quickly pick up on when they engage in conversation with Spanish people is that talking over others isn’t a social faux pas. 

It’s not meant to be disrespectful, it’s rather just how conversations often go as get-togethers become boisterous and everyone tries to chip in with the first thought that comes into their head. 

You’ll see it in the bars, on TV debates, interrupting others rather than waiting your turn to speak is acceptable in the vast majority of social contexts in Spain.

Being late is mostly okay

Ernest Hemingway famously said that Spaniards “delay the day”, and when it comes to punctuality, it’s perfectly normal to arrive late to a social gathering. 

That’s not to say that Spaniards all rock up at work an hour late, or that they turn up for dinner as everyone else is getting the bill, but arriving on time isn’t a priority and turning up 15 or 30 minutes after the agreed time is common and socially acceptable. 

Spaniards know that the best way to enjoy life is in the company of others. Photo: Gabriel BOUYS /AFP

You don’t need a lot in life to be happy, but you do need people

Spaniards are by and large extremely social beings who don’t like having too much time alone to reflect on life. 

They don’t need a large home or a high-paying job to feel satisfied, instead they find happiness in the company of others, enjoying a beer and good conversation as they sit outdoors at a bar terrace on a sunny day. 

Learn to enjoy these simple pleasures and you may well find that you don’t need a lot to be happy either, and that Spain is a country which allows you to achieve such bliss without having a lot of money in the bank.


Member comments

  1. Having recently encountered the Bureaucracy in the UK in the manifestation of the Home Office I cannot agree that the Spanish system is slow….

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Why a mouse called Pérez is Spain’s tooth fairy

When a child loses a milk tooth in Spain, it’s not a magical fairy that comes to collect it in the night, but a little mouse instead.

Why a mouse called Pérez is Spain’s tooth fairy

In countries such as the UK, the US and Australia when kids’ baby teeth fall out, it’s customary for them to put it under their pillow, hoping that a magical fairy will come in the night to take it away. 

The story goes that the fairy wants the tooth for her magic castle, all made out of teeth, and will pay children a reward by leaving a coin or two under the pillow instead. 

But in Spain, there is no fairy or a magic castle, instead, it’s a little mouse called Ratoncito Pérez who comes to collect it instead. Similarly, the mouse will leave a reward for the tooth such as a few coins, some sweets or small gifts. 

Sometimes you will spot toy shops in Spain that have built a tiny house for the Mouse Pérez outside their store. 

How did the story of Ratoncito Pérez come about?

The legend of the Mouse Pérez started out as a character in a story written by Luis Coloma. 

Coloma was commissioned to write the story by Queen María Cristina, for King Alfonso XIII (1886-1941), whom she affectionately called Buby, when he was eight years old and lost one of his milk teeth.

It is said that through the tale, the author wanted to teach the young king about the importance of brotherhood whether a person is rich or poor, good or bad so that he would become a great leader. 

The story goes that Ratoncito Pérez lived in a box of biscuits in a house in Madrid and every night would scour the city for teeth, visiting the homes of children who had recently lost them and leaving a coin under their pillow in exchange. 

READ ALSO: Why do Spanish parents pierce their babies’ ears? 

One night, the mouse meets King Buby when he loses a tooth and together they go on an adventure to meet Pérez’s family and help the poor people around the city. 

The original manuscript of the story was dedicated to D. Alfonso XIII and is dated 1894, but it was not until 1902 when the king was 16 that the story was first published in a book of short stories. 

Another edition was published in 1911, dedicated to the Prince of Asturias D. Alfonso de Borbón y Battenberg, King Alfonso XIII’s son. 

Although Ratoncito Pérez is the most well-known character who collects teeth in Spain, there are regional differences too.

In Catalonia there’s also Angelet or the little angel who comes to collect teeth, in the Basque Country there’s Maritxu Teilatukoa, a little ladybird who lives on the roof and comes down to fetch children’s teeth from under their pillows. And in Cantabria, there’s a tooth squirrel – L`Esquilu de los dientis

The concept of a little mouse who comes for kids’ teeth is in fact not so strange because in many other countries, it’s also a mouse and not a fairy that arrives in the middle of the night too. 

In France, parts of Belgium and Switzerland and some countries in Central and South America there’s also a tooth mouse.