Crossing the Border: Making the Most of Your Cross-Cultural Experience
Living abroad forces you at every moment to confront unfamiliar (1) patterns and rhythms of daily life; (2) attitudes regarding personal behavior; (3) language —verbal and gestural; and (4) eating habits. Expectations about what, how, and where we do what we do can create a border that separates “us” from “them.” If we have never lived abroad, it is easy to forget just how culturally conditioned our expectations are. What seems natural, “logical” or “normal” may simply be the way we’re used to seeing or doing something (in the US, in our neighborhood, on our campus, or among our family and friends). And if we have never lived abroad, we have only what we are used to to judge by. This almost invariably leads to misperceptions, misunderstandings, and even the dreaded “f” word: frustration. Bear in mind, however, that in this context what we call “frustration” is often simply what we feel when another cultural reality refuses to conform to our expectations. You can choose, at any point, to redefine “frustration” as an opportunity for growth by learning to embrace difference. And that growth usually cannot happen unless we make the effort to understand why things are done differently, from the other person’s (informed) standpoint. Ideally, you will learn to look at your culturally-conditioned expectations as just that–not as part of the natural and divine order, nor even as necessarily the best way to do or think about things, but as the American way (or your region’s, campus’s, or family’s way).
What follows is a series of informal observations pieced together from the experiences of program directors who have worked with students over the past few years. A basic understanding of some cultural tendencies, especially typical misreadings of them, will help you to look at things differently. These observations speak to tendencies, not to hard-and-fast rules. The worst temptation is to generalize from isolated incidents or persons: as in the U.S., persons and families in Spain differ enormously. We should therefore never assume a given act, attitude, person or collective (including a host family or monitor) is necessarily representative of all or most. There are always also important generational, class-inflected, regional, and situational differences to bear in mind. Remember, too, that Spain’s immigrant population (12%) is as high as the U.S.’s (even higher in the major cities such as Madrid), which means there’s a good chance you will be encountering persons from all over the world.
Another common mistake is to rush to judgment based on what something would mean at home. The more extreme version of this temptation is to confuse American liberal arts college mores with American life broadly (how well do you really know your own country?) and to compare this insulated version of American life with the much less exclusive version of Spanish life you will be immersed in while on the program. We not only almost certainly misunderstand the situation when this happens, we also miss an opportunity to (1) look critically at ourselves and (2) learn about other legitimate ways of doing things. Something difficult to comprehend or accept at home may be perfectly logical abroad.
Two representative (and very different) cases in point: perceptions of (1) racism and (2) smoking. Spanish culture tolerates candor (even bluntness) and staring more than American culture (indeed, American culture is an outlier on both counts internationally). As a result, Spaniards (particularly of an older generation) sometimes say things about immigrants or minorities that would be shocking on an American campus (maybe less so off that campus). Students are sometimes tempted to conclude that Spaniards are more “racist” because of this. However, what such students often overlook is that even though Spain’s rates of immigration (at 12% of the population) match those of the U.S. and even though the austerity-induced crisis from 2008 pushed youth unemployment to record-high levels, none of the major political parties has used immigrants or minorities as a scapegoat. This contrasts markedly with what we have seen in American politics for years, notably the 2016 presidential campaign. And Spaniards only look in bewilderment at the pandemic of racialized violence that has bedevilled American society for decades, since there is nothing remotely like it in Spain. Likewise with smoking: there was a time when “everyone” smoked in the US and Spain, including in classrooms and restaurants (look at movies made into the 1980s). Since the 1980s, there has been a rollback in both societies, but it has taken different forms. Overall smoking rates have dropped (and are similar) in the U.S. and Spain, but in the U.S. (tobacco) smoking has become class-inflected: something generally not done by the upper middle class, especially on elite college campuses. It remains present and visible in working-class milieus. In Spain, it’s less class-inflected than generational: older and younger Spaniards tend to smoke; moreoever, young women are often seen smoking more than young men (as an assertion of their freedom from stereotypes). Therefore, in tonier public places that in the U.S. would generally not be frequented by smokers, you will often find knots of smokers at the entrance (no one is allowed to smoke in enclosed public places in Spain, a norm generally well-respected). Program students, sometimes shocked by this, are often tempted to interpret this as meaning Spaniards smoke much more than Americans. But that is because they are unaware of the history and evolution of smoking in both societies, and often know little about working-class American life.
Avoid being judgmental. Maybe especially avoid the pseudo-tolerant temptation to ascribe everything to “cultural difference” when in fact an experience with your host family, with a stranger, or with a classmate may be anomalous–there are personal misunderstandings, quirks, and jerks in every culture, right? Foster a self-critical sense of humor, which is one of the great, unsung therapies of all time. Most importantly, you’ll find that observation, curiosity and patience are your true passports to cross-cultural understanding. Study abroad is a golden opportunity to learn these virtues. At the very least, a change in outlook will help head off the easy, often mistaken, premature judgment. At best, it will enable you to cross that border and fully profit from your experience. Observe carefully, ask informed persons about the meaning of what you see, and try to seek out the best in your host country. By the end of the term you may find that you actually prefer Spanish ways, having come to understand their logic from the inside. There’s a lot here we can learn from in the U.S.
Making Spanish friends is a common aspiration among program participants and the program enables it in many ways. Our relocation years ago to a Spanish university campus was motivated by the desire to facilitate contact with Spanish students. Our program monitores (Carlos III undergraduates) are key contacts, sources of information, and companions, as well as invaluable guides to Carlos III professors and courses. You should not, however, always expect them to take the initiative. They too want to see evidence of interest, which means sometimes proposing an activity yourselves. Indeed, in general students who have succeeded in making Spanish friends routinely emphasize the importance of their own personal initiative in making this happen.
Many students have made lasting friendships by affiliating with organizations (such as the Madrid vegan assocation), becoming involved in volunteer work (sometimes with non-profit organizations or with schools), or signing up for dance and art classes, hiking groups, sports teams, choirs, theater talleres (workshops), and so on. The Universidad Carlos III’s Espacio de estudiantes and the ERASMUS student group organize a rich program of cultural events and extracurricular activities, and there are many other resources in Madrid from which to choose (e.g., affiliates of Disfruta Madrid Más and City Life Madrid). Our program blog documents successful strategies used by students to meet Spaniards in classes (e.g., Zoe Bentley’s and Thomas Dupont’s entries), on playing fields (e.g., Nicholas Miceli’s entry), by volunteering at the Red Cross (e.g., Lianne May’s entry), and by participation in a wide variety of extracurricular activities.
Students regularly warn against behavior patterns that tend to interfere with integration, such as hanging out primarily with other American students or traveling excessively outside of Madrid and Spain (as a rule, more than two trips during the term). They recognize this can lead ultimately to a sense of isolation, even on a university campus, and can undercut language-learning, integration, and grades. Many point out that you will have a lifetime to bond with Americans and that deep integration in one culture is infinitely more rewarding than a superficial acquaintance with a blur of sights.
To develop ties with Spaniards we strongly recommend you participate in at least one extracurricular activity you normally do at home. This will putyou in contact with persons who share your interests. It will also head off disorientation and drifting, which can happen if you put most of your U.S. life on hold for the semester. We encourage you to begin planning this before you leave home. This is especially important for those who are spending only one term abroad, since it is over in the blink of an eye. And the time for making friends, especially, is short. Students have found that the most rewarding shortcut is to pursue a deep interest (or several) in Spain. For instance, one recent program participant joined a vegan association in Madrid and created a whole network of friends and activities for herself, many of them eventually unrelated to her veganism. We encourage students to pursue interests in sports, arts, activism, and hobbies while abroad. It helps them to structure their days, which they are often used to being crammed in the U.S. It also tends to yield those elusive “friends for a term” more reliably than language exchanges and social gatherings since you may not share interests or hit it off personally with persons you meet more informally.
As a rule, American culture imposes relatively few restrictions on what, where and when we eat. As Europeans tend to see it, Americans have de-sanctified the act of eating. We tend to graft it onto the branches of our daily routine: the sandwich in the car, the pizza at our desk, the snack on the run, the ice cream as we shop. In Spain, conversely, eating is highly ritualized. Although there is a lot of diversity (and increasing flexibility) in habits, Spaniards’ daily life tends to pivot around the highly structured pattern of their meals, privileging the where and when of consumption. They therefore tend to view eating or drinking on “the go” as a misfortune, as sloppy or impolite. Nevertheless, you’ll find that in Spain some kind of eatery will be open at virtually any time of the day or night. As a result, it is not in fact difficult to feed yourself in Spain when you prefer: you merely need to learn when a given kind of establishment will be open and what kind of food you will be able to order there. So, for instance, you will not as a rule be able to eat a full-course meal between 4pm and 8:30 or 9pm (except in a handful of round-the-clock restaurants or chains such as VIPS). But you will be able to order bocadillos and sandwiches; savories such as empanadas and tapas; and café fare in bars, tascas and mesones, and cafés (called cafeterias in Spain). With rapidly shifting family-, work- and immigration-patterns, more and more restaurants remain open through the day and more and more shops open on Saturday evenings, Sundays, holidays, and through the traditional siesta break (on the so-called horario continuo or continuous schedule).
Two cases in point taken from past experience: Upon their arrival at a hotel (11:00am), a group of students learned that their rooms were not quite ready. They moved en masse to the lounge, located near the hotel’s bar, pulled out their bag lunches (the “comida” prepared by their host families), and turned the area into a veritable merendero–making a formal reception area look like a refugee camp. They were clearly oblivious to the fact that, in the eyes of the Spaniards nearby, their eating there, then, and in that sloppily informal way was considered rudely indecorous.
Two guided tours were scheduled recently on another field trip, one from 11:00am to 12:30pm, the other from 1:30pm to 2:30pm. Impressed by the students’ attentiveness, the tour guide extended the first session until 1:30 and rescheduled the second visit from 2:00pm to 3:00pm. She expected that the students would eat according to Spanish conventions, sitting down in a restaurant at 3:00pm. She was unable to understand the impatience of her group, who were losing her thread as they began dreaming hungrily of a sandwich on the go at noon. A typical example of two cultures at cross-purposes.
Other sources of misunderstanding arise from the meanings attached to the way things are cooked. Middle-class Americans tend to prefer boiling and broiling, Spaniards frying and stewing. American students tend to condemn all frying as “greasy” (with the exception of French fries); Spaniards view frying as an art and are keen at telling the good freiduría from the bad. (It’s all in the quality of the oil, by the way, and in the degree of heat used in frying.)
Yet another common source of misunderstanding bears on vegetarianism and veganism. Various and sundry types of vegetarianism prevail among American college students (so many as to baffle older-generation Spaniards, who might still interpret the term loosely as one who eats mainly vegetables, but might also eat eggs, cheese, fish and shellfish, and even poultry). American college students used to the vegetarian and vegan choices on or near college campuses can forget how difficult it is to be a vegan or vegetarian in American culture at large. In Spain, they must learn a new geography and protocol for veganism and vegetarianism. But once they do, they find it is no more difficult in Spain than in the U.S. For instance, the combination platter (meat, carb, and veg) is the exception rather than the rule in Spain. Vegetables and legumes are usually expected to be ordered separately. Another difference is that many restaurants will not feature vegetarian or vegan dishes on their menus in Spain, but are used to preparing them. This calls for more give-and-take with waiters: vegans and vegetarians need to learn to ask waiters about other options if they are not in a vegetarian restaurant (this applies to drinks as well, often not spelled out fully on menus). Spaniards like the give-and-take of explanation: it is not considered picky or rude, but rather a social pleasure. And restaurants are eager to please. Spain receives half-again as many tourists as the national population and restaurants are used to hearing every kind of request under the sun. Moreover there are now many vegetarians and vegans in Spain and many restaurants that cater to them. It has become fashionable for the many more Spaniards who are not vegetarian to seek these restaurants out. The traditional Mediterranean diet is heavy on vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fruit (and Spain is the California or Florida of Europe). But often this is assumed to be fare one eats at home rather than in a restaurant. On the other hand, this fact means even traditional restaurants will have no trouble preparing a range of delicious vegetarian or vegan dishes even if they don’t appear on the menu: delectable staples such as gazpachos, salmorejos, ajo blanco, verduras a la parrilla, pistos (sin huevo if you are vegan), salsa romesco, menestras, and lentejas, alubias, and pochas.
One of the cruder stereotypes about Spanish cuisine is that it is overwhelmingly reliant on pork. However, it would be more accurate to describe Spaniards as supreme fish- and shellfish-eaters. Within Europe, Spaniards are second only to the Danes for the amount of seafood per capita they consume. And in the world they are matched perhaps only by the Japanese in the attention to quality. Unlike Americans, who tend to prefer their seafood in a flat, white, non-descript format, Spaniards like to see the critter as if it were alive, a guarantee of its freshness. As for the public display of the animals we eat, a student who recently made disparaging remarks about the preponderance of cured hams hanging “all over the city” (“my mother would scream!”) was clearly unaware that she was taking on one of the great symbols of Spain’s national identity: right in line with Bigas Luna, the Spanish film director who parodies pork as an emblem of nationality in his extravagant Jamón, jamón. At any rate, to speak of jamón ibérico as if it were just any kind of ham is a kind of culinary sacrilege: for foodies the world over, this is like referring to beluga caviar as “fish eggs.”
American students tend to be particularly critical of the Spanish (or continental) breakfast: coffee and a roll or toast (with jam) and maybe fresh-squeezed orange juice (zumo de naranja natural). However, there are many more delicious (and healthy) options available: pan con tomate (sliced and toasted baguette, with virgin olive oil drizzled on the toast, fresh pureed tomato sauce, and a pinch of salt to taste), croissant a la plancha con mermelada (sliced and grilled croissant with butter and jam), and churros (con chocolate o café).
Indeed in the past twenty years Spain has become the center of a world-wide gastronomic revolution, with major culinary trade magazines routinely rating three or four Spanish restaurants among the top ten in the world. The program makes a point of inviting students on group outings to sample this culinary revolution (variations on cocina nueva and gastronomía molecular), but students would do well to explore this fascinating (and lip-smacking!) dimension of Spanish culture on their own as well (the dietas are meant to enable that, since 11 euros will cover a three-course menú del día, usually offered at the mid-day comida rather than cena and so available to most students during term-time at least on Fridays). If all you know about Spanish food after a term in Spain is the tortilla española, jabugo, and street-side kebabs (not even Spanish), you have a lot to answer for!
In sum, all cultures attach special importance to certain types of food, to certain modes of preparation, and to certain culinary occasions. Your primary goal should be to learn what Spaniards value in this regard. Beyond that, deciding whether to regulate your eating practices accordingly will be tantamount to deciding whether to cross the border.
The Patterns and Rhythms of Everyday Life
Spaniards tend to be more formal about greetings: they are expected almost unfailingly as one enters and exits a social space, even with strangers (in elevators, stores, bars, the dining or sitting room, etc.), situations in which, in the US, we might feign anonymity. No one expects conversation, but illness, fatigue or distraction is considered no excuse for sullen silence. If you leave a table or space you are sharing with others you do know, you are expected to signal it with a “con permiso” as you prepare to go. Hiking on a mountain path in Colorado, on the other hand, in the U.S. one tends to greet strangers —even engage them in conversation— a situation that is far less common in the Sierra de Guadarrama. Clearly, the where and when of social patterns change considerably from one culture to the next.
In Madrid “buenos días” is the greeting used up until just before the “comida” (conventionally at 2:00pm), “buenas tardes” from that point on till about 9pm or just about when it is time to eat the “cena,” from which point it is customary to say “buenas noches.” The concept of “mediodía” is linked to the midday meal, a rather ambiguous indicator for a culture (American) accustomed to measuring time and organizing space with the precision of a clock (12:00 sharp divides the day) and the accuracy of a surveyor.
Conceptions of Time and Punctuality: Edward Hall’s The Silent Language (an extremely useful essay for our purposes) begins with a chapter titled “Time talks,” in which the author contrasts the meaning of a telephone call at 11:00pm in different countries. In the US a telephone ringing at this time would probably alarm the recipient. Such a response would not apply in Spain —or at least in Spanish cities— where calling at 11:00pm is not uncommon. Not before 10am or after 9pm as a rule, unless it’s a friend or family.
On a recent trip on Spain’s high-speed AVE (Alta Velocidad Española), with five minutes left before departure, one of the students called a friend who had not yet arrived to tell him to hurry up, exclaiming loudly that: “This is not a typical Spanish train; it is punctual.” Besides the obvious fact that such a remark is offensive and should not have been made publicly, the speaker was clearly unaware that Spain in truth has a remarkable record of punctuality and efficiency in public services (especially in its public transportation). In any case, being “late” or “on time” is itself a cultural construction. The fact that an invitation to meet at 8:00pm may in fact signify a much later time for social engagements does not by any means imply that trains do not run on time —or that it is appropriate to be late for a formal meeting in a workplace. Theater and music performances in Madrid, for instance, start on-time with a regularity that would shame their counterparts in the U.S. Indeed, standards of public service in Spain (whether in government offices, banks, stores, utility companies, hotels, or transportation) are as high as or indeed higher now than in the U.S. (universities, as in the U.S., tend to be an exception, but should not skew your perception of other Spanish institutions and workplaces). Banks and utility companies, for instance, offer 24-hour, 7-day a week customer service with actual persons by telephone (unheard of in the U.S.). Another example: the high-speed AVE train in Spain offers to refund 100% of the ticket if the train arrives more than 15 minutes late (punctuality is running at 99%). Public transportation in Madrid is so efficient, comfortable, and extensive, Americans used to city subway and bus sytems at home merely shake their heads and weep at the comparison. In social encounters, however, Spaniards will tend to be more informal than Americans about punctuality.
Public Hygiene and Getting the Check: Much the same kind of difference obtains where public hygiene is concerned. Americans can sometimes be taken aback by the casual way in which Spaniards in traditional bars sometimes drop olive pits or paper napkins on the floor; Spaniards are equally taken aback by the paper cups and popcorn, coke, and chewing gum often strewn about, spilled, or stuck to seats in American movie theaters, since Spanish movie theaters by contrast tend to be spotless.
Americans are used to having a restaurant check brought quickly to a table. They therefore tend at first to regard service in Spain as poor, because a check will never be brought before it is requested. And it is not easy to get a waiter’s attention for this purpose. This is a classic instance of cultural misunderstanding, because exactly opposite conceptions (rather than standards) of good service apply. In Spain, checks are only rushed to the table in tourist joints. It is considered a crude attempt to increase customer turn-over. In other words, a check provided before it is requested is considered poor service in Spain. This does not mean you need wait eternally for the check to arrive (it won’t) or even wait for the waiter to walk by. If you’re ready to go and a waiter is not in sight, it is considered perfectly appropriate to stand up, approach any waiter and politely request the bill (“me cobra por favor?”). Because good restaurants and cafes are committed to letting their customers take as long as they like, this also means that restaurants will often charge extra for bread and for bottled water. Otherwise, with only one guaranteed sitting per meal in restaurants it would be impossible for them to cover their costs. However, if you do not want to pay for the bread you can simply make this clear by politely saying “hoy no quiero pan, gracias” and it will be withdrawn. Similarly, if you order a regular meal and some kind of drink (wine is as cheap as water in Spain), most restaurants will be happy to supply as much tap water as you like for free (“me puede poner agua del grifo, por favor?”).
Where, when and how each society insists on cleanliness or efficiency and order in time management are culturally determined, and mastering the unspoken rules of another society requires careful attention and sensitivity.
Academic Information: A prime battle ground in this area corresponds to the organization and transmission of academic information. A student recently complained, while in Santiago, that “it is August and I still don’t know what courses I will be taking in September.” Web technology has certainly simplified access to such information. To be sure, Spanish universities have web sites where students can browse course offerings (asignaturas) within different majors (carreras) and colleges (facultades). In the U.S. pre-registration is necessary because, at least at liberal arts colleges, students largely decide their plan of study. Although in the U.S. this might be regarded as a mark of greater “freedom,” from the European point of view it can look like a mindless free-for-all. The course catalogue as our students know it (indicating the exact time and location of classes for the upcoming academic year) only makes sense therefore given the potential in the American context for chaos. In Spain, as in most of Europe, students have a largely fixed plan of study from the moment they enter the university. Electives can be chosen easily at the beginning of the term. And the requisite information is provided to students at the beginning of the academic year. Spaniards (and other Europeans) do not expect it any earlier because they have no need for it.
Money: When Spanish students travel or eat together they often go “a escote” (the verb is “escotar”), which means everyone pays the same share and one person manages the finances for the group. They therefore tend to divide expenses equally or else trade invitations (I invite this time, you invite the next, and so on). American students often calculate their exact share of expenses in a way that might suggest a lack of “compañerismo” to a Spaniard, or even a certain small-minded stinginess. As a rule, in the US Americans leave a 15% tip when eating out and they tend to calculate it exactly; Spaniards leave some indefinite amount that is often determined by the change brought on a small plate, rounded up more or less as seems fit. However, in better restaurants, the custom is to leave between 5 and 10% of the bill as a tip, even if the bill already includes a standard service charge.
Further underlying attitudes concerning money may be at work here. The fact that change is commonly returned to customers in bars and restaurants on a small dish or tray and NOT from hand to hand is a legacy of a European courtly tradition in which it was considered vulgar to handle money directly or draw attention to it. Notice that the discreet way customers tip ushers in theaters and cinemas suggests a desire to detract attention from an act -the passage of money- that could otherwise be demeaning for the recipient (the usher, in this case).
In offering these observations we hope to focus your attention on a pivotal space —the public treatment of money— where personal and cultural values are communicated implicitly. You may want to keep in mind expectations that prevail in Spain in this regard as you decide how to perform in this moment and learn by observing.
Manners and Mores
Language, as the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno succinctly put it, is the “receptáculo de la cultura.” The many points at which one language’s terminology contrasts, for its precision, with the ambivalences or ambiguities of another, suggest fascinating stories about the cultural values deeply rooted in the mentality of linguistic communities. The term “educación” (from the Latin, ‘educare,’ to lead forth, by implication toward enlightenment) is a case in point. Whereas Americans tend to use this term in speaking about one’s formal (academic) formation, Spanish speakers usually convey such meaning by the terms instrucción or formación, preferring educación in treating questions of personal conduct or behavior (e.g.: a rude or polite person would be mal educado or bien educado).
What follows, then, is a potpourri (or olla podrida) of suggestions regarding the standards Spaniards might use in judging the level of your educación.
When ‘Yes’ Means ‘No’
To take ‘yes’ and ‘no’ uniformly at face value would be naïve in any cultural context. This is certainly the case in Spain, perhaps more so than in the English-speaking world, as the following example suggests.
A young Spanish woman living in England in the 1960s was invited to dinner by a family living in a suburban neighborhood somewhat remote from public transportation. When it was time for the Spanish woman to leave, the English hosts offered to take her in their car to the nearest train station. Following her instincts, the woman said “ay no, no se molesten” (“No, please don’t bother”), expecting that they would insist. To her chagrin, her hosts, in fact, “no se molestaron” (they “did not bother”). Her long nocturnal walk to the train taught her an important lesson about communication.
Expectations regarding matter-of-factness differ in striking ways in Spanish- and English-speaking contexts. To be sure, you may experience occasional discomfort with examples of Spanish “candor” (or “bluntness,” as you might call it), as did the young woman who was informed of the unfortunate quality of her skin by the lady selling cosmetics at the Corte Inglés (“esta crema es para ti, con la piel porosa y seca que tienes”). Staring, which is not taboo in Spain to the extent that it is in the United States nor is it usually explained by a sexual motive, is, in a sense, a gestural form of directness that may also challenge you (you may even find it alternately refreshing and irritating, depending on your mood). We should state, parenthetically, that it also turns our previously discussed notions of the “private” versus the “public” on their head, since staring, like forthrightness, is a mode of entering into one’s private zone, an entrance —in these cases— that is tolerated in Spain more than in the U.S.
What bears emphasizing here are the misunderstandings that the (perhaps) characteristically Spanish brand of reserve produces between our students and their host families. The host families are paid to provide breakfast (a light meal in Europe) and one meal (usually the “cena,” as it fits better with the schedules of both the student and the family). If the student is present when the family gathers for its “comida,” social norms oblige including the student. (Eating in the presence of others without sharing is generally considered mal educado.) Families viewed by students as extraordinarily open and warm have at times complained privately to the program housing coordinator about the student’s abusive conduct. A reaction that may strike the American student as hypocritical —offering food begrudgingly; saying ‘yes’ when you really mean ‘no’— clearly signifies something else in the Spanish context. The practice of refusing at least the first offer will help you come to understand when ‘yes’ means ‘yes’; the game is about how much they insist. Your avoiding situations that force invitations will be read as a sign of a persona bien educada.
Compliments when taken to imply a hidden request may lead to misunderstandings similar to those just described. A statement such as “¡me encanta este mantel; es precioso!” can lead to the potentially embarrassing situation of the host family giving the tablecloth to the student as a gift.
Expressing requests, directly or indirectly, puts your interlocutor in something of a bind. I fail you by not complying, and no one likes to fail in this way. The desire to please guests, which is traditionally strong in Spain, may collide with other realities (an unwillingness or inability to comply) and thereby lead to a ‘yes’ that is really ‘no;’ it may also lead to an impatient or angry ‘no’ (again: no one likes to have to say no). This situation arose when a student asked the Director to request special dispensation from the Carlos III administration for a withdrawal from a course well after the official deadline, a dispensation that would NOT be granted to Spanish students. Perceptively noting the Director’s discomfort with this request, the student came to realize that different cultural values come into play in such situations and he promptly withdrew his request. This was really a triumph on his part, since it demonstrated that he had learned through observation that the quality of seeming “pedigüeño” (overly demanding) is frowned upon in Spain.
According to Spanish social codes, the art of indirect or subtle persuasion is often the preferred mode for conveying a request. Students should keep this in mind in all of their dealings with faculty and administrators; they should also try to grasp what virtue may be gained in the way they accept defeat.
Reciprocation, Gratitude and the Shades of ‘Gracias’
On occasions in which Americans might expect a verbal or written expression of gratitude, Spaniards might use a subtle comment or gesture to acknowledge their obligation to reciprocate. Such gestures represent an indirect expression of gratitude, often the preferred mode in Spain. They also showcase the importance of mutual obligation within Spanish (and European) society.
To be sure, the practice of the thank-you card is far less common in Spain than in the US. Wedding gifts may never elicit a written response; this is certainly true for dinner invitations. Moreover, in some situations in which “thank you” (in English) is appropriate, “gracias” would be clearly inappropriate. Thanking someone for a compliment on your new suit is a sign of graciousness in English, not always so in Spanish. In Spanish you might jokingly brush the compliment off (le quitas importancia) by saying: “what, this rag? I bought it at the flea market” / “¿qué, este trapo? ¡lo compré en el rastrillo!”). Americans are known in Spain for their overuse of the term “gracias.” This does not mean that you should not use it; learn when and where through observation, although it is always preferable to err on the side of politeness.
On the other hand, Spaniards place great value on reciprocating as the preferred mode of expressing gratitude. A Spanish university professor recently commented to a program director that, as he sees it, when American students fail to make friends is it usually because they do not return invitations. Whether or not this is true, the observation may serve as a useful guide.
Students are clearly not in the position to reciprocate on the same level as professional adults; no one in Spain would expect this and indeed a time-honored tradition obliges older persons to pick up the tab for much younger persons in company (if they are family, friends, or colleagues). But the simple gesture of inviting a fellow student to a coffee or taking flowers or pastries home on Sunday (or on your “señora’s” Saint Day) goes a long way toward garnering affection and respect.
Negotiating ‘Public’ and ‘Private’ where the Home is Sacrosanct
Students usually come to Spain hoping (expecting) to make Spanish friends. The process of developing friendships -indeed, the very meaning of the term- like everything else varies considerably from culture to culture. Understanding this requires time and open-mindedness and requires patient observation. In hopes of giving you a head start, we shall address here one aspect of this topic only, that of the spaces in which friendships evolve, in Spain and in the US.
Although the home has a sacrosanct dimension in all cultures, the privacy associated with the Spanish home makes this, in some ways, especially true. Americans readily invite acquaintances into their home as a means of initiating a new friendship. In Spain, childhood friends often reach adulthood without entering each other’s home. They meet in cafés, plazas, parks, or on streets: “a la hora del café o del paseo.” The paseo or stroll is a long-standing tradition that has not only not lost its importance in Spain, it has now acquired forward-looking, ecologically with-it credentials.
Relative to the U.S., the patterns of Spanish social life suggest a much clearer delineation of the public and the private domains. The power of Spanish kinship patterns is probably the source of this difference. As in other parts of Europe, on holidays or important occasions Spaniards tend to retreat to the seclusion of their home, to celebrate the rituals of communal life as a family. This highly simplified profile of the home and Spanish family life should help Americans accustomed to an “open” or “revolving door policy” understand and therefore accept restrictions placed on receiving visitors. It should also help them to avoid the feeling of failure that they might otherwise experience at not being invited into the homes of their counterparts. Instead, you should learn to quedar, like Spaniards, in the land of the mesones, bares, and cafeterías and partake of the highly sociable culture of the tapeo.
A word about “anti-Americanism” or other potential sources of conflict
While living and traveling abroad it would be foolish for us not to reflect on the results of the political, economic, and military dominance of the United States, for all that it is waning. Especially in times of war or with heightened threats of terrorist attacks, the sight of persons or mobs inveighing against American foreign policy is not uncommon. Students are sometimes tempted to take personally epithets or formulas hurled, usually, against policies of the US government or American multinationals, that is, against ideas or institutions or representative officials, not ordinary persons and citizens. Even so, this can produce considerable discomfort.
The program emphatically encourages you to take the following measures if you find yourself in such an environment:
- Resist the temptation at all times to take such comments personally, unless it is clear that they are meant to be personal.
- Do not be pulled into an altercation.
- If you experience discomfort or if you begin to feel angry, show dignity in your ability to simply stand up quietly and leave without a glance or a word.
Any other behavior is ill-advised and could result in unfortunate consequences.
 A restaurant or bar specializing in fried fish.
 The “comida,” although the mid-day meal in Spain (sometimes called the “almuerzo,” in Andalusia and much of Latin America) is very different from lunch. Lunch, in many English-speaking societies, is a lighter, less formal, and quicker meal and is taken earlier. The “comida” is the important meal of the day in Spain: typically, two main courses, desert, wine often and coffee, and is not expected to be wolfed down.
 ‘Quedar’ means to make a date or to meet. ‘Quedemos en la Plaza Mayor a las 20h00’ would mean, then: ‘Let’s meet in the Plaza Mayor at 8pm’. ‘El tapeo’ is the practice of going out and around for tapas, the grazing (small-plates) tradition that has become all the rage in American cities.
The first time I traveled alone was to Guatemala for three weeks of study: two in Quetzaltenango, which is a mid-sized town, and one in a rural area. I lived with a host family, had one-on-one language classes, learned traditional weaving, drank the most exquisite hot chocolate I have ever tasted, and had my first encounter with the power of a second language. I communicated. I learned. I navigated strange places by myself. I resolved a massive banking problem and experienced homesickness more powerful than any other episode of my life (the kind of homesickness that leaves you huddled in a corner with an English novel, a precious rice crispy treat, and the Backstreet Boys on repeat, binging on the familiar).
When you’re in class trying to learn a second language in a classroom, you’re surrounded by other people who also don’t speak the language. Learn the vocabulary, study for the tests, and do your best not to stress out about oral presentations or exams. But if you really want to learn the language, you’ll probably have to do it at least partly on your own. And it’s worth it. If you can get far enough into a language, things suddenly start making sense. That’s why you should start with some audio and video, to start training yourself to hear the patterns of how people talk. When I was studying for the AP Spanish test, I read Ramona and her Mother with the Spanish and English books side-by-side. And I read the first Harry Potter book in Spanish. I got the children’s book Caps for Sale on tape in Spanish, and listened to that story over and over. I hadn’t discovered podcasts at that time, but these days I “practice” my Spanish by listening to Spanish-language news and political podcasts from all over the Spanish-speaking world.
It wasn’t until I traveled that I discovered the power of a second language. I had opened myself to conversations with people on a whole continent. By the time I did my official study abroad in Valdivia, Chile for the spring quarter of my sophomore year, I was already at a fluid speaking level. I could interact and make friends. I could talk about ideas and politics and people’s lives. I could ask questions. I could be myself.
Whatever stage of language learning you’re currently at, try to push yourself to find a couple of non-class venues for improving your skills. If you’re in a university town there are probably English language learners looking for language swaps. There are increasing opportunities for formal and informal tutoring online in various languages. There’s an entire cultural landscape in this new language: sports, music, art, travel, TV, business. Anything you’re interested in, there’s probably a way to engage that interest in this second language. If you want an excuse to watch brainless TV, tune in for a soap opera or game show. It’s all out there, it’s just up to you to find it.
Note: If anyone is interested in studying Spanish in Guatemala, I’d be more than happy to recommend places to study. And if anyone wants to swap travel stories from that area, I’d be thrilled to chat about it! Feel free to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet@kdcollegeadvice
What language learning tips have worked well for you? What have you found to be particularly difficult? Let me know here!