Ben over on Notes from Spain asks if Spanish people are rude and rightly points out that it’s a bit more complicated than it first seems to be, especially for English or American people.
He does a great job of explaining the informal Spanish queuing system which, to the untrained English eye, does indeed appear to be a shambles at best:
The last person in asks ‘Quien es el ultimo?’, or ‘Quien da la vez?’, in order to establish who is last in turn. They then simply have to remember who that person is and step up to the counter when their marker is done with their shopping.
I would like to add a couple of ideas to the conversation and to Ben’s answers.
Firstly, saying that Spanish people are rude is of course, as much of a generalisation as saying that all Spanish people like flamenco. There are rude people and polite people everywhere in Spain, just as there are in England, the US and Zimbabwe.
However, Spanish ‘loudness‘ or ‘rudeness‘ is one of the most frequently remarked upon aspects of the Spanish character by foreigners. At first I thought it was just English people but soon discovered that the impression was fairly widespread amongst visitors to Spain from many other countries. Here’s the thing…
Spanish People Are Not Rude, Just Polite in a Spanish Way
As Ben highlights with his Madrid Metro example, it can seem like Spanish people want to defy the laws of physics when getting on a train at 8 a.m. and I would add the legions of 70 year-old Spanish grannies in supermarkets to Ben’s 70 year-old grandad trying to push in to the Retiro café toilet.
Some Spanish grannies are incredible. Everybody else can be standing there queuing to pay at the checkout and the granny elbows her way to the front – as if no-one else were in the queue -and then refuses to look at, acknowledge or respond to anyone who tries to tell her differently.
I always put this down to age and experience – “I’m in a hurry to make dinner young whippersnapper, I am the queen of the supermarket and have been buying octopus snacks since you were in nappies. Of course I’m not going to answer you.“
However, physical proximity and the signals it sends to other people is radically different in Spain and other Mediterranean countries than in England.
Spanish people are more tactile as a rule and get closer when they speak to you, whether or not you are particularly acquainted to them.
This causes no end of laughs in bars when Spanish chicks visit England and get into trouble with English lads who think they’re onto something, or vice-versa when English blokes come to Spain for a weekend: the Spanish girl thinks she’s just chatting and the English guy thinks he’s in with a chance.
It can also cause more serious communications problems when doing business – Anglo-saxon businessmen are used to a more formal and distanced treatment when doing business whereas your average Spanish businessman will stand about 30cm from your nose, gesticulate and pat you on the shoulder every couple of minutes.
This makes English businesspeople think that Spaniards are rude and uncouth and Spaniards think that English people are snobbish and distant.
Neither of these statements is particularly true: they are just two different cultures and ways of doing the same thing.
Verbally, Spanish people can also seem to be a bit rude to English people. Two anecdotes will suffice to illustrate the point:
Little Girl Wants Ice Cream
When I first came to Spain 10 years ago, I taught English in a summer camp in a lovely village in the North of Spain called Cervera de Pisuerga.
Most afternoons we would accompany the children on small excursions and the one which they got most excited about was of course the trip to the village where they could buy sweets (the 8 year olds) and cigarettes (the 15 year-olds, to smoke sneakily behind the summer camp later on).
I followed one little girl into a shop because she wanted to buy some ice cream and sweets.
She promptly began ordering the old lady behind the counter to give her various things: “give me three of those!“, “I want five chocolate ones!“, etc.
The old lady, far from being offended as would the old lady in my local corner shop in England and telling off the little girl for being rude, gave here all the ice creams and sweets she wanted with a smile.
Grown Man Wants Beer
If you go into a bar in Spain and ask for a beer in a bar in the same way as you do in England, literally translating a phrase similar to “Could I have a beer, please?“and with the same volume level as in England, the bartender, if he pays any attention at all to you, will most likely look at you rather strangely and with reluctance give you a beer.
An English person has to learn to be louder and more direct. In Spanish this is normally done in bars with the imperative: “Give me two beers!” No strange looks, quicker service and everybody’s happy.
This is not always the case everywhere or in restaurants but serves to illustrate the point.
Imagine going into your local in the UK and trying this the other way around: ordering the bartender to give you two beers will likely not get you very far.
So, in conclusion, of course Spanish people are not rude but what is considered rude or polite in Spain is not the same as in anglo-saxon cultures.