Culture shocks for the Irish in Spain: My personal experience

From regular lobster-esque sunburn to the all-too-familiar “are you from London” question, let’s just say life in Spain hasn’t been all rosy since my move from Galway to Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, back in June of 2018. Culture shock after culture shock has constantly dominated my Spanish life so far. Not to mention the morningafternoon debates that I continue to have with my Spanish partner and his family, which makes me want to pull my hair out. 

Although strikingly similar weather is shared by the two celtic-routed regions, the culture shock that I have experienced whilst in Spain to-date has been quite significant. Here’s a taster of the main cultural differences between España and Éire that have given me food for thought. 

The Spanish science of unpunctuality

I may be stereotyping here a bit, but punctuality for Spaniards is like going to one of your college lectures: sometimes it matters, but the majority of the time it’s not top-priority. A huge culture shock it certainly was for me when I undertook my Erasmus Study Abroad Programme three-and-a-half years ago. 

Although it must be said us Irish aren’t the most punctual of nations on this planet, I could nonetheless hardly believe the lackadaisical attitude my Spanish profesores showed as they nonchalantly arrived five-to-ten (sometimes fifteen) minutes after the class was scheduled to start.

In Ireland, a “jesus, brutal traffic, sorry I’m late guys” would be the common answer a lecturer would typically give his or her students. In Spain, meanwhile, it’s as if nothing has happened, and it’s quickly swept under the rug. Normal service resumes. It’s the norm in Spain (for the majority) to arrive after the scheduled or agreed time. Whether meeting friends to tomar algo or arriving to college lectures, Spaniards tend to prioritise living each free moment that they can get their hands on. 

“Give me a beer”: The directness of the Spanish

Undoubtedly the most noticeable culture shock I’ve noticed during my Spanish spell abroad has been the directness of the Spanish. It’s unbelievable! As an Irishman, politeness is imbedded into my being from childhood. I simply dred having to ask for something in a shop in Spain, as I am occasionally misunderstood due to my over-politeness. Yes, to the Spaniards, a “could I order a coca-cola, please” is considered over-politeness! Madness, right? 

It’s simply not in my nature to be fully Spanish, I guess. “Ponme una cerveza” (which means give me a beer) is often the way those poor aul waiters and waitresses in Spain are addressed. This doesn’t just occur in locals, where of course you’d feel less inclined to be formal. This is a common stranger-stranger interaction in bars and restaurants across Spain. 

Of course, it’s a mighty cultural difference between Ireland and Spain, and as an Irishman, I must fully respect and recognise that every language and culture stands on its own two feet, even though it burns my soul to hear such directness. Every language and culture is distinct and has its complexities. To Spanish people, we are overly polite. To Irish people, Spanish may come across as rude, when in fact they are just adhering to cultural norms and common use of socially-accepted language structures.

No means no in Spain

A little bit of advive for Irish mad-hatters in Spain: don’t insist! I mean, once is generally accepted, but trust me, it might not be the best idea to, well, be Irish in certain situations in the sense that you might keep insisting. If a Spanish person offers to pay for your drink, remember: you’re not in Ireland!

Of course this doesn’t mean you have to go from one extreme to the other and accept their offer without a second thought. Just remember that, although no might mean a whole host of different things in Ireland, it generally means NO in Spain. 

A typically-Irish “ah no, would ya stop, don’t be daft” is, thankfully, often accepted once (if pronounced in a relatively understandable accent, that is). More than once and you’re certainly pushing your luck. It’s crazy for us Irish to think that when Spanish people say no, they almost always mean it. Back home, no can mean anything from “ok, grand so, that does the job nicely, thanks very much” to a “please keep insisting! I have to pay rent tomorrow!

Lesson learned

I remember on one particular occasion, my partner’s friend had been the designated driver when we visited her last summer. Being raised in Ireland, I simply acted upon instinct and insisted on contributing for petrol money. 

Despite my partner’s best efforts to give me the hint that what I was doing was outside the norms of social interactions in Spain, I maintained my Irishness. After a what-felt-like-forever back and forth of “no, don’t worry, really, it’s fine” to “no, don’t be silly, I have to pay you at least something”, I was told that this kind of persisting insistence is not something that Spaniards are particularly used to. 

Don’t get me wrong: Spaniards are incredibly nice too, in their own way. Although strikingly more direct, according to my partner, it’s more common for Spaniards to invite the person who has done you a favour out for coffee or the likes. So, Irish folks thinking about coming over here to Spain: don’t worry, Spanish people ain’t no monsters! 

Dinner at nine/ten at night… and even later! 

It never ceases to amaze me that the Spaniards are more than capable of putting food in their bellies just before going to bed. Like, how? A culture shock to say the least! I mean, I absolutely love food and would happily eat at any time of the day, but the old Granny inside me tells me that my bedtime is just when the (majority of) Spanish civilization sits down at the table to scoff down a decent-sized meal. 

Can you imagine having dinner with your family in Ireland during The Late Late Show with Tubs?! It just simply wouldn’t happen. A cup of tea or a glass of wine with a packet of After Eights might be the preferred Irish-household just-before-bed routine. 

Want to be productive? Get up early! 

My first month in Spain was an absolute nightmare. Having to find accommodation, set up a bank account, apply for a social security number and national ID card is all hard enough as it is. Try doing it in Spain where EVERYTHING closes either at 2pm or (perhaps even more annoyingly) from 2pm to four or 5pm. 

If your to-do-list is jam-packed, I’d suggest getting up that little extra early to get as many things ticked off before that dreaded 2pm halt to life. Spanish people are incredibly laid back as a specie. Before coming to Spain, I considered the Irish to be a quite laid back nation. The level of laid backness in Spain simply doesn’t compare. 

The siesta is a commonly misinterpreted term, so I’ve been told. It doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is sleeping; it simply means that a good, long two-to-three hour break is taken right in the middle of the day by the whole country (those that are able to given their timetables). Imagine that kind of lifestyle in Ireland! It would either drive us ballistic or would change our attitude on life, depending on your to-do-list that day! 

Morning-afternoon debate

Oh, you Spanish people, how different you lot are! The morning is from whatever time you wake up at dawn until noon, isn’t it? Not to the Spaniards. Over here, the morning is considered to be from the hour you wake up to lunchtime – which is typically eaten here in Spain between 2 and 3pm – and the afternoon is interestingly from lunchtime to dinner time. 

So, this means that the afternoon in Spain lasts from 2pm to around 9pm at the earliest! Absolute craziness altogether! The evening is disregarded almost, whereas in Ireland the evening is considered to be the best part of our day, arriving home from work at 6pm ish and getting into your pyjamas. No? Just me? Ok, moving on swiftly then. 

Whatever way you look at it, Spain does share quite a fair few of similarities with our beloved Ireland, but the glaring differences significantly outweigh these common-shared traits all day long. Let me tell you one thing: culture shocks will be felt forcefully if you’re coming to Spain from Ireland. Just embrace it and set your Spanish self (inside all of, surely) free! 

Make sure to check out our previously published article on the culture shocks French people experience when moving to Ireland here.

Conor Lynch
Conor Lynch

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