Modern Spanish business culture and etiquette

Wow, this title sounds like something out of a textbook. I wanted to write this post, because in my experience there are a lot of lies around about Spanish culture and business etiquette in Spain going round. “You’re expected to arrive 30 minutes late” is one of them (this is most definitely not true for a job interview, for example), “it may be difficult for a woman to pay for a man’s meal” another (if only!). If people know you’re from another country, they tend to accept you for what you are, especially if the organisation you’re working with is modern and operates multinationally. That said, every culture has its quirks, and Spanish business culture is no different. Here’s a few points on doing business in Spain, but do be aware that they’re not “one size fits all” rules – every company is unique.

Doing business in Spain – dinner time

  • It’s ok, and even advisable, to keep your hands on the table when you’re eating and in between courses.
  • Spain is a “one glass of wine” culture, especially in business settings. It’s common to enjoy a glass of red with a meal (bottles are still sometimes served in work canteens), but getting plastered on a Friday night with new colleagues is less common than in the UK and usually considered unprofessional. Order Spanish plonk to make a good impression. Cava for special occasions only.
  • Unlike the UK, it’s always obligatory to say “have a nice meal” to people you see eating.
  • During the middle of the day, it’s quite common to go for a “menu” – a three-course meal with more limited options than normal, served at a set price. Lunch is a much bigger meal than in other places, and is almost always a proper meal rather than a sandwich.
  • Tipping (in Barcelona, at least) is far less common, although you might leave a few coins to round up and be considered generous.
  • After a long lunch, time is taken to drink coffee and chat. This even has a special name – “la sobremesa“.
  • It’s common to skip breakfast and take a pause mid-morning for coffee and a quick sandwich or bowl of cereal.
  • Dinner is normally after 9 pm.
  • Make sure you put olive stones around the side of the plate, rather than in the dish with the other olives. I made this mistake once and was mortified.
  • A “porron” is a kind of wine funnel which you pour directly into your mouth at special occasions. If one is wheeled out while you’re doing business in Spain, be careful and do not be afraid to decline, as it’s very easy to make a mess.
  • It’s very uncommon to order things that aren’t on the menu, and the Spanish are very unfussy in this sense. “No mayo, extra lettuce and soya instead of normal milk” will be met with suspicion, especially in more traditional establishments.
  • It’s a complete lie that there are no vegetarians in Spain, especially modern, cosmopolitan Spanish culture. But in some circumstances, vegetarianism will be more difficult.
  • Cutlery is re-used for the main course, so take it off your plate and leave it on the table after your starter.

Doing business in Spain – what to wear

  • Despite being hotter, showing lots of skin is less common, especially when doing business in Spain. Women – beware the mini-skirt (men wearing mini-skirts may also raise some eyebrows).
  • In Barcelona at least, people are masters of the difficult art of smart casual. Watch and learn.
  • Wearing bright colours is less common in Spanish culture than others.
  • If you’re not sure what to wear to a casual occasion, you can’t go wrong with Spanish fashion brand Desigual.

Doing business in Spain – greetings

  • Men shake hands. Women and men, and women and women who have a close relationship kiss on the cheek (once on the left, once on the right). In business, kissing in the cheek is less common – if in doubt, shake hands. If you accidentally kiss your employer (as has happened to me before I cottoned onto this), it can be quite embarrasing.
  • Sensitivity to political correctness is different in Spanish culture – women shouldn’t be surprised or offended if a male colleague tells them they look good or comments on their outfit.

Doing business in Spain – other

  • In general, Spanish culture is quite direct. Openess and honesty are valued highly, and tact and sensitivity perhaps not so much as in the UK.
  • Interrupting is often considered a sign that you’re engaging in the conversation, rather than rudeness. It’s your duty to contribute, and not participating is looked down on when socialising and doing business in Spain. Follow your lead from others, however – it might not be wise to shoot your mouth off when your boss is in the middle of a speech.
  • Regional identities are strong in Spanish culture, and people are normally enthusiastic to talk about their local area, food and way of life.
  • Remember that everyone is different. Take people as you find them, and avoid mentioning stereotypes – Spain is such a big country that these are often just untrue.

Text and photos by Penelope

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