Cross-cultural awareness is an important field of study nowadays, particularly in training of specialists for international trade. Obvious differences (currency, tipping, driving on the left, bank opening hours) are fairly simple to get used to. Some other differences are more subtle, and you may not notice them at all unless they are pointed out to you.
Casual or unintentional rudeness is often a result of ignorance of cultural norms abroad. As a British person who has lived in Catalonia for many years (mostly in Osona, but also in Barcelona), I have often experienced moments of minor friction through non-correspondence or misinterpretation of my own and others’ behaviour. Please note that the evidence I have for these observations is purely anecdotal.
How to be rude in Catalonia
Here are some things that Catalans have a problem with, and which are complicated for British people.
- Eating in front of people who are not eating
In my experience, Catalans are unlikely to get out a sandwich on a bus or a train, for example, something which causes a British person no discomfort. The rationale behind this taboo could be twofold.
Maybe the idea is that you should share your food if you eat in public. In Catalonia people will typically say “Que aprofiti! or “¡Que aproveche!” to a stranger who is eating. Somehow the nearest English equivalent “Enjoy your food!” just does not seem appropriate.
Or maybe it is felt that eating is in some way unclean. My suspicion about this mild taboo is reinforced by popular food customs such as Catalan calçotades, which involve eating in a spectacularly messy manner, or the Tomatina tomato throwing street party that takes place each year in Bunyol.
- Not greeting people you know when passing in the street
We even have an expression for this: “retirar la salutació”. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Catalans and other Spanish people greet many more people in passing than British people do. To British eyes, it can seem that Spanish people have many more friends than they do!
- Not saying enough thank-yous
In Catalan the conventional response to “gràcies” is “de res”. In Britain the conventional response is nothing at all or perhaps, in a shop, “goodbye”. This kind of conventional exchange can give rise to a perception of rudeness if the expected reply is not given. In fact, in English we sometimes hear “not at all”, “you’re welcome” or “don’t mention it” as equivalents of “de res”. In reality, such expressions are rarely used by native speakers in Britain but do service in international English to ensure a perception of politeness.
- Not kissing
Giving two kisses on the cheeks (to a woman or child) or a handshake (to a man) when introduced or meeting in a social situation is a behaviour pattern that is awkward for British people. Such close physical contact with acquaintances is not common in Britain but Spanish people even go through this ritual at work sometimes. It seems difficult for British people to know when this kind of greeting is required. This can lead to embarrassment, if kissing when not appropriate, or an interpretation of aloofness, if offering a handshake when kissing is expected.
- Not knowing about regional differences
In Catalonia you need to know about the language and that bull-fighting and flamenco are minority interests. If you know anything at all about Catalan language and culture that will be well received. In the rest of Spain, you need to know about regional differences too.
How to be rude in Britain
It is easy to be rude in Britain too. Here are some common problems for Catalans, and other Spanish people, in general.
- Standing close
Spanish people typically get closer together when talking to each other. British people perceive a greater personal space around them and can feel uncomfortable if that space is invaded. This cultural difference is particularly noticeable if you are standing up.
- Talking loudly
Make no mistake, Spanish people don’t like it if you shout either. But the general perception of what is acceptable noise in a public space is very different. Indeed, Spanish people, to British ears, seem to be compulsively noisy, especially if they are enjoying themselves. Most British people, on the other hand, prefer not to shout in public. They are too reserved and prefer to avoid the attention that shouting attracts. Such is this desire for discretion that British tourists can even find it hard to call for a waiter in a Spanish bar – and go unserved!
- Not knowing about regional differences
In Britain, the English are unlikely to be offended if you say England when you mean Britain or the UK. This is synedoche, the part referring to the whole, and is known the world over. People often say Holland when they mean the Netherlands or Russia when they mean the Soviet Union. Saying America when you mean the USA is a similar trope. Such errors are usually the result of ignorance, but can cause offence, in particular, in the case of the British Isles, if you keep calling people English who are in fact from Wales, Scotland or Ireland.
More potential misunderstanding
Cultural norms encompass much more than politeness conventions, of course. Many behaviourial differences are quite subtle and can easily pass under the radar. Whatever the case, the usual caveats apply. These are all just generalisations, so be prepared for exceptions!
- Self-deprecating humour
Stephen Hawking was once asked why he thought he was so popular, and he replied, “No one can resist the idea of a crippled genius.” Such self-effacing rhetoric is a façade of discretion used to put others at ease, a kind of self-depricating humour that is typically British.
- Obeying the law
After many years of residence in Spain, I believe that you can park on the pavement in many parts of Barcelona on a Saturday night without getting your wheel clamped or your car towed away. How do I know this? And how do Catalan people know this? It is based on a customary pragmatic interpretation of the law. In general, in Spain the law is quite restrictive, but it is often not enforced. For example, in Catalonia each village has its own colour chart and if you paint your house you should use one of the colours. In practice, you seem to be able to use any colour. Another example of this laxity about rules is smoking. In principle, you are not allowed to smoke at railway stations or sports grounds. In practice, if you are in the open air, you can smoke freely, and there may even be ashtrays. British people find this kind of ambiguity about rules exasperating. In the context of a Brexit mentality, they might be heard complaining about it, saying that EU directives ought to apply everywhere but in southern Europe the rules are often overlooked.
- Including children
Spanish people certainly love children! The kids are always included in social activities, often at the centre of them. They never seem to be left behind. There are no mean “No children” signs at Spanish bars and restaurants. It’s hard to see anything negative about this way of living family life!
I could go on for a long time about differences betwen British and Catalan social customs: punctuality, going round to other people’s houses, queuing, footwear, showering, holidays, food, drink, swearing, the list goes on.
Very basic guidelines are often offered to tourists (15 things tourists should never do in Spain, ever, 13 things that tourists should never do in Barcelona, What not to do in Spain). In truth, visiting or living away from where you were brought up is a constant voyage of discovery!