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Scholarship Series: Kylie on 5 cultural differences between the US and Spain

cultural differences in Spain

Most people go abroad to learn about a different culture. From the work environment, to shopping for groceries, there will be some pretty big differences between your home country and your internship country. Scholarship recipient Kylie from the US has some insights about the biggest cultural differences in Spain.


1. Time

I knew that Europeans tended to eat later than Americans. However, the fact that the entire timetable of the day is pushed back by about 2 or 3 hours surprised me. A typical weekday starts around 9:30. Lunch is at 2pm and lasts around 2 hours. 4pm is siesta time so trying to find restaurants and shops that are open during that time is nearly impossible. Dinner is at 9 or 10pm; although I have eaten as late as midnight.  I generally don’t go to sleep until 1 or 2am.

On weekends when going to one of Madrid’s many discotecas or bars, people don’t even leave their apartments until 1:30am. Anything earlier than that is absurd and the disco will most likely be empty. People say that New York City is the city that never sleeps but I feel like that distinction belongs to Spain. Restaurants still serve dinner at midnight and clubs won’t close until 6am. Gran Via is still a bustling street at 3am. The only thing that doesn’t keep such late hours is the metro which does occasionally make getting back home difficult.


cultural differences in Spain


2. Affection

I never considered America a particularly staid country but in comparison to Spain it is. Both romantic and platonic displays of affection are much more prevalent than in America. From the moment you meet, it is different. Instead of just a handshake it is a hug and double kiss, which also happens when you say goodbye. It can be a bit disquieting at first. Especially when taking the metro and seeing couples hanging off each other but no one bats an eye about it here. Holding hands is also a much more commonplace occurrence.


3. Grocery stores

One of the most difficult activities here is going to the grocery store. There are always challenges when going to a new grocery store and not knowing where anything in the store is, but going to a grocery store abroad is a huge culture shock. The brands are different here and all the labels are in Spanish so it’s mainly guesswork on what I’m buying. I definitely recommend having Google translate up while shopping. There are other things that I would expect to be universal but I’m realizing may just be American. I had to go to 4 different stores before I finally found aluminum foil and plastic wrap. I have yet to find plastic bags. I’m still very confused about how Spaniards keep things fresh if plastic bags are such a rarity. I’ve definitely had to throw out my fair share of food in 3 weeks because I have no way to keep it fresh. I think it’s because Spain is so big on reusable products that one-use items are uncommon. Plastic cups are also difficult to come by and when you go to a store you pay for plastic bags for your groceries so remember to bring a big reusable shopping bag. I’ve been using my hiking backpack.


4. The workplace environment

We were told in our first orientation that the Spanish work environment would be different from what we had encountered in the US. Besides not working the typical 9-5 work day which falls under the time category, there are many other cultural differences in Spain. I found my office is much more hands off than places in America. It is also a more relaxed atmosphere. In the US I was used to going in and being assigned tasks that I would then need my supervisor’s approval on before I could continue. There is also an air of urgency in offices in the US. All work should be done in a timely fashion and before you go home for the day. My first day here I went in with the same expectations and found myself greatly surprised at how much more relaxed the work environment is here. I’m beginning to learn to loosen up but old habits are hard to break.


cultural differences in Spain


5. Dress

Every single person in Madrid is so stylish. What they wear just to walk their dogs in the park is better than what I wear most of the time to go to a nice dinner. Fortunately, I read some travel blogs before coming and packed accordingly. My wardrobe contains mostly sundresses and skirts. I still don’t even compare to Spanish style. Somehow, they manage to dress fashionably despite the 38 degree C heat. I’m especially impressed with the girls as they also manage to walk around the city in heels or platform sandals. Platform shoes are also very trendy here. Almost everyone owns a pair of platform sandals or sneakers, not heels or wedges, just an even 2-inch platform shoe. Luckily, there are many shops from huge department stores like Primark or Zara to small boutiques that line almost every street where you can glam up your wardrobe.


Interested in boosting your resume with internship experience in Spain? Learn more about our program in Madrid. 


Photos by

1. Kylie Lan Tumiatti

2. Kylie Lan Tumiatti


Photos and blog by The Intern Group

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The International Internships Blog is a collaboration by The Intern Group staff, alumni and current participants to give you career advice & tips, program information, & so much more!