Project Gaylord

Chronicles of a year in Spain without a plan.

Spain vs. America: The Differences Explained (Mike)

So, this is supposed to be a blog about living abroad in Spain, right?  That’s what we thought when we created it, but we recently realized that, until now, we have mostly written about our experiences outside of Spain.  In the coming posts, we are going to try to fix that and hopefully prove to you guys that we have, in fact, been living here for months.  I think it makes sense to start by addressing the major differences between the US and Spain that we’ve noticed.  During our time here, the consensus has been that there are more similarities than differences, but there are still same important qualities that separate these great nations.

In no particular order, here are the critical differences:

1.  The Schedule


(tick, tick, tick…when you’re ready to go to bed, the party is just getting started in Spain)

This is probably the most obvious difference for a citizen of the western world who experiences Spain for the first time.  To put it as simply as possible: everything is Spain takes place 2-3 hours later than it does in the US (or in the rest of Europe, for that matter).  Want to go out for a nice dinner and evening out with friends?  Great!  Dinner will start at roughly 11:00pm, and you’ll be out at the bar/disco until 4am at the earliest (6-7am seems to be more normal for young Spaniards).  Lunch is served between 2 and 4pm.  People seem to get to work around 9:30.  Then there is a long break in the middle of the day for a “siesta” (note:  I don’t think many Spaniards actually use this time for napping, so the name is misleading), which is usually just a long lunch out at your favorite local restaurant.  Then back to the grind from 4 to 8pm or so.  So, it’s not that the Spanish work more or less than other cultures, they just spread their work over longer periods of time.  For an American raised on Benjamin Franklin’s adage of “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” the Spanish schedule takes some time to get used to.  An afternoon coffee becomes a necessity if you want to keep up.

As an interesting note, I just went out with a Spanish friend last night who gave me an interesting explanation about Spain’s curious schedule.  Apparently, at the start of the 20th century, Spain was experiencing a financial crisis similar to what it is facing now.  As a result, the majority of working men had to take second jobs in order to support their families.  Women did all the cooking during this time, so lunch had to be ready between 3-4pm, when the men were returning from their first job, and then the family would sit down to dinner around 11pm, as husbands came back from job #2.  These hours were reinforced during the 1930’s, when Franco decided that he would put Spain in the same time zone as Germany, rather than England (even though the British Isles are directly north of Spain).  Spain remains on Central European Time, which means that it is light here an extra hour.  During the summer, for example, it doesn’t even get dark until 10:0opm.  Nobody will be heading to bed at 9:30pm if the sun is still out.  So, between the double-shift situation and being in the wrong time zone, Spanish hours are all (from our perspective) out of whack.  Apparently, there has been some talk about returning Spain to its proper time zone because Spaniards are essentially sleeping at least an hour less than the rest of Europe.  We’ll see what happens.  Thanks to Fernando for the interesting explanation of this phenomenon!

2.  Take to the Streets


The Spanish have an incredible culture of hanging out outside in the streets and sidewalk terraces.  In Madrid at least, this is probably because everyone lives in relatively small flats and, if you want to hang out with your friends, you’ll be way more comfortable around an outdoor table than in your cramped living room.  It’s not just young people that do this though.  During the summer, for example, around midnight, you can always find families walking around with their babies in strollers with young kids scurrying around their parent’s ankles.  If I remember correctly, when I was a little kid in America, I had to go to bed before it was even dark outside.  These kids are kicking soccer balls out in the streets until way past midnight.  It looks like fun, but young kids must be really tired after staying up that late (perhaps that explains the above-average level of whining in Spain:  see # 8 below for more on that topic).  It’s also not just something related to the incredible heat during the summer.  All during the holiday season, even though it was cold out, the main plazas are packed to the gills with people out getting fresh air and socializing.  I think this culture of being out and about is linked to points 3 and 4:

3.  Safety First

This is a huge difference between Spain and the good old U.S. of A.  From the moment we arrived, we felt actively safer in Europe than we felt living in Oakland.  In Madrid, for example, you can walk through literally any neighborhood at night or during the day without feeling uncomfortable.  Sure, there are nicer neighborhoods and worse ones, but you never feel like you are taking your life into your hands by stepping off the grid into a less developed neighborhood.  This is not the case in San Francisco or in Oakland, where there are areas that you literally shouldn’t enter, especially at night.  There is crime in Europe, but much of it is petty crime like pick pocketing.  You feel like the worst that could happen is that someone will try to grab your iPhone on the metro.  Finally, as far as gun violence is concerned, it just doesn’t exist here.  So far, nobody has really understood what I’m talking about when I say that I am a lawyer for a group that works against gun violence.  Compare that to Oakland, where, just before we left, there was a shooting at the Oakland Art Murmur event right in front of the food truck where we had been waiting in line only 45 minutes earlier.  This is an area where Europe is getting it right and the US has a lot of catching up to do.  Without guns or earthquakes to worry about, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves for the first few weeks here.  Now we worry about how we’re going to stay up until 3:30am for the fifth right in a row.  Maybe it’s because we feel so safe here that we’ve taken to so many self-actualizing activities like learning how to cook:Image

…or it could be the 10 hours of free leisure time that we have each day – it COULD also be that.

4.  We are Family


Spanish families are physically, and oftentimes metaphorically, closer to each other than families in the US.  It’s not weird for grandparents to live with the core family unit, or at least nearby, and it’s completely normal for kids to live with their parents until they are in their 30’s.  People often stay in their city of birth along with their families and extended families.  Our friends that are our age that don’t still live in the family home still usually talk to their parents on the phone almost every day and, at the very least, will have a few meals a week with their parents.  There are several interesting products of this familial closeness that merit discussion.  First, there are old people all over the place in Madrid.  On any given walk around the city, you will see at least 10 people using a cane per 3 blocks.  I don’t think I’ve ever walked the streets of Madrid without having to come to a complete stop at least once to accommodate the wobbling octogenarian in front of me.  I think this is because older people mostly all have families living nearby that help support them and because the public transportation is so good that older people can get around without having to drive.

Another interesting result of close families is that it seems to have helped Spain get through the worst of its current financial crisis.  The rate of unemployment for people younger than 30 is through the roof right now, but many of these young people continue to live at home as they would have been doing even if they still had jobs.  Contrast that to the US, where kids are usually out of the family house by age 18.  I think if the US youth unemployment rate were to rise to the same level as Spain, there would be mass rioting in the streets by angry twenty-somethings who couldn’t handle having to live with their parents again.

The upshot of family closeness in Spain is that young adults lose a certain amount of independence, but in exchange, they receive a huge amount of support from their families.  This can be incredibly useful in hard economic times like Spain is having right now, but it also means that young people don’t necessarily learn the skills of living on your own until much later in life.  So there are pluses and minuses to each system.  We could definitely all learn a lesson from Spain in terms of maintaining close relationships with our families, especially when it comes to older relatives.  And, for the sake of fairness, I think Spanish kids could stand to have a slightly higher level of independence.  That’s why we instituted “40’s and Sharp Objects Night” with my 14 year old cousin Sarah:


…just kidding.  This blog and its authors do not condone underage drinking.

5.  Public Transportation

This is an issue that makes you just smack your forehead in frustration if you are from the US and living abroad.  “Why can’t we, the most rich and powerful nation in the world, get this very basic thing right?!”  Public transportation in Spain is clean, safe, fast, and efficient.  That includes buses, trains, the metro, all of it.  In San Francisco, Laura and I couldn’t step foot on a public bus without someone smelling to high heaven or trying to cut their toenails on the seat in front of us.  And unlike Bart, the metro seats here aren’t made of carpet (WHO approved that decision, someone please tell me, WHO!?), so it doesn’t absorb every particle of urine and vomit like good-old Bart does.  That being said, people seem to respect the system in general and the levels of public acts of grossness far fewer on the Spanish system.  Spaniards LOVE their acts of public affection in parks, but for some reason there is an understanding that this is not going to fly on the public transportation system.  In the Bay Area, Bart really only works if you live walking distance to a station.  Here in Madrid, everyone lives walking distance to a station and you can get almost everywhere in the city in 30 minutes or less.  As a result, way fewer people own a car, there is way less traffic (generally), and everyone wins, including the environment.  This is a major point in the advantages column for Spain.


(Even the wooden pig rides are more efficient in Spain!)

6.  Ambition is a 4-Letter Word in Spanish

We learned recently that if you refer to someone as “ambitious” that is a huge insult here in Spain.  Laura actually learned this the hard way during an interview for her current volunteer position.  As she was talking with the interviewer about the organization’s founder, she said something like “Wow, she sounds like a really ambitious woman.”  At which point the interviewers jaw dropped down on her desk and asked Laura if she knew what she was saying.  If you’re ambitious here, it means you’re willing to do anything to get ahead, at any cost.  Along those lines, we’ve also learned that if you try to start a business here in Spain, you may be looked at negatively by people.  Something like, “Who does he think he is?!  Why doesn’t he just take a normal job like the rest of us?!”  I find this to be a super interesting contrast between the countries, especially as a resident of the Bay Area, where entrepreneurs are hailed as superheros.  I feel like in the Bay Area, the situation is completely the opposite and if you haven’t started your own business by the time you are 30, you start to wonder what’s wrong with you.  To me, this is an area where Spain has a lot to learn from the US.  We need people to be taking risks and starting up new businesses and organizations…that’s the motor of economic growth.  If you get ostracized for trying to do that, then fewer people will take the risk or put in the work to make a successful business.  I think joblessness in Spain is at least partially related to this anti-entrepreneurial spirit.  The US does a great job of encouraging risk-taking.  Not only in terms of financial rewards, but in terms of respect and adoration from your peers.  To give you a concrete example, one of our friends here started his own social network company designed to bring customers together with service providers.  Our response:  “Whoa, cool man!  That is awesome that you are doing that!”  He was plainly surprised by our positive reaction and told us that the average Spaniard is not nearly as positive – so he usually just keeps it to himself.  Individualism has its drawbacks, but I think Spain’s current economic trouble illustrates the problem of having a collective mentality of “I’m just going to do what everyone else is doing, why should I try to do something better or different?”

7.  Spaniards Tend to be Smaller

I’ll let the photograph do all the talking for this one.  There is only one native Spaniard in the following photo.  (Hint: that small child on the right is actually my adult aunt).


You get the point.

8.  Whining 

Simply put, Spain has a whining problem.  Children are allowed to whine at their parents in the most obnoxious manner and they never face any repercussions for it.  Being intelligent beings, they’ve learned that they can now get what they want simply by whining, crying, or some combination thereof – as loudly as possible.  It’s horrible and it’s also universal.  You’ll see it at the supermarket, out on the terraces, and in the homes of Spaniards with young kids.  It’s so bad, in fact, that the whining sometimes lasts way into a person’s 20’s.  I think being here has pushed our having kids timeline back at least 3-4 years.  Spanish parents, this is a problem with a solution!  You can do something about this!  The next time your kid whines at you, DON’T GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT!  Although kids are small, their little brains are more developed than you think…they know when something works, and they’ll do it again and again until they learn that it won’t work.  I hope to God that the next generation of Spanish parents gets this right, because the whining is truly annoying.  Major point here for the US.  We obviously have our share of awful little brats, but I feel like our general level of tolerance for whining is much lower.

I’m reminded of a European commercial that was shared with us a few weeks ago by some friends in our Spanish school.  This gives you some idea of what things are like here, but the punchline is incredible.  Enjoy:

9.  Exposure to Other Cultures

An interesting feature of Spain, and of Europe in general, is that they are just not exposed to other cultures or people of other races in the way we are in the US.  The result is that they just haven’t had to come to grips with issues of race-relations.  For example, it is not uncommon to hear a Spaniard refer to a minority with the diminutive, such as a “negrito” which means “little black man,” or chinito which means “little chinese man.”  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t said with disrespect, but my point is that saying something like “blacky or whitey” in the US would never fly.  But the reality here is that many Spaniards do not personally know a single black person.  This leads to situations like this:  Three Kings Day is a huge holiday in Spain on January 6, to celebrate the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem.  One of the kings, Balthazar, is black.  To celebrate, Madrid has a huge parade down main street with floats for each king.  As we watched, we experienced a combination of amusement and disgust as Balthazar passed by the camera.  Marching before him were about 50 black drummers, and then Balthazar himself – as he turned to smile at the camera, we realized that he was a white guy with his face (and only his face) PAINTED black.  Apparently it’s been like this every year, so even though there is no shortage of black people, its as if Spain can’t bring itself to put an actual black guy in the role of ancient king.  I’m sure it’s not anything overt, but this just gives you a sense of how things are here.



Spaniards just haven’t grappled with racism as much and, as a result, I don’t think it’s first and foremost in people’s minds.  The homogeneity of Europe means that people are almost never talking about their origins.  In the US, for example, we are always asking people “so, what are you?” because the answer is inevitably interesting:  “I’m 1/2 Irish, 1/4 French, and 1/4 Native American.”  That question is just not asked here because the answer for everyone is: I’m from Germany or I’m from Spain…next!  It makes you appreciate that everyone in America has a story about how they got there and is usually a mixture of different nationalities.  That being said, Spain has some really interesting local variations, and in at least five different provinces that I can think of, people speak an entirely different language in addition to Spanish.  But in terms of having high rates of non-European populations, America is very distinct from Spain.

10.  Architecture and History

Well, this is an obvious win for Spain.  You can’t walk around here without noticing gorgeous old building after gorgeous old building.  It’s one of the things I will miss most.  Then, compared to our 200+ years of history, Europe has thousands and, in particular, the history of Spain is incredibly rich, especially since it was ruled by the Moors for a stretch of 800 years leading up to the middle ages.  Sorry US, I love you, but this is an area where you just can’t compete.  Madrid is particularly good at designing large public spaces that attract lots of users, so you always have this feeling of the city being alive and vibrant.  San Francisco is an amazing city with incredible neighborhoods, but it lacks a definitive “center.”  I think this is true of most US cities.  I’ll leave you with some pictures to prove my point.

IMG_0083 IMG_0090 IMG_0101 IMG_0114 IMG_0126 IMG_0316 IMG_0339 IMG_0351 IMG_0686 IMG_0693 IMG_0697 IMG_0745

11.  Spaniards Are Super-Friendly

I wanted to end on 10, since that is such a nice, round number, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this final difference.  Across the board, Spaniards are amazingly friendly and open.  Stop and ask someone for directions and they’ll gladly drop everything they’re doing to help you on your way.  People always hug and kiss when they meet one another, which gets things started on a friendly note much better than the Anglo-American handshake.  There is not the ice-breaking period that you get with most Americans, Germans, or especially, British people.  Once you are introduced, they’ll talk with you as if you’ve known each other for years.  It makes it absolutely great for people like us who are living here temporarily – you instantly feel welcome.  One negative if you are just visiting is that the rate of English-speaking is not as high as it is in other European countries (probably because Spanish movies and TV are dubbed, so they don’t grow up hearing everything in Spanish live the Germans do).  However, if you do have a common tongue, the average Spanish person will treat you with incredible openness and generosity.  Most Spanish people we’ve met have a great sense of humor and an incredible sense of joie de vive.  These people know how to enjoy life and they are particularly good about slowing down, taking a break, and enjoying a conversation after a good meal without any hurry to get on to the next thing.  When it comes to this friendly demeanor and general attitude towards life, I think many Americans have a lot to learn from their European counterparts.  But it’s these differences that make living abroad such a magical experience.  (See below for proof of magical experiences being had).  Hopefully now it’s at least a little more plausible that we are actually living in Spain!

IMG_0097 IMG_0144 IMG_0308 IMG_0335 IMG_0345 IMG_0418 IMG_0483 IMG_0492 IMG_0724


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3 thoughts on “Spain vs. America: The Differences Explained (Mike)

  1. Hogeboomers on said:

    Hey Mike and Laura-
    Thanks for the amazing insights into the differences between Spain and the US; very enlightening! It sounds like you guys have had such an amazing experience, and have done a lot of having fun but some reflection too. One of the best parts of traveling, from my limited perspective, is how much you learn about yourself and your home country. Seeing how different people approach life and living in such a different way is incredibly interesting, and makes you feel so alive! I can’t wait to travel again! Maybe I will be able to see you in April if the Spanish teacher interviews come about. Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful and descriptive blogs; we have been following them regularly and so enjoy your writing. Have a great last 3-5 months!

    Uncle Jim


    • Yay! Great observations and I echo all of them. One thing I noticed though; while PDA is a no-go ON public transport, it seems to be THE place to do it in front of the metro station entrances (how many times did we trip over canoodling couples stationed on the stairs?).

      I am happy to see that you were able to put into words what I have observed too! And, that you used all the photos from my camera. Looking at them on your blog has allowed me to reminisce about the great times we had. Although, I am not taking credit for the Balthazar one. That one is not mine! 😉 Love you guys!


    • Jonathan Lively on said:

      Mike, spot on observations about the differences between Spain and the US. 
      I have similar impressions from my travels there as well as in Greece.

      Your “Point 6”, whether ambition and entrepreneurship is expected and accepted within a culture (or not) brings up some very interesting thoughts about cultural comparison. A study done by the Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede many years ago selected key elements of a culture and surveyed each country with the responses providing a scale of comparison between cultures.

      The 4 main cultural elements surveyed were: 

      Acceptance of Power with Inequality
      – the degree of acceptance and expectation within the culture that power is unequally distributed

      Individualism vs. Collectivism
      – the degree of acceptance and expectation within the culture towards personal achievement and individuality vs. the collective group

      Uncertainty Avoidance
      – the degree of tolerance within a culture to change, uncertainty

      -the degree of acceptance and expectation within a culture toward what are considered more masculine elements (competition, success driven, achievement) vs. the more feminine elements (relationships, quality of life)

      Here are the results of the survey. The scores for each country are to be used as comparison data between countries, not meaningful viewed on their own. 

      I selected Spain and the US example. You can see the variation between each country’s response to these key elements. Feel free to try your own choices for comparison.

      Yes, surveys, tests, studies can be generalizations but  I think you will find the results enlightening … some expected, some surprises.

      Thanks  and  keep up the keen reportage.

      Jonathan Lively


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