Cultural Tips for Doing Business in Spain

cultural tips for Spain, Spanish business travel, business tips for Spain
Copyright: Kristoffer Trolle, flickr, CC 2.0

What's not to love about Spain? The climate? The people? The food? The architecture? It's amazing. That's why it's wonderful when I have a chance to head there on business. If you're able to visit Spain for business, make sure to appreciate it--but it's also important to make sure you understand the culture! You don't want to mess up a possible business deal by saying or doing the wrong thing.

To better understand all the nuances and cultural tips that can help a business traveler heading to Spain, I interviewed Gayle Cotton, author of the book Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication. Ms. Cotton is an expert on cultural differences and a distinguished speaker and recognized authority on cross-cultural communication. She's also President of Circles Of Excellence Inc., and has been featured on many television programs, including: NBC News, BBC News, PBS, Good Morning America, PM Magazine, PM Northwest, and Pacific Report. For more information on Ms. Cotton, please visit Ms. Cotton was happy to share tips with readers to help business travelers avoid potential cultural problems when traveling.

What tips do you have for business travelers heading to Spain?

  • When doing business in Spain, keep in mind that many businesses are closed from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily, since people often return home to have their main meal with their family and take an afternoon siesta
  • Although you should be punctual yourself, don't be alarmed if you are kept waiting for anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. In addition, parties and other social events rarely begin at their scheduled time.
  • Be sensitive to regional differences because making misinformed comments about a Spaniard's region of origin is considered an insult (for example, mistaking a Catalonian for a Basque).
  • First-time introductions with Spaniards should be made in a formal manner. Extend a brief but firm handshake while maintaining eye contact.
  • In the company of friends, it's common for men to hug or pat each other on the back in addition to the handshake.
  • Although there may be less Spanish women in management positions, businesswomen in Spain are treated with respect, as long as you dress and behave in a professional manner.
  • While women are fully accepted in their business roles, it’s important for them to understand that machismo is very important to some Spanish men, so they often feel the need to be in control of the situation.
  • Spaniards stand close together when talking, and may also pat your arm or shoulder to make a point. Don’t move away, or it may cause offense.
  • Another common Spanish gesture is snapping the hands downward to emphasize a point.
  • Spain is a very religious country, so many people will be offended if they hear you take the Lord's name in vain, and it’s best to refrain from swearing in the presence of others.
  • The Spanish business culture is extremely hierarchical, and only bosses, known as "el jefe" or "el padron," have the authority to make decisions. Generally, subordinates follow orders, obey authority, and solve any problems before they surface.
  • Be aware that it would be frowned upon if you spent a great deal of time and attention on someone who is of lesser rank than you. It’s better to spend time with those who would be considered your "business equal”.
  • Make the effort to adapt to the Spanish business ways, because it demonstrates your respect for their culture and shows that you are flexible.
  • Don’t expect to discuss business at the start of any meeting. Spaniards want to become acquainted with you before proceeding to business, so be accommodating and answer any questions they may have about your background. On the flip side, it’s best not to ask them too many personal questions during first introductions.
  • Feelings are strongly relied on in the Spanish business culture. Consequently, it’s important that you work at building a good rapport with your Spanish counterparts.
  • Although Spaniards are receptive to new information and ideas, you may find that they don’t change their minds easily. Be prepared to negotiate and compromise.
  • Don’t be concerned if you are interrupted while talking, and don’t take it as an insult. Spanish interruptions most often indicate a genuine and enthusiastic interest in the discussion.
  • As in many Asian countries, you must do everything you can to prevent yourself and others from "losing face", so be very careful to avoid any kind of criticism or embarrassment.
  • Spaniards will often insist that everything is in perfect order, even when this is not the case. This is a "face-saving" measure to appear competent and in control. Pay close attention during conversations to discern what is really going on.

5 Key Conversation Topics or Gesture Tips

  • Eye contact is very important to indicate your sincerity and attentiveness.
  • All types of sports, and especially soccer!
  • Architecture, music, art, culture, and anything related to the country or region’s beauty.
  • Travel, places you’ve visited, and your home country. 
  • Good, wine, and especially the food or wine of the regions in Spain you are visiting.

5 Key Conversation Topics or Gesture Taboos

  • The North American "O.K." sign (making a circle of the first finger and thumb) is considered vulgar and should never be used.
  • Summoning a person by curling your index finger is considered rude. Instead, turn your palm down and wave your fingers or entire hand.
  • Even though it might be a controversial tradition, bullfighting has a long history here, so it might be in your best interests to refrain from criticizing it, especially if you don't know your local colleagues' feelings about it.
  • Avoid placing too much of an emphasis on your professional experience and business success during a conversation.
  • In the Spanish culture, the quality of your character is the best measure of respect, so take care about how you want to be perceived.

What is important to know about the decision-making or negotiation process?

Decision-making and negotiations in Spain can be slow, and various levels of hierarchy are consulted as aspects of a proposal are analyzed. After a successful negotiation, gifts are sometimes exchanged to mark the happy occasion.

Any tips for women?

Women sometimes lightly embrace, then touch cheeks while lightly kissing the air. They may also greet a Spanish man who is a particularly close friend in this way.

Any tips on gestures?

A wide range of gestures regularly accompany conversation. Don't hesitate to ask if you have difficulty understanding these gestures, especially since the meanings often vary from region to region.

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