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Friday, October 21, 2011

The Comedy of Manners

People are basically the same everywhere—at least everywhere I’ve been—but there are a lot of little cultural idiosyncrasies that set Spanish people apart from Americans. I despise the argument over which nationality is the “friendliest” because I think those trying to frame the dispute are confusing “friendly” with other concepts like “courtesy” or “openness.” Being polite isn’t the same thing as being friendly. Friendly, by the very definition of the word, implies friendship, a pretty tall order if you expect it from total strangers.

This is one of those things that you hear Americans complaining about when they visit France. I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say that French waiters aren’t “friendly.” I suppose this is true if you compare a French waiter at a café in Paris with some teenager at Applebee’s who tells you her entire life story during the course of your mediocre meal. I don’t think that I’m being an asshole when I say that just telling me your name is really more information than I really need to effect our little transaction of exchanging food for money. Most cafes here in Spain are little mom and pop joints but don’t expect anyone to be jumping-up-and-down happy just because you walked in the door, the same goes for Parisian cafes. If it’s “friendliness” you are after then you should bring your friends along with you.

One of the first things an American notices in Spain is that people here say goodbye—hasta luego—when exiting an elevator. It’s a simple courtesy but try saying goodbye to a total stranger after sharing an elevator ride in New York or Chicago. I believe you’d get your ass kicked for pulling that kind of stunt, either that or people would drop dead from the shock of having an anonymous person say something to them that wasn’t a threat or an insult.  I was surprised myself the first time I experienced this bit of Spanish civility, but once the initial jolt wears off you realize how completely sensible and decent it is to acknowledge another human being’s presence while sharing the confined space of an elevator. When coming and going form an apartment building people will say hello to everyone, whether they know you or not. I walked past a guy today who was deep in the middle of a business conversation with another man yet he said hello to me as we passed in the lobby of a friend’s building. He had never seen me before and perhaps would never see me again but he went out of his way to acknowledge my presence.

Don’t forget to say “Bonjour” or “Buenas tardes” upon entering a store or restaurant.  Of course, you are always expected to bid farewell when leaving a business in Spain as well as in France.  I used to be terribly self-conscious about this little gesture of politeness, to the point that I wouldn’t leave a bar or café if the employee was in the back and I couldn’t say goodbye. I’d actually wait until they popped their head out from whatever they were doing. Often you will find yourself saying goodbye to other customers. Just about any interaction you may have with another human being while sitting at a café, from simply providing a light for a cigarette to sharing a remark about the day’s headline, is generally considered to be hasta luego-worthy in the minds of most Spanish people. I always get a kick out of the fact that I have made this sort of connection with people which now makes us something other than total strangers.

Americans, on the other hand, are a LOT chattier than most Europeans, at least in my limited experience.  I know that I am. Perhaps this is because I lived in South Florida too long, too many old people with nothing better to do than talk a stranger’s ear off. Sometimes my talkative nature works here and sometimes I get the feeling that people are saying to themselves, “Why the fuck is this guy talking to me? What did I do to deserve this?” It’s not that Spanish people don’t like to talk but it really isn’t their custom to talk with total strangers, at least not without a good reason—whatever the hell that might be. I lived in Greece many years ago and the Greeks at first seem extremely abrupt and closed with strangers. Once you are allowed inside their circle of family and friends everything changes drastically to the point that if you utter a few words of their language people practically adopt you on the spot.

Americans and Brits are also much more generous with the use of “please” and “thank you” than Spanish people, at least in restaurant and bar situations. I think most Spanish people feel that we go a little overboard on this sort of forced politeness where for them the "please" and "thank you" is sort of implied. All I know is that it’s very important to remember that a lack of these little courtesies isn’t a lack of manners on the part of the locals; it’s just the way things are.  Most British people probably find Americans to be short on good manners which, of course, isn’t true at all. We’re simply different.  

The longer I live in Spain the more things here become more the norm for me. I’m sure life would seem a bit awkward for me back in The States. I don’t think my own character has really changed at all but the way I perceive everything around me certainly has.  

1 comment:

  1. I despise the argument over which nationality is the “friendliest” because I think those trying to Sam Tripoli frame the dispute are confusing “friendly” with other concepts like “courtesy” or “openness.


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