The way deals are done in Spain can be a shock to the uninitiated. Cross-cultural consultant and trainer Eleonore Breukel offers advice on Spanish business culture.
Spain’s cultural background
Spanish culture has influenced the world greatly in the past. At one time Spain ruled in South America, the Caribbean and as far east as the Philippines. As a result of this large colonial influence and the growth of Spanish as a second-language, Spanish is regarded as the second most spoken language worldwide.
The Spanish Overseas Empire gradually collapsed. Only in 1975, after the dictatorship of General Franco, did Spain make a significant comeback on to the world stage. The country developed rapidly as a global economical power, but Spain has suffered economically in recent years following the Global Financial Crisis.
Many post-colonial ties on a government level and an abundance of family ties across oceans offer the country an advantage in doing business worldwide.
Spain has 17 autonomous regions which in terms of culture differ enormously. Spaniards identify themselves first with their region and secondly with the country. For this reason, always find out the origins of your new clients.
Language and religion in Spain
The Spanish language is Castillian and comes from the region of Castille. It is the official language in the entire country. However, the Catalans in the strongly developed region of Catalonia, (Barcelona) speak their own language; Catalan. In the north of Spain some 700,000 people speak Basque. In the north-west, Galician is the dominant language. Other local dialects also exist around Spain, and are spoken and promoted to varying degrees.
Throughout the country most people belong to the Catholic church.
Doing business in Spain
Spain has a relational culture. Starting business in Spain means building a network of contacts in different sectors of society. To get your client to trust you right from the start it helps to provide him with references about yourself and your company from important people in Spain. Getting yourself introduced by a trusted relation of your new client is also a very good way to start the initial contact.
Relations are built personally, not by telephone or e-mail. Out-of-the-office meetings like lunches or dinners offer the best occasions to get to know each other better. You will obtain the best information in a relaxed and pleasant situation and certainly not during meetings between the four walls of the office.
In Spain you need a large network to get things done. Remember that when people pay you a favour, some day you may have to pay it back. .
Be sure that you enter a company at the right level. If you enter too low you may insult the person at a higher level who you really have to deal with. Check and double-check who the best person for you to contact is.
Communication should always take place on equal levels. For this reason, if in the course of doing business your Spanish counterpart has problems getting issues approved within his organisation, ask him if it would be a good idea if your superior should speak to his superior.
Spanish family-owned businesses
Many large companies in Spain are family-owned. Usually those companies are very hierarchical. Many family members are employed on different levels within the organisation. Decisions are made at the top, which might even mean at the family dinner table.
How to address Spaniards
Spaniards are initially quite formal in a business setting. This will soon change to into a much more informal behaviour.
Always shake hands when you enter or leave a room with people. Depending on your position, you can address people by their academic or professional titles followed by their surname. For example: Abvogado Sanchez. In case people have no titles, address them as senor, senora or senorita and their surname.
Wait for your Spanish host to initiate the use of first names. If you speak Spanish use the formal form ‘usted‘ until you are invited to use the familiar form of address ‘tú‘. Spaniards show respect by addressing each other by the title ‘don‘, but you will unlikely use this in a meeting with equal professional counterparts. In order to create distance Spaniards may also address their house personnel with the formal ‘usted‘.
Spaniards stand very close to each other, touch each other frequently on the arm, back and shoulder and maintain good eye contact.
When Spaniards write their name they use the surname of the father and the mother. For example: Pedro Sánchez Hernández his father is called Sánchez and his mother Hernández. Pedro will be addressed as senor Sánchez.
When a woman marries, she generally does not take her husband’s name, but keeps both her father’s and mother’s surname. She may be addressed as senora, however, while unmarried women are referred to as senorita. However, if Maria González Miro were to marry Pedro Sánchez Hernández, she may be addressed as senora Sánchez.
Jose Marie Maduro has two first names and may be addressed as Jose Maduro or senor Maduro. There are man, Spanish names that include two first names, and you should use both when addressing that person, for example Maria Teresa or Jose Enrique.
Meetings in Spain
Meetings are usually held to communicate decisions already made. Only in meetings with people at the same level, business will be discussed. People seldom openly give their opinions at the meeting table. For this reason, you should try to obtain some information from the general context of the meeting and from non-verbal communication. You will be prevented from losing face in a meeting, as the general aim is to prevent loss of face of any attendees.
Meetings may be loud and noisy. It is not considered impolite to interrupt someone.
Concept of time
Spaniards may be late for meetings or other appointments. As a foreigner you are expected to be on time.
Although Spaniards work very hard, the way they live their lives is much more relaxed then the northern Europeans or the Americans.
In international business life siestas do not exist anymore.
Women in business
Few women hold high positions in Spanish companies, unless they are family companies. Spain has pledged a quota of 40 percent of management positions to be held by women by 2015, although this has yet to spark huge gains, similar to other European countries.
Foreign women are accepted as businesswomen. But northern European businesswomen are often unpleasantly surprised by the attention Spanish men pay them in the office. Paying compliments on her looks, also in business, is a natural way of telling a woman that she is liked. Thank your Spanish client or colleague for the compliment instead of making him lose face by a nasty remark about it.
Spanish dress codes
The Spaniards like to dress well. Formal business suits are worn by men with dark colours in winter and light in summer, and fashionable business dress is worn by women.
Spain has a large shoe industry, therefore shoes are an important part of their dress. The social status of a person is directly connected to dress.
Young people, however, are nowadays generally free to wear comfortable clothes.
Spaniards are friendly and hospitable people. They try to enjoy life as much as possible and expect you to do the same. They speak and laugh loudly and like to go out in large groups. Do not expect to get invited in their homes but you will be invited to a restaurant. If you do get invited to their homes take chocolates, flowers or toys for the kids. If you want to make friends invite them to a restaurant, arrange a barbecue in your garden or plan another outdoor event.
Always ask what the dress code is.
Keep the conversation light. When people get carried away in a conversation they will speak loud and gesticulate heavily. This merely means that they are interested and not that they are angry.
Be warm, pay compliments to people and let them know if you really like them.
Spanish phrases for out-of-office email
Thank you very much for your message.
I am currently out of the office, with limited (no) access to my emails. I will review your message following my return on… For urgent issues, please contact Mr/Mrs… at [email] or on [phone number].
Thank you for understanding.
Muchas gracias por su correo.
Estaré fuera de la oficina hasta el [date]. Con mucho gusto me pondré en contacto con usted tras mi regreso. Para cuestiones urgentes le ruego que se dirija a mi compañero Juan Ejemplo, quien también estará encantado de atenderle.
Su dirección de correo electrónico es: y su número de teléfono es .