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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Culture in Spain

This is a pretty important post if you read "Things I don't like about Madrid."

So a few days ago I wrote a post (rant) about things I didn't like about Madrid. The whole environmental issue is still valid, but I'd like to go back to the whole physical appearance is paramount concept.

There's a reason for everything, and if something is so culturally engrained in a society that everyone adheres to it even though it isn't a law, such a reason is probably valid.

In Madrid, people judge you based on what you wear, and how you physically present yourself. In New England, we call this "being shallow." At first, I was totally bullheadedly against it, but after thinking/asking/googling, I'm a bit more accepting.

Many Americans think of Europe as very first-world, well off, and prosperous, which by global standards, it is. Even so, within the first world exist poorer countries. Quite a few years ago in Spain, people were hard working, but not super well-off. The way you could tell if someone was well off was by his or her appearance. Think "How nice is your 'Sunday Best?'" Church was what was important in peoples' lives, and going to church involved looking (very) presentable.

Frequently, when people are financially less fortunate, they feel the need to show that they are well-off, and have made a name for themselves, even if they haven't. It's the whole Southern Californian (generalizing) "I'm going to spend all of my money on a HUGE house and a corvette, but not have any money saved in the bank" concept. To New-Englanders, it doesn't make sense. To people who feel that it's important to show that they have money, it makes perfect sense. In Spanish culture, people feel the need to show that they have money, and to do so, they dress nicely. If you dress poorly or differently, and don't really care about your appearance because you think that your personality is more important, this is looked down upon.

Looking nice in Spain is parallel to kids in Lowell wearing pristine white shirts and cold chains. These things look "fresh," and show that they are able to afford new clothing and jewelry.

This whole fashion thing is a cultural difference rather than a culturally induced failure. I'm cool with it now. However, I still don't really mind if people think I'm a vagabond.

Spanish cultural aspect number 2: Bureaucracy.

bureaucracy |byoŏˈräkrəsē|
noun ( pl. -cies)
a system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives.
• a state or organization governed or managed according to such a system.
• the officials in such a system, considered as a group or hierarchy.
• excessively complicated administrative procedure, seen as characteristic of such a system : the unnecessary bureaucracy in local government.

Under Franco (fascist dictator of Spain 1939-1975), employment was very hierarchical. Everyone had their position, they stuck to it, and the even thinking about change was frowned down upon. You did what you were told, and you did not ask questions.

Today in Spain:
-one's boss is the enemy, because he has absolute power over those of lower ranking. Suggestions are not welcome. Mid-level employees do not get stock in a company as they do not deserve it, and therefore care less about the success of the company. Like in China (though not as extreme, of course), there are fewer ties between hard work and success, because promotions are rare, and people work because people work. This lack of drive to get ahead is one of the reason's Spain's economy isn't so hot at the moment.

-In university classes, professors arrive 10-20 minutes late to class, and lecture about whatever they want. Students neither raise their hands to ask questions nor do they contribute to the class. The professor essentially pretends that they do not exist. There is no set schedule or syllabus, and students have no idea what will be asked on the exam. Success or failure in a class is decided by one or two exams, and because students do not know what to expect, 60-70% of the class will fail the course. That is not an exaggeration.

If you think logically, these two concepts are almost comical. It's what we would do if you wanted failure in school and the work place. In Spain, it is how it is, and no one thinks they can do anything to change it.

Out of 183 countires, Spain is:
#147 for ease of starting a Business
#19 for closing a Business
#49 for ease of doing business with
#54 for trading across borders
#93 for protecting investors

For a first world country, this isn't great.


So yes, I'm in a foreign country, and yes, things are different. Is this culture, or is it a stretch to claim that bureaucracy is "culture?"

Cultural differences between countries that are harmless, and just plain different:

1. In Spain, interrupting someone shows that you're interested in what they're talking about.
2. Popular tattoos locations differ depending on the country.
3. In UK, people drive on the left.
4. In the UK, using your fork as a "shovel" is extremely rude.
5. In India, women wear the bindi (forehead dot).
6. In Korea, you should never write names in red.
7. In England, black cats are lucky.

Can you seriously argue against any one of these things? Not really.

"Cultural differences" that are straight up bad:

1. Burkas
2. Blood letting/leeches
3. Chinese foot binding
4. Tanning excessively because having brown skin is attractive
5. Encouraging drinking to excess
6. Encouraging smoking cigarettes
7. Polygamy

Can you dismiss these things as "Oh, it's just what they do, let it be." Sure, but is that correct? Not in my opinion. I'm neither a fan of oppressing women nor cancer-causing activities.

What I'm trying to say is that there are cultural differences that deserve respect, and cultural differences that are ridiculous. Should it both you that Indian people wear different clothing? Of course not. Should we be okay with women having to wear burkas against their will? I'm not cool with it. This is an extreme example, but I think the concept stands for Spanish culture. If their are unambiguously negative consequences of tradition, people shouldn't just accept it.

In Spain, people feel the need to establish (frequently long-term) personal relationships with others before doing business with them. Even if someone has a brilliant business proposal, a Spaniard may not be inclined to listen to them if they do not first talk about their personal lives. Result in my mind: "Spanish people neglect the opportunity cost of time." In the business world, this is apparent. Again: In addition, in Spain, competence and control are important elements of the work ethos and crucial for saving face. As a result, Spaniards will often insist that everything is in order, even if it isn't. Again, bad for financial decisions.

So is there a "cultural" difference here? Yes. Is it hurting Spain's Economy? Yes. Is unemployment a huge problem in Spain? Yes.

Are some cultural differences detrimental to the societies they reside in? I think so. The same goes for America. Unregulated capitalism gives us cheap food and a good deal of societal inequality, so no, I'm not a one-sided culturally ignorant person.

I apologize if my writing jumps around a lot, but I had to clarify my discontent with Bureaucracy. The fashion thing isn't a big deal. The food is amazing here. More to come.

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