There have been many cultural differences between Spain and the United States that have challenged me, both in my daily life and the workplace. Although Spain is a western European country with many similarities to the United States (e.g. they have similar foods in grocery stores, similar multinational retailers in stores around the city, etc), there are many differences, both big and small, which serve to push on my perceptions of my everyday life and to throw me out of my comfort zone. Here are the two that have stood out to me the most:
One that has definitely been a challenge is just how much people smoke cigarettes here in Madrid. Coming from the United States where smoking tobacco is not very popular anymore (especially among the younger generations), I was really taken aback by just how much Spaniards smoke. Now, I have traveled to Europe before, so seeing so many people smoking was not an entirely new experience. However, living in a city definitely atunes you to more of its quirks and gives you a more nuanced and holistic perspective on the culture. Whenever I go outside in Madrid, about half of the adults there are smoking cigarettes. What was even crazier for me was that people in my office would smoke inside the breakroom. While I have been informed that smoking indoors is illegal in Madrid, it is not an uncommon practice to still do so, especially in a high-pressure industry like the one I work in. People just really do not want to waste time.
As someone who really dislikes smoking, and especially the smell of tobacco, assimilation and adjustment were particularly difficult for me. Frankly, even though I have been here for over three weeks, I am still not totally accustomed to the ever-looming presence of tobacco. It is incredibly weird sitting in the breakroom and taking my lunch break with my coworkers while people smoke three feet away from me indoors. It has been difficult to assimilate into the general office dynamic of not caring or ignoring the smoking.
Although no one in this country has ever pressured me or tried to convince me to smoke a cigarette with them, it has been rather challenging to get used to being around people smoking all the time, especially in my office. I must get used to it, because it would be really rude to ask my coworkers to stop smoking near me and my office, given that I am only here for a short while and it is their workplace more than it is mine. Smoking is a part of their daily routine; it is how they unwind and socialize. Given this, I really do not want to be perceived as the crazy foreigner who is disturbing their rituals and culture. So, although I am no smoker myself, to assimilate in this case means to feign indifference, which I am learning how to do.
Another difficult thing to adapt to has been the lack of personal space that Spanish people tend to keep in conversations. I do have the advantage of not being completely freaked out by the fact that people here greet each other with a kiss on each cheek (thanks to my parents, who immigrated from Kyiv, I have been exposed to greeting people with kisses on the cheek from a young age). However, Spanish people are much more touchy, especially with strangers. When you are having a regular conversation with someone, it is much more common for them to touch your arm or your leg to emphasize something while you talk. Moreover, personal space is not really a thing here in Spain. People stand closer to you here while you talk than in the United States. This is also true in professional environments, where coworkers casually touch each other during conversations all the time.
The whole dynamic initially felt very odd to me, because any kind of touching other than a handshake in a professional situation would be seen as inappropriate in the United States. Also, friends do not really get very touchy or in your personal space as much back home. In the States, friends greet each other with a hug, at most, but usually you just wave at each other from a distance. I think it has been difficult for me to assimilate to this aspect of Spanish culture mainly because I am so used to physical space and distance in my daily and professional life. It is difficult to break the immediate response that touch is only associated with close and intimate relationships with others, instead of just a form of communication. I have been working on assimilating more by lightly touching friends on the arm when I make a joke with them or just generally during conversation. I am still a work in progress when it comes to being more natural with touch in professional environments, but hopefully I will get more accustomed to this in the future.