Cultural Guidelines: Doing Business in Spain

Look anywhere or ask anybody and you will very easily stumble across a whole host of stereotypes and expectations about Spanish people. They’re never in a hurry to confirm anything, will be late for any meeting, don’t have a very strong work ethic… these stereotypes exist and are sometimes even confirmed among the Spanish population, not just foreigners. But just how true are the perceived differences in culture, and what do they mean for your trade deals?

Needless to say, there is certainly a different way of doing things among Spanish business people and they are very important to know if you want to enter this market:

1. Not all Spanish people are the same

There are 17 autonomous regions, and all of them have a different culture, meaning that in some cases, people identify most strongly with their region, followed by their country.

Different regions also have different regional languages. In Catalonia (including Barcelona), Catalan is the dominant language and, owing to centuries of oppression, there exists a strong tension between the Spanish government and the Catalonian one, with the events from yesterday in Catalonia clearly demonstrating this. In northern Spain there are also some 700,000 speakers of Basque, while in the north-west Galician is the dominant language.

Be aware of these differences; while Spanish businesspeople do not expect foreigners to speak their regional language, and indeed English is often the language of communication, take care to avoid any slang or regional words to aid ease of comprehension.

2. Business in Spain is done between people, not companies.

Spain has a very relational culture in business, and will want to build up a strong relationship and sense of trust and association before agreeing to a deal. For this reason, if you have the opportunity to speak to a potential partner face to face as opposed to over email or telephone, you should make the most of this. Out of office meetings, such as going for lunch together, can be very useful in getting to know your Spanish partner. It is also very useful to be introduced to the prospective client by someone they already trust, as this will build your credibility in their eyes.

However, do be aware that the first meeting you have with this person will be both an opportunity to build a relationship and begin to discuss business. It is nevertheless primarily a chance to get to know each other, and build up acquaintance. While some cultures will find the lack of urgency to get onto business frustrating, it can be a very important part of getting the deal you want further down the line and will mean they are more trusting and accommodating.

This relational approach also means that just because your company has dealt with theirs before does not mean they will automatically extend their opinions of you to your whole business. It is advisable to keep company interfaces intact and avoid changing the person with whom they will interact, as this may start the process of building trust all over again.

3. Be prepared to act formally, at least at the beginning.

Business in Spain can be more formal than you may expect. Spanish business workers will usually dress well, with a formal suit and a tie, although younger generations may be permitted to wear more comfortable attire in some cases.

You may be expected to shake hands when entering or leaving a room, and it is important to maintain good eye contact when interacting with others in order to build trust and appear open.

In conversation during  very formal meetings, it is respectful to address people by their professional or academic title, followed by their surname. Otherwise using their first names is acceptable and if speaking in Spanish and there is clearly a large age differentiator between you (in that they are older than you), it is advisable to begin using usted to show respect until invited to change to using tú.

4. Time-keeping… may not be what you are used to.

The stereotype of Spaniards being late is not always untrue, and you may find that meetings start a little late as in this context, business workers in Spain do tend to be a little more laid back than we are used to. However, that is not to say that they do not also work very hard – and just because they are late does not mean you should be also!

Also, scrap the idea of slacking off to take a siesta, for this tradition is no longer really in place in the Spanish business world.

5. There is certainly a hierarchy you need to pay attention to.

Just as in many cultures, there is a very clear hierarchy in business in Spain, and it is important that you enter the company at the right level. Speaking to someone above or below you might mean either loss of face (reducing your credibility) or simply a frustrating lack of decision-making capability, so you should always try to speak to your Spanish counterpart.

You should also be aware that many Spanish companies are family owned and decisions may be made at the very top, literally over the dinner table. Bear this in mind in your approach to communication with the business.

6. Don’t worry – the benefits for the UK are huge!

Perhaps thinking about cultural differences and language barriers is a little daunting at times, but the Spanish market forms a huge opportunity for UK brands to export. With a population of 47 million, it is one of the biggest consumer markets in the EU, and is also an entry route into Latin America. English is accepted as a business language, and a familiarity among consumers with British names and products may prove helpful. There is also an efficient transport system with competitive costs, and should you need to make a visit in person, there are many low-cost flights with great availability from the UK to Spain, making it one of the most accessible markets in terms of personal visits and arrangements- plus of course you should enjoy the better weather and the Spanish tapas!

If you are thinking of entering the Spanish market with your products then here at Bolst Global we have a dedicated team based in Spain who can support you with those first steps including strategic planning, market assessment and partner identification. For further details on this and how we can help you, please complete the contact form below.

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