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Tips for doing business in Spain

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Spain is a country with a Western culture and free-market economy, like most of the developed world. But it’s also a country with unique customs and a major generational gap in terms of work styles and attitudes, and as a result, there are significant differences between the business culture in Spain, and the cultures of other Western countries such as the U.K., France, Germany and the U.S.

Here are some tips to remember when conducting business in Spain.

  • Background is important to remember. Since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, a new breed of Spanish businessperson has evolved. State-run businesses gave way to privatization, often spurred by younger business leaders who were educated outside of Spain, and their attitudes are often more congruent with what you might find in other Western countries. Older and domestically educated Spaniards often harbor a more traditional attitude, which is rooted in individualism and hierarchy, as opposed to teamwork and peer-to-peer relationships.
  • Respect is given to the person, not the title. Hierarchy and vertical organizational structures are important in Spain, but Spanish culture dictates that the interpersonal relationship between superior and subordinate is more important than the job titles. Spanish workers respect a CEO with whom they can build a working relationship; they won’t simply respect the title of CEO.
  • Management style is of great importance. Because respect is given to the person and not simply to the title, personal attributes are more valued in a leader than is mere technical excellence. A leader must demonstrate trustworthiness and high ethical standards to receive respect, no matter how competent that person is in the job.
  • It’s not a “meetings” culture. Although the younger workforce is breeding more of a conventional Western mindset in Spain, it’s still a country where individualism is highly valued, and extroverted behavior is considered the norm. Meetings, when they do occur, are often explicitly so that a superior can instruct subordinates. The brainstorming sessions found in other countries are less common and are often counterproductive, due to the Spanish tendency to express opinions emotionally and forcefully, as opposed to working toward a consensus.
  • Dress is conservative. Spain is known internationally for its colorful and flamboyant customs, but it is a country of conservative dressers. Managers are almost always dressed in a conservatively colored suit and tie and are well-groomed, especially in the finance and legal industries. Dress may vary from industry to industry, but conservative dress is the norm.
  • Summer dress is light, in fabric and color. Spain is a Mediterranean country with a semiarid interior, and cities such as Madrid can get extremely hot in the summer. Dark clothing and heavy fabrics aren’t recommended in the hotter months.
  • It’s still a male-dominated society. Most high-ranking positions are still held by men. That trend has been slowly changing over the past few decades, but it is still considered something of a novelty to see a woman in a senior position, and a woman in such a position should be prepared to be viewed as such, at least initially. However, overt acts of gender discrimination are rare in Spain, and women are generally treated with respect in the Spanish workforce.
  • Long meals are the norm. When entertaining a business client over a meal, don’t expect to squeeze it in between appointments. Lunch is the main meal of the Spanish day, and Spaniards often don’t have lunch until mid-afternoon – 2 p.m. or later. When Spaniards sit down to eat, they take their time to relax and converse. It’s common for lunch to last more than two hours, with a number of meal courses and alcohol. Sometimes, the opportunity to talk business doesn’t present itself until late in the meal. A two- or three-hour lunch is a difficult adjustment for someone used to the impatient pace of Western business, but it is viewed as central to relationship-building in Spanish culture.