Why Spanish politeness is not about saying "please" and "thank you" all the time

Not so long ago, I was on a family holiday in Cádiz (southern Spain) and having lived in the UK for quite a number of years now, I realise how the words “please and thank you” are completely ingrained in me as a mark of being “a polite woman” in the country where I live, but to the point of sounding weird and foreign in a Spanish context at times!

Let me give you a bit more background…

I was calling a restaurant to book a table and after each of my requests I kept saying “sí, por favor” (yes, please, but literally translated “yes, by favour”) to which the manager of the restaurant (an incredibly funny, typical jerezano gent as we could witness a few hours later) eventually replied: claro mujer, ¡y sin favor también! (Of course woman, and without a favour too!)

That really made me laugh (recognising my own Englishness) and then it led me to reflect on the Spanish use of “por favor” or “by favour” as something that you say to someone when you want them to go that extra bit further for you. For example ¿por favor, puedes recoger a los niños del colegio? (Please, can you pick the children from school?).

To a Spanish mind, that shows respect and appreciation that the person may be making an extra effort for you. So, you would use “por favor” particularly with a person that you are not very close to as they are doing you a favour indeed, but not so much with relatives or close friends as it is understood that you would do that as part of your close bond (otherwise it could be seen that you are treating them with distance!)

The main point here is that “por favor y gracias” are never used in a mechanical way after every single interaction or request as it is the case with English.

For a Spanish person, the thinking behind it is "why say please and thank you for something trivial such as a cup of coffee, passing a spoon or ringing a restaurant to book a table". It is assumed that it is nothing extraordinary that you are asking that person to do (ie. a favour)

And in the same way, “gracias” and “muchas gracias” are particularly used when someone (a waiter for example) has gone just a little beyond the call of duty. But you can equally respond “ah, muy bien, perfecto” and have the same effect as the word “gracias”.

In fact, a smile, your tone and attitude are often much more important than the actual words; they are a recognition of the person as an individual.

So, for example, drawing a waiter's attention with "perdone" (excuse me “formal”) or even "oiga" (listen “formal”) is very common in Spain and totally acceptable, but there is a huge difference between a Spaniard´s "perdone" when they are happy with the service and when they are not.

One of my clients who lives in Madrid told me about the day he finally got over his fear and shouted out “oiga”! He had been waiting a while to be served in a busy outdoor cafetería on a very hot day and all of a sudden he went for it and shouted “oiga!” He said it was amazing, that the waiter went across and “en dos minutos” he had his “caña”! (Beer)

I personally think that the English fear could be that it sounds like “Oy there”, which would be pretty rude in English, but not “oiga” in Spanish.

But… What does being polite really mean anyway?

Every culture has established a complex set of rules and behaviours that are widely accepted and recognised as appropriate or inappropriate by its inhabitants but that may clash or make no sense to others.

So, it just goes to show that there are no absolutes when it comes to manners in different cultures.

But, if using “por favor” and “gracias” as you would do in English makes you feel better about your manners, then keep doing it by all means! There´s no actual harm, and it´s definitely better that not trying to speak Spanish at all. It just sounds a bit quirky and foreign. Just don't assume that this means the Spanish are less polite than you when they don't reciprocate.

Basically, “por favor” y “gracias” are not “magic” words and do not carry the intense cultural meaning that please and thank you do. It is just another cultural difference.

And a smile will always smooth over many a cultural misunderstanding. Everything will fall into place with time, observation and practice.

And…as per my example above, you adapt and readapt to your own culture and others on demand! That´s to show the plasticity of our brains and how we can “overwrite” our own cultural beliefs, attitudes and behaviours and incorporate others as required.

Cultural awareness is definitely one of my favourite topics! How about you? I would love to hear your stories, anecdotes or questions. 

Feliz día,


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