What It's Like Living On "Spanish Time"

Photo by Nicolai Berntsen

Photo by Nicolai Berntsen

I admit it. I'm American in the most American of ways.

I don't like to waste time.

Lateness and sluggish lines are hard for me.

I like quick service, efficiency and productivity.

Appointments and scheduling are guidelines for living.

I am a typical product of the culture known for saying, "Time is Money."

My American obsession with time-keeping was never more apparent as when I first arrived to live in Spain.

Time was a constant source of frustration those first few months.

It’s not that I'd been totally unprepared for Spain’s radically different approach to time. I’d lived in Chile. I’d traveled extensively in Mexico and worked in Haiti. I had an idea of what it might be like.

Yet when it came to the everyday management of my life and work here, I started losing my mind.

Errands consistently foiled me. I’d forget that businesses were closed from 1pm-5pm for siesta in our small town, and totally closed on Sundays. Jeez. This schedule practically forced you to doze through midday, stay up late, and waste your mornings. (Goodbye, Early bird gets the worm!)

I’d schedule a busy day down to the hour, only to have it totally derailed when someone was late or I ran into someone who wanted to shoot the breeze.

How are you?

Nice weather we’re having.

And… how’s your family?

I’d allot 20 minutes to go mail a letter at the post office. I’d come back more than an hour later in an absolute lather.   

At dinners that went super long, it actually seemed more acceptable for people to nod off at the table rather than to stand up and say, "I've got an early day tomorrow, got to go!"

I did my best those first few months. I’d do everything I could to maintain self-control. Still, I slipped.

The worst was when I lost my cool in social settings (like the long dinners) and became visibly impatient with people.

It really pained my husband. I came off as really rude.

I did not like letting him down.

The turning point

One day I took a self-assessment for a coach training. In the section on Relationships, I was asked to mark off all the statements that were true for me.

“I have told my parents in the last three months that I love them.” Check.

“I spend time with people who don’t try to change me.” Check.

“I put people first and results second.” (Gulp)

My mind flew to my struggle with time.

So many situations in my new home seemed to be asking me to decide whether to put people or results first.

In this culture, people – that is, relationships – were often valued before getting things done.

I resolved that my new silent mantra would become “I put people first and results second.” Especially during long exchanges of pleasantries when I was dying to get to an item on my to-do list.

Another American saying started springing to mind: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!”

When you struggle with your culture

I’ve gotten a lot better about not struggling with time.

My toleration of small talk has risen exponentially. Sometimes I even engage others in it(!), especially if takes place outside on an exceptionally pleasant day.

If I don’t manage to get something done in a day because I'm held up by something or someone who is slow or late, I’m better at letting it go.

The more I let things go, the more I see that the world doesn’t end as a result.

I also notice that I probably get the same amount done as I used to when I counted every single minute, only with much less stress.

I’ll probably live longer thanks to not having such stress, which really is the ultimate time saver. :)

(Life is so much more relaxing when it’s not always ticking like a time bomb.)

One way to define culture is as a collection of the ways that we’ve learned to think, feel or act in the world. It’s not the only way, or the best way. It’s just our way, the way we learned.

Culture doesn’t have to be limited to national boundaries. We all live in cultures everyday with elements that we can chose to accept or not.

Is there an element of your current culture that’s causing you frustration or stress?

What are all your options for dealing with it?

Lastly, have you tried full acceptance? I know it’s radical. I also know that it can really work at times.

In my case, I’m not sure I could have thrived in my new home if I hadn’t fully accepted my powerlessness to change its cultural-orientation to time.

I can’t believe it. I’m being culturally conditioned to take it slow.

Coincidence? Or was it exactly what I was looking for?

P.S. In writing this blog, I found an article further explaining how different cultures view time. Fascinating!