‘Typical Spanglish’

The expression “Typical Spanish” is often used by foreigners to confirm stereotypes (both positive and negative) about Spain and Spaniards. As of 2012, there were almost 400,000 Britons living in Spain. Spain should learn more from Britain and the United States when it comes to work, education, ethics and discipline. The country would then not only become a better place to live and work, but also be more competitive, attracting an even greater number of retirees from the United Kingdom—and perhaps even the United States. Having combined the best aspects of the Latino and Anglo-Saxon cultures, a transformed Spain would then be known as “typically Spanglish.”

Yes, we are Latinos in Spain and Southern Europe and we love it. We love the sun, we love the sea, we love to dance, we love eating out, we love to chat and gossip, we love the marcha, the siesta and the paella, toros and football on Sundays, the culture of folklore and fiesta. Millions of Britons and Germans also love it, which is why they choose to spend their holidays in Spain or move there permanently when they retire. Yet, Spain is one of the worst countries in the European Union for work, for entrepreneurs, for researchers.

We think that we can take the fiesta and the chatting to work, which makes Spaniards some of the least productive workers in the whole of Europe. We think that we deserve holidays and a job, without understanding that we need to fight for it, that we need to deserve it. Because one billion Chinese don’t take their jobs for granted—they fight for them; in the end, we will end up shining China’s shoes. We live in a culture of procrastination, putting off for tomorrow what can be completed today. It is a culture of “Vuelva Usted Mañana,” a phrase made popular by Mariano José de Larra.

Mariano José de Larra (1809-1837) was a Spanish journalist and writer who became popular for his satirical and extremely critical articles on Spanish society and its vices. In “Vuelva Usted Mañana” (Please Return Tomorrow, 1833), Larra depicts the experience of a friend from Paris who comes to Spain with a plan to invest his savings in an industrial venture, naively believing that he would be able to complete the process in a mere 15 days. Instead, he encounters a society in which every transaction involves a public servant stating “Please Return Tomorrow.” Even the simplest transaction becomes a nightmare involving myriad obstacles. Larra’s friend leaves Spain six months later, his investment plan never carried out. Laziness and procrastination are still very present in Spanish society today, though to a much lesser degree than in 1833, when Larra wrote his best-known piece. An idealist and a romantic intellectual, Larra committed suicide in 1837, in despair over his inability to change the reality of a society dragged down by its very own nature.

Let’s look at the data. In its 2014 Doing Business survey the World Bank ranks Spain #52 in the World, down from #46 in 2013. More precisely it takes 10 procedures in Spain and an average of 23.0 days to set up a business which makes Spain rank #142 in the World in the sub-category “Starting a Business”. Spain ranks #98 in the World in the sub-categories “Dealing with Construction Permits” and “Protecting Investors”. No doubt the country has improved and is more agile now than it was in 1833 when Larra wrote his famous article. But some attitudes have only slightly improved.

Labour productivity per hour worked has also increased in Spain since 2001 from 27.3 to 31.5 euros/hour. Improvement has been dramatic since 2008 (28.7) largely associated to the phenomenal adjustment in unemployment with millions losing their jobs in the last five years. When the denominator (number of employed) decreases ceteris paribus (other things equal) the ratio necessarily increases. Although ahead of Portugal (17.0), labour productivity in Spain still lags behind France (45.3) and Germany (42.6).

The OECD computes the average annual hours actually worked per worker. Spain (1,686 hours) and Portugal (1,691) are next to each other and above the OECD average, but significantly below the Netherlands (1,381), Germany (1,397) or France (1,479). Coincidentally Spain ranks #5 in the OECD Work-Life balance only behind Denmark, Netherlands, Norway and Belgium.

Spain ranked 40th in the world—behind Portugal (33rd)—in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index which ranks “countries and territories based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be.” Denmark, New Zealand, Finland and Sweden top the ranking.

In 2012, the Market Research Firm DYM asked a representative number of managers from 48 countries the three words that the managers would most immediately think of when hearing the word “Spain:” football (27%), toros (25%), sun (17%) and holidays (16%) were the four preferred terms.

Spaniards and Portuguese should become more productive at work and leave chatting and gossip for the evening hours. In order to so and particularly in Spain shorter afternoon lunches and shorter overall working days should be encouraged by small and medium enterprises (97.5% of Spain’s GDP). Husband should help their wives and become more dedicated at home. The OECD reminds that Spanish husbands devote 101 minutes every day to cooking, cleaning or caring whereas women spend 294 minutes. Small and medium enterprises’ executives should become more flexible and allow employees to leave earlier avoiding a very established vice among family business owners called “presentism”.

Presentismo laboral” is one of the psycho-social risks identified by Spain’s UGT trade union. The kind of presentism that UGT refers to is driven by the employee which in an environment of job cuts may decide to show off at work and demonstrate his or her commitment by working longer albeit less productive hours. There is a second kind of presentism in this case enforced by company executives who require their subordinates to stay at work until they leave. An executive in Spain may for instance spend three hours having lunch (not unusual) and expect their employees to return to work once he returns to work and leave when he leaves. An executive in Spain may be reluctant to return home early in order to avoid the house chores, forcing his (most often) or her subordinates to stay late with him.

Public servants in Spain and Portugal should have incentives (for instance bonus or variable compensation) tied to the countries’ position in international rankings such as those mentioned in this article (whether World Bank or the OECD), international rankings computed by a neutral party preferably foreign.

Spaniards should improve their English skills to be able to better serve British and German tourists whether in Alicante/Málaga (Britons) or Mallorca (Germans). English should be embraced as an official language in certain regions (such as the Balearic and the Canary Islands) to reduce the burden of Britons and Germans and eventually Americans to visit and settle down in Spain. How many times a tourist has taken a cab in Madrid Barajas Airport and the driver spoke no English? “Es Vd. Extranjero? Se va a enterar…”.

Spain has largely emphasized the adoption of bilingualism in Galicia, the Basque Country, Catalonia, Comunitat Valenciana and the Balearic Islands, largely ignoring the necessity to embrace English as a foreign language in almost every aspect of life. Everything from subway announcements to menus should be translated into English, in addition to any other languages including Castilian Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Basque or Portuguese. We all know that French is an important language, but not the international language by default.

A final suggestion for Spanish restaurateurs: please learn to bake truly French croissants and decrease the price of a “cortado” (espresso with a bit of milk) from one euro to fifty cents. Spanish croissants cannot be worse, always far from crunchy and wrapped with a thick layer of (disgusting) greasy oil. We should bring French artisans to Spain for the sake of improving the croissants. The Portuguese offer a “pingado” (cortado) at 65 cents on the euro in Lisbon and Porto city centers. A wonderful breakfast will boost productivity while maintaining happiness at a maximum. Spain has the highest number of cafeterias per inhabitant in the World. What if the indicator became the highest number of best cafeterias per inhabitant in the World?

We are Latinos… and we love it! Let us sleep the siesta (at least during weekends) and eat Mom’s tortilla de patata. Angela Merkel should try out this lifestyle in 2014.

Recommended articles (in Spanish) about stereotypes in Spain:

One Response to "‘Typical Spanglish’"

  1. 55miguelito55   January 8, 2014 at 7:20 am

    Well, this is the typical line of argument, especially since the crisis began . Workers should work more, produce more, talk less , earn less and learn from chinese workers.
    In my opinion the Spanish worker productivity is lower, in general, due to poor organization . Of course this is not 100% true. As everywhere, some people work better than others.
    In your own article you make an erroneous consideration because the hours worked by the Spaniard are above, not below German, French etc. That means the problem is not the working hours but the quality of work, for which the organization and the tools are key.
    The same thing could be said of the administrative procedures . The problem, generally speaking, is not the negligence of public employees but the plethora of regulations, registrations, fees, etc. that you must accomplish before you can open your business and the different powers between municipalities, communities and central government.
    In other words, please make a little more pressure on the executive levels, in the sense that THEY must also work, improving organization, methods, etc. and less to the final link in the chain that has already had enough during the last five years.