02 October 2011

Manners: don't say 'por favor'


It shouldn’t surprise you that, inundated as they are with foreign tourists and Northern Europeans in particular, the Spanish have coined a few nicknames to describe British or American tourists or anyone who tend to turn pink after a bit of sunbathing.

One of them is “los porfavores”, which refers to the fact that most British people (and most tourists, to be fair) follow every request or order in shops, bars and restaurants with “please” (por favor in Spanish). This in turn begs the question of how Spanish people can easily be perceived as extremely rude, especially when it comes to the area of customer service.

If you consider how ceremonial behaviour, would-you-be-so-kind, could-I-possibly, would-you-mind, excuse-me and sorry are the order of the day in Britain, the almost total lack of their equivalent in Spain is a very interesting cultural trait.

Bottom line, the direct translation of some of the most ceremonial-sounding English expressions is clunky at best and non-existent at worst. Try translating “would you mind bringing me a glass of water please” in Spanish (“os desagradaria traerme un vaso de agua, por favour”) and you will be met with genuine laughter. It simply doesn’t translate.

This is particularly true in Catalonia, which of course, some Catalans would proudly argue “is not Spain”.
Many Catalans will openly tell you that if you say “sorry” or “please” too promptly (or at all) this can be subconsciously interpreted as a sign of weakness. Apparently, this line of thinking is interiorised by Spanish children from day one, and you can forget it if you’re expecting people signalling with a smile that you can go past them or similar coded behaviour as commonly found in most countries.

For instance, just glance how Catalans walk on a busy Friday or Saturday evening in their town centre (this is best appreciated anywhere but Barcelona, which is the least Catalan city in Catalonia). It’ll be a joy to behold, a human version of bumper cars based on the old maxim of “number one” mustered to perfection.

As far as customer service is concerned, many Catalans would quite openly tell you that, given that you’re already paying for goods and services in a shop or bar, the use of “por favor” at the end of a question is unnecessary. Why should you beg, basically, if you’re already parting ways with your precious cash?

Similarly, the typical English custom of automatically uttering a “sorry” or two, even if it was the other person who trod on your foot, is impossible to fathom in parts of Spain.

Which is why it will probably take a new resident of the country quite a while to get used to it. If you come from a place where uttering please and thank you are etched as the basic recipe of interaction, Spain may be hard to take. Initially, it will come across as sheer rudeness.

Forget “pardon” or “can you repeat please?”; you will shudder at the manner in which “¿Qué?” (“What?”) is almost barked at the interlocutor if something’s not clear, which is probably why, when they translate it literally into English, it sounds so wrong.

Or, you will cringe at the sight of old ladies steamrolling into a bakery with a sequence of rude-sounding imperative sentences machine gunned at the equally hard-nosed looking shop assistant (“Give me a baguette”, “I want two croissants and put them in a bag” and the answer “Three Euros”, just like that).

You will also wince at the total lack of eye contact or human response when you place an order at a restaurant or when you’re at a supermarket till. Yet, just as you’re about to think “blood country, I can’t put up with this anymore”, when you least expect it, you will probably here a “graciaaaaas”, just to round off the transaction.

The Spanish don’t mean to be rude. It’s just that they value other things in terms of what constitutes polite behaviour. Catalans in particular don’t do ceremony and this is translated in most aspects of life. They are very minimalistic, if you like. They will think nothing of a coffee or croissant slammed on the table right before your eyes, and less so of a waiter firing a curt-sounding (to us, at least), “¿Què quieres?” (“what do you want?”), which of course would grant you the sack if you said it in England instead of “are you ready to order” or “how can I help”.

On the converse, a Catalan or Spanish person, may tell you that they see the typical Anglo-Saxon brand of ceremonialism and politeness as fake and over-the-top. There is some logic in their line of thinking: why would you take the trouble to construct a long-winded and twisted-sounding sentence if, for instance, all you’re after is a simple glass of water in a bar or a larger-size t-shirt in a shop?

Again, for the sake of clarity, I must add that I’ve seen this type of behaviour particularly and more extremely so in Catalonia and the Basque Country. Valencia or Andalusia came across as slightly less blunt while, on the other end of the spectrum, the northern region of Asturias was way less stern and a lot more in line with European standards.

So remember. If you want to look inconspicuous as you order a beer at a Spanish bar, don’t end your question with “por favour”, or you’ll be thought of as the umpteenth foreign tourist.


Visitors to England will often remark on the general politeness of customer service, but will probably, equally as often, also report back on the painted smiles and insincere formality of customer assistants.

And while sincerity is difficult to gauge, it is a fact that the basic rules of interaction in Britain are fully based on the use of ceremonial expressions and indirect language.

Since day one, for instance, the English learn that “I want” will be considered the epitome of rudeness and best replaced with “I would like”, or even better, with a question (“Could I please have…?”), the idea being that you shouldn’t take it for granted that you expect something. You should ask for it, and politely too.

Similarly, forget what you “need”. You “may request”, if anything, better if sandwiched between a “would you mind” at one end and a “please” at the other.

And let’s not even start on imperatives. Unless they’re meant as a kind offer (i.e. “please take a seat”), you have no idea how socially unacceptable a “give me this” or “pass me that” is. You’ll be marked King of the Rude for ever.

If you don’t understand, spurting out “What?” may signal that you’re up for confrontation. “Pardon” or “excuse me” will sound much more gentle and acceptable.

Still on the language, many Americans still marvel at the über-British concept of “understatement”. Where a non-Brit may announce that something’s “awesome” or “fantastic”, an English person would probably remark that “yes, it’s quite good” and “I’m not quite sure” will be coded language for “this is absolute shit”.

And so this is it. England feeds on this code of behaviour. You will be blown away by the sight of dodgy-looking geezers apologising to you as they let you walk past them in a shop. These same people wouldn’t think twice if it was a matter of thumping your head if you got the wrong side of them on a drunken night, but when it comes to ceremonialism, such rituals are so embedded within British society that you can expect anybody to abide, regardless of age, gender or social status.

A Spaniard will probably find the sight of people smiling at strangers weird, but in Britain this is normal, especially on public transport. A lady who you won’t know from Adam, may smile at you as she’s scrambling for her seat, or placing her luggage in the overhead compartment. Equally, a post office clerk will sound surprisingly interested in the reason why you’re exchanging your pounds into a different currency. “Going somewhere nice?”, he may ask; exactly the type of affable behaviour, the British will tell you, that may sweeten a grey day and make it easy for everyone to endure dreary routine.

This is not to say that rudeness doesn’t exist in England. It does, and some people will happily tell you that ceremonial behaviour is on the decline. It is, however, still completely unthinkable to place an order anywhere without asking politely and peppering any such interaction with a flurry of pleases and thank yous.


You will be amazed by how much in common the Italians share with the Brits in terms of ceremony, especially in the Northern part of the country.

Starting from the language, whereas –as we examined above- certain English formulas are almost impossible to translate into Spanish, Italian can offer a direct equivalent to every “may I…”, “would you mind…” and “could I kindly…” as uttered by an English-speaking-person.

If anything, Italy is traditionally based on ceremony and kowtowing. La “bella figura”, the concept of “form” and “outward appearance” is at the core of Italian culture.

An Italian would hate to be thought of as rude or impolite. “What will the others think”? is etched on the national consciousness.

Witness how many bars and cafes, even the simplest and most spartan ones, are staffed with waiters smartly dressed in black and white. Service and smart appearance are taken very seriously and, as opposed to many other countries where waiting at tables is seen (unfortunately) as rather lowly or stuff for students, in Italy it’s perceived as more of a career - which means you can generally expect a very professional service.

Back to the language, whereas in Spanish the distinction between the formal “usted” and the informal “tu” is now almost completely defunct, in Italy the boundaries between “lei” and “tu” are alive and kicking and you will be supremely frowned upon if you addressed an older person (especially if you don’t know them) with “tu”.

Similarly, don’t walk into a shop or bar shouting “Ciao”. That’s the prerogative of friends, family and colleagues only and not strangers. Otherwise, “Do I know him? Have we ever had dinner together?” (“Ma che, abbiamo mai mangiato insieme?”) is what an Italian would wonder in response to an ill-advised “ciao”, as “Buongiorno” remains the safest and most polite formula.

This translates into all sorts of formalism in the area of customer service. Similar to England, you can never be too polite in Italy, and the sound of “prego” and “grazie”, “signore” (sir) and “ecco qui” will generally sprinkle every request, order and interaction (though, again, generally not to the same degree in the South).

One downside of Italian politeness and eagerness to please is that it may sometimes slide into over familiarity, which means that Italian waiters or shop assistants may actually come across as too pushy and oppressive even when it’s obvious that you’d rather be left alone (i.e. with mulling over the menu or deciding whether you really like that shirt or not).

But again, within the Italian code of behaviour, they are just offering their services and going out of their way to help you. That’s how they see it and they would probably feel terrible if you told them you’re actually putting them off.


Everyone knows that the Germans have traditionally suffered from terrible reputation in terms of bluntness and directness.

This, however, must be one of the dumbest and most ill-advised stereotypes around. General interaction with strangers and customer service in Germany is not miles away from that in the UK.

Granted, the Germans may not engage in Italian-style ritualistic ceremony, and the German language too does not have much room for the most convoluted formulas of English (“would you be so kind” doesn’t translate as such, for instance), and imperatives are more generally used, but it’s extremely important that a “bitte” (“please”) is always used at the end of a request.

And so “ein bier, bitte” (“one beer, please”) will be nice enough, but “Ich will ein bier” (“I want a beer”) will be considered both weird and rude. Similarly, if you don’t understand, you should never say “Was?” (“what?”). “Wie, bitte?” (literally, “how, please?”), is the correct form if you’d like something to be repeated or clarified.

Perhaps it could be that the way the language sounds may give an initial perception of curtness and directness, but it absolutely doesn’t mean that the person you’re dealing with is irritated or rude.

What is true, however, and a German would generally be quite happy to tell you, saying that they disagree or expressing their negative opinion is seen in Germany as a sign of honesty and candour.

This may be interpreted as overly-direct and blunt, especially by English speaking visitors, but the truth is Germans don’t do beating around the bush. They perceive it as two-faced and hypocritical at best and a waste of time at worst. This is why they often find some English formulas puzzling to say the least. Why should you say “I’m afraid I’m not quite sure” or “I totally understand your point but maybe…” if the simple truth is that you just completely disagree?

And, like a German friend once told me, why should they tiptoe around with criticism of a bad idea if that is what they want to convey? They trust the recipient of criticism to be adult enough to not take it as personal criticism. Any different, they say, and you infantilise people.

That is simply a cultural trait and not willingness to be rude or blunt.

In terms of body language, in a similar way to the English, Germans will often smile at strangers. Obviously, not in a weird way, in the sense that they don’t come up to your face and grin at you, which would be straight out of a horror film. What I mean, is that kind of polite, half-shy half-apologetic smile that people often offer if they sit next to you on the train or the metro or if they’re standing in your way as you try to zip past them in the supermarket.


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