People all over the world have heard of the infamously lax, carefree lifestyle of Spain’s people.
All foreigners alike are appalled by their inefficiency, above all their maddening unpunctuality. The one Spanish word that no foreigner can avoid is mañana – ‘tomorrow’. Whenever it is conceivably possible, the business of today is put off until mañana – Orwell
Spaniards are known for their less-than-perfect punctuality, three hour coffee breaks and the coveted siestas during which they close up shop in the middle of the day and come back to work when their midday nap is over. Due to this unconventionally easygoing lifestyle, Spaniards are often blamed for being lazy, unindustrious and worthy of blame for their ongoing financial crisis. But the difference in lifestyle that sets Spain and much of the Mediterranean apart from its other Western peers is not a matter of ambition or laziness but a difference in what people value and how they prefer to spend their time.
This informative article from Business Insider finely explains how different cultures go about their business depending on how they conceptualize time. In the United States along with Western European countries such as Germany and Switzerland, time passes very fast in a linear fashion. In this mindset, if you fail to accomplish the tasks you have planned for each time frame throughout your day then you have wasted the precious commodity that is time which is equivalent to money in these societies.
In contrast to the linear conceptualization of time, Southern European countries such as Spain and Italy are less concerned with preset schedules but place significance on the events that unfold. It is not important what time the meeting is, what’s important is the encounter itself. To the average Spaniard, Italian or Greek, bringing human interactions into fruition and never leaving a conversation unfinished “is the best way they can invest their time.”
This point of putting in time to have fulfilling conversations is something I noticeably discern in day-to-day life in Spain. Such situations reveal themselves most often on the street whenever I happen to run into someone—specifically a Spaniard—that I know. My basic response as a busy, preoccupied American is to shake hands, say a quick hello and suggest meeting another time when I don’t have somewhere to go—all while continuously walking if I still can. But in my experience, many Spaniards will stop to kiss you on both cheeks and have a genuine conversation with you, regardless of where they have to be. They’ll ask you how you’re doing and actually expect to hear the answer as to how your day is going, and they might even suggest getting a drink right then and there. In this context, I start to feel incredibly rude whenever I find myself trying to cut the conversation short and slip away to wherever I need to be.
These types of cultural habits effectively reveal the considerable value people place on socializing as the preferred way of spending their time. Whenever they’re not working Spaniards of all ages, young and old, can be found going out and socializing with their peers which explains the numerous beer and coffee breaks taken throughout the day and the endless hours spent drinking and conversing on terrazas. The priority given to nurturing social relationships would explain why Southern Europeans seem to have more friends, are more communal and seem happier.
Going back to the article, for many Spaniards and their Southern European neighbors “time is event—or personality related, a subjective commodity which can be manipulated, stretched, or dispensed with, irrespective of what the clock says.” Rather than thinking of time as something that happens to you, time is something over which you have control as to what you personally want to do with it. Within this frame of mind, life can’t pass you by because you are the one that decides what you will do with your allotted time.
I’m not suggesting that the rest of us should completely abandon our schedules and reverence of temporal order, but there is a lot to be learned from our Spanish compatriots, namely the priority placed on spending time with others and the conception of time as your own subjective commodity. Too often we get caught up in “saving time” and maximizing productivity that we forget we have ultimate control over our lives and we have the right to enjoy our time as we please—even if it means doing nothing. This way of life fosters more agency in how you live your life and you may even start to feel like you have more time in general.
This cultural paradigm is the reason I return to live in Spain for longer and longer periods each time. I enjoy the overall sense of leisure and human company, and the more relaxed pace of life than in the United States where I feel uncomfortable with the constant pressure to make use of every single second. In the grand scheme of things, time that you spend enjoying yourself and others is not wasted but actually represents the most essential parts of your life.
So don’t just remember to stop and look around once in a while, but stop and look around and smell the roses every day. Squeeze in a few naps, take longer coffee breaks and as a Spaniard might say, it doesn’t always hurt to put it off ‘til mañana.