When I applied for the Spain semester, I stupidly expected that things would be more or less similar. After all, Europe is westernized, like the United States. We have close relations with the European Union. We share the same Internet and the same stores. How different could it be?
The answer? Very different (to learn about some of these differences, check out my past article series: One World, A Thousand Cultures). Although Spanish culture is slowly becoming more normal to me, I was not expecting the massive culture shock I felt. "Who are these people and why are they kissing me on the cheeks?" "Why does no one understand my desperate need for personal space?" "Why do I need to wear slippers in the house?"
When we think of culture, we often have a very shallow understanding of it. We look at Africa and see different climates, different wardrobe and different living quarters. Therefore, we understand that it is ‘different.’ However, we look at places such as Europe and see similar houses, similar wardrobe, and similar faces. Therefore, we attribute it with the idea of 'sameness.'
Of course, that's never the case. Culture is like an iceberg; it is so much deeper than we can ever realize. Here, smiling at strangers is considered strange or flirty. It's impolite to grab a cup of coffee and leave. Getting coffee here is a social event rather than a last-minute caffeine fix.
All these little differences remind me, once again, to never judge something by its cover. No matter how similar two cultures look, there will always be so many intricate differences. Never underestimate the amount of culture shock you'll receive by appearances alone.