How to be loved by locals in Barcelona (and what they hate about you)
South African journalist
South African journalist and digital marketing expert Chené Koscielny, who lives in Barcelona, shares insider tips for expats keen to make local friends – including what NOT to say or do!
People in Spain are open and friendly is something you hear a lot – I have even said it myself a few times, but, of course, everything is relative. If you’ve lived in Geneva or Paris, as I have, the bar is not very high. All it takes for someone to qualify as friendly is for them not to ignore me or scowl at me.
This also doesn’t mean you’ll instantly make friends in Spain. I ask a few locals and a longstanding Barcelonian-by-choice how you meet people in Barcelona and how to be loved by locals.
Expats are a ‘gift’
Interestingly, everyone I speak to agrees that Barcelonians welcome foreigners. Although there was a time – pre-Covid, when a certain type of tourist, you know the ones, rubbed locals up the wrong way. Generally speaking, though, they like having us around.
Barcelonian-by-choice, Carine Derangere Lebecque, who has lived in many cities around the world, is one of the organizers of the Talent Monitor – a Barcelona Global survey of around 30,000 expats, which tests foreigners’ perceptions about life in Barcelona.
“Barcelona is seen as a city with ‘above average openness by those who live here and Barcelonians-by-choice don’t leave, unless they absolutely have to,” she says.
“Locals appreciate us for bringing new perspectives and enriching their city.”
Cristina Valiñani, Projects Director for Barcelona Global, moved to Barcelona from Lleida when she was 10 years old and lived in several European cities after her studies, before returning to Barcelona in 2009.
“Barcelonians see expats as a ‘gift’ because of the diversity they bring, especially in the workplace. They appreciate the injection of fresh knowledge and ideas,” she says.
After years of being treated like a second-class citizen, this is music to my ears.
What they hate about you…
Before you rush out to hug the next Spanish person you see, there are a few things we do that will not earn you brownie points with locals.
“Moaning that everything is better back home, does not go down well,” says Beatriz Carro de Prada. Barcelonian-by-birth and owner of BRS Relocation Services.
If you have a negative attitude, don’t expect to be invited round for paella any time soon.
“Locals don’t complain as much,” says Beatriz, who has also lived in many countries.
“Just watch them queueing at the supermarket. They’ll wait patiently. No-one will say anything.”
And even though Barcelonians do tend to believe that things are better abroad than in Spain, only they are allowed to say this. If you try to make this point, you won’t be very popular. Be warned.
What certainly won’t warm you to locals either is if you’re arrogant or you always know everything better. Man-splaining is also not recommended, then, I suppose.
Barcelonians tend to have what Beatriz calls a ‘softer’ attitude – less aggressive and pushy – you know who you are!
“If you’re unhappy with the service somewhere and you ask to see the manager – you won’t get anywhere,”she warns.
There is more empathy, respect and generosity. No temper tantrums or stamping your feet.
One of my new local friends, at least I think we’re friends – also mentions respect and curiosity towards their culture as ways into locals’ hearts.
Cultural differences are a minefield, though, and it’s easy to offend someone by mistake such as when I neglect to open the nice bottle of vino my friend brings over for lunch. You’re expected to offer the wine, regardless of whether it pairs with your meal. Oops… Luckily, especially if they’ve lived abroad, locals are also quite forgiving of our mistakes.
‘If you want to integrate you can’
Beatriz distinguishes between an expat – who is only here for a few years because of a job – and Barcelonians-by-choice who want to make the city their home. The latter usually have a more positive attitude than, for example, a trailing spouse who doesn’t want to be here.
Someone living abroad for the first time will take longer to adapt than the seasoned expat changing countries for the fifth time, and, of course, some personalities find it easier to adapt than others.
“I can tell in the first minute who will fit in and who won’t,” says Beatriz. “Those who like things done their way struggle more.”
Carine agrees that attitude is everything. She finds Barcelona one of the easiest cities to integrate – much more so than China, Korea or Finland, where she’s lived before.
“If you really want to integrate in Barcelona you can,” she says. “This is definitely not the case everywhere in the world.”
Tell me about it!
Carine has made good loal friends after 6 years in the city.
“My best friend is Spanish.”
She connected with locals through her children’s local school and by taking martial arts classes in a local club.
“I also volunteered at the Red Cross when I first arrived and went to meetings at Barcelona Global, where I knew no-one. I was very much out of my comfort zone.”
To be loved by locals you definitely need to learn Spanish, stay open and be resilient, she says.
A few words in Catalan won’t do any harm but are not really required unless you plan to stay here for a long time.
Have dinner later…
When in Rome… Change your habits – live like locals!
If you continue to eat dinner at 7 pm and lunch at 12.30 pm, you’re sure to be left out by locals.
“You need to embrace new ways of doing things,” says Cristina, who worked at the British Consulate in Barcelona.
“If you try to impose your way of doing things – don’t expect to make local friends,” she says.“Time is definitely an issue – locals eat lunch at 2 pm and dinner at 9 pm. Working hours also tend to be longer in Barcelona, though this is beginning to change,” she says
How to get into the inner circle
Barcelonians may exchange pleasantries on the network circuit but getting to the next level is a challenge.
All you need, says Cristina, is just one good local friend, who brings you into their circle, which means you’re automatically in and once you’re in – you’re in for life.
But how do to find that one friend – can you bribe them?
“Make the first move!” says Cristina.
Barcelonians are often ashamed of speaking English, so take the lead and propose to meet for coffee or a menu del dia in a restaurant – not at your home at first, that’s way too intimate. And if you’ve been paying attention, you won’t suggest 1.30 pm for lunch. The friendship will be short-lived.
Integrating on a superficial level, is not hard, says Beatriz, but if you want a deeper connection, it’s much, much more difficult.
“Catalans are very closed and family-focused. It’s not easy to enter their circle, even for people who speak Spanish,” she says. “Madrid, for example, is much easier than Barcelona.”
“It will take longer to be invited to someone’s home in Barcelona than in other cities – they do not give their trust easily.”
So, how do we win their trust?
Both Cristina and Beatriz recommend listening and observing. Listen to the tone of voice, observe the way locals communicate and their pace of doing things.
And then, copy them!
It’s easier for younger people to make friends in bars and clubs – at least pre-Covid – and through volleyball on the beach for example, but when you get to the age where clubbing is your worst nightmare, it’s harder to connect with locals.
“People are busy and they have their own lives,” says Beatriz.
The bottom line is that it is possible to be loved by locals, but you need to be resilient, don’t be scared to get out of your comfort zone and try to frequent the same sports, art or music clubs – so you see and speak to the same people every time – in Spanish!
“If you hang out in expat groups, you will never integrate,” says Beatriz.
Now all I have to do is improve my Spanish and work on my paddle shots.
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And if you’re a local who’d like to have lunch or play paddle – contact me.
“A few words in Catalan won’t do any harm but are not really required unless you plan to stay here for a long time.” Hmm, I’d argue that ‘quatre coses’—learning a few words in Catalan opens up so many doors as a foreigner. It’s worth it to learn both Catalan and Spanish no matter how long you plan to live here. Making the effort to learn, I believe, is the key to making local friends, be it in Barcelona, Munich or anywhere.
HI Adina – that is true – but learning two languages at once is not exactly easy, so I guess what they’re saying is that if you are only here for a short time, prioritize Spanish.
Yep, I understood that much as well. Along those lines, however, one could argue that it’s not worth it to learn a few words of German while living in Berlin or some Dutch while living in Amsterdam because most people already speak English, so just learn English instead. Prioritizing one language over the other is inevitable and ultimately up to the individual, but not learning a few words in Catalan leads to a missed opportunity to integrate locally and be loved by locals, which was the title of this article.