January 18, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Spain

I’ve been going in circles on this cultural dilemma for awhile (more precisely, having arguments with my lovely husband) – to pick up the cell phone or not to pick it up? In the US, if you are busy doing something, and especially if you are in a restaurant or tied up in any sort of engagement (meeting, get together, etc), you do not pick up your phone. Not only will you get booted out of restaurants (FYI, Spaniards – cell phones by and large are frowned upon, if not prohibited, in restaurants), but your friends will probably no longer be your friends if you constantly pick up other people’s calls and have conversations with everyone and their madre.

Here in Spain, the expectation is that you pick up your phone pretty much no matter what. Don’t recognize the number? Pick it up. Busy having coffee with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile? PICK IT UP. In the middle of dinner at a restaurant? For the love of jamón, PICK IT UP! Apparently, it’s seen as rude to the caller if you don’t pick up their call. But isn’t it rude to the person you’ve actually made plans with to interrupt what you’re doing in order to speak (and by speak, it often means have a full conversation) with someone you haven’t made plans with?

My modified rules for picking up the phone here are as follows: if I don’t recognize the number, there’s a good chance I won’t pick up (especially because about 90% of the time, it’s someone trying to sell me something). If I’m REALLY busy doing something (translation: class, meetings, shower, sleeping, etc), I also won’t pick up – but I promise I’ll call you back!

I’m curious what everyone thinks – what entails proper cell phone etiquette? Do I have it all wrong?? I know we end up playing phone tag a lot in the US, but at the same time, who wants to be a slave to their phone?


19 Responses to “Spanish cell phone etiquette: to pick up or not to pick up?”

  1. Andi Says:

    Yikes, I think it’s so rude to pick it up if you’re in someone elses company unless it’s an emergency…

  2. Erin Says:

    My thoughts exactly. But when I explain this to the folks here, they look at me like I’m loca. Go figure!

  3. Nick Says:

    I absolutely agree with you you both. It’s plain rude. Erin – your comment ‘ for the love of jamón’ is pure genius.

  4. Tito Says:

    Well…. that’s an interesting topic. Education and or etiquette concerning the use of our digital devices is a controversial subject debated from the countries all over the world. I remember reading at school “Les bonnes manières” writen by Nadine, the Baroness of Rothschild. Gosh, that book was a hard nut to crack !!! After a few hundred pages you were almost an expert in good manners, you knew how to behave in public, how to arrange the table cutlery, even the size of the glasses… well, after that indigestible reading you were on top of the French etiquette !!

    Now, the thing is that the lovely Baroness didn’t know we would all hang around with our iPhones, BlackBerries, etc. at all times in the future, and she didn’t bother to define what the correct behavior should be regarding these matters… I agree with Erin that it’s rude to pickup when you are actually talking to some else “offline”. In my case I would always look who the caller is and would only pickup if it’s urgent/important or if I’m bored on the “offline” 😉

    But many people would never give you a call back… they are too busy, they forget or it’s simply a matter of cost… if you pickup you don’t have to call later… Additionally, even if virtually anybody has a mobile nowadays, it’s still considered cool to have one, to use it, to show-off your super iPhone 4G in the restaurants… to make sure everybody knows you have the ultimate device… It’s also important to speak loudly to make sure everybody knows you are an important guy who talks important matters with important people on the phone……

    Well you know… not everybody got a French education !!!! ;oP

  5. Erin Says:

    Tito – you rock, and thanks for being the Spanish voice of reason here!! You make a good point about cost – in the US, we pay our cell phone bills in packages of minutes, not by the minute per se, and it doesn’t matter who calls whom (in terms of who gets charged). So I guess I see some of the logic in picking up when someone calls so that you don’t have to pay later when you return their call (although, que tacaño, ¿verdad?). I do remember too that when I first came here, Jacobo explained to me that people like to leave their cell phones out on their table in restaurants in order to flaunt their fancy device, which struck me as quite funny too. As far as I know, in the US no one cares what kind of cell phone everyone else has. Anyway, all very interesting (especially the part about you being a French etiquette expert, jeje)!

  6. Amit Says:

    this is the same that I follow in India =)

  7. Sabrina Says:

    Oh, the beloved cell phone 🙂 Well, let me weigh in with this: in Germany it’s also considered rude to have long phone conversations when in somebody else’s company. Picking up and explaning that you’re busy is ok (I believe). And from what I’ve seen here in the US, it seems similar – even though I have seen plenty of people here tos how off their fancy devices 🙂 Haha! Anyways, I’ve had plenty of discussions with my Italian boyfriend about fullfledged conversations while the two of us are out in a restaurant… made me so mad in the beginning. I think by now we’ve both inched somewhere closer to the middle (i.e., I don’t make a scene when he answers the phone and he keeps it short) 😉

  8. Erin Says:

    I think my husband and I have ended up in the same boat – we’ve kind of had to meet somewhere in between in terms of our mobile phone manners. The problem I have is that I fear the rest of Spain finds me rude, when in reality, I’m just trying to adjust without giving up what I believe in!

    Gosh…I’m starting to sound like I’m talking about something ultra deep and important, as opposed to silly cell phone etiquette. I’m passionate about my manners, what can I say.

  9. Sabrina Says:

    Haha! In the end you’re perceived rude in both cultures because you follow neither of their “cell phone answering codes” 🙂 Perfect time to pull the foreigner card – and don’t tell me it doesn’t exist. I use it all the time! Especially when I offend somebody at work without intending to do so… imagine German directness in ueber-friendly/disagreement-avoidance-prone Texas 😉

  10. Erin Says:

    Hahaha! I totally play the foreigner card here – especially when someone approaches me on the streets trying to sell me something. When they speak Spanish, I pretend I don’t speak Spanish, when they speak English, I pretend I don’t speak English. I’m this rude, country-less freak.

  11. Sabrina Says:

    Me too 🙂 🙂 🙂

  12. Kristen Says:

    I am with you! Previous plans always trump phone calls… no matter who is calling. And p.s. I am so happy to now know why cell phones are left sitting on the restaurant table. Ridiculous! I see some teasing going on in my future! 🙂

  13. Erin Says:

    @Kristen – I bet you can’t wait to return to Spain to get re-accustomed to cell phone culture ;). Good times!

    I want to take this opportunity to post a comment from the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page. It’s from a long time family friend who’s basically the equivalent of Martha Stewart. I think her synopsis of cell phone etiquette is very well articulated. It is what I will be following from now on!

    “As an “old” telephone company rep who taught business telephone etiquette, my answer is definitely not answer in restaurants. You should be able to enjoy your meal, and be “off duty” for business calls, devote your attention to your table mates. However if you are finished eating, must return to business or a job, excuse yourself and take a quick call, nothing more than a quick thought or message/answer and a promise to return the call outside. No lengthy chats, it is rude to your table mate.

    Cell phones provide “instant contact” and some people are unable to resist the urge to know instantly news or answers. It is all about discretion, don’t get in the habit of instantly answering. Assess the surroundings, decide if you can be polite and unobtrusive. At all times decline to answer if it is not convenient. The real culprit is people who never answer voicemail. Hone your reputation on returning calls promptly so that your caller is always confident you think he is important. I know which friends will call back within 20 minutes.”

  14. Natalia Campau Says:

    Your post made me laugh because I have this fight with my husband all the time too. I didn’t read all the comments so I’m not sure if this was already mentioned, but maybe this goes hand-in-hand with the tradition of not leaving voice mails here. Nobody wants to pay to leave the voice mail or to listen to it, although I think the ‘toque’ on the phone is just as effective. I rarely answer the phone; in fact, I’m more apt to hide from it! I hate the idea that we’re slaves to our phones; we should be able to return calls when we want. Cell phones are anti-glamour. But as with most things, I say live and let live!

  15. Erin Says:

    It costs money to listen to voicemails???? That shows how much I pay attention to my phone bill, doesn’t it!? My goodness these cell phones are a ripoff here! Someone else did mention that perhaps people are more inclined to pick up the call because then they don’t have to pay to return the call. If this is true, then wow, how cheap can you be!? All very interesting to consider though – definitely sheds light on why this seemingly backwards behavior may have come to be. I’m onboard with your POV – my phone can kiss my culo :).

  16. Abi Says:

    Chiming in with a British perspective- very rude to answer the phone if you’re with someone else. If you need to do it, then you apologise profusely! Also bad form to sound loud – EVER – but particularly on public transport or in a restaurant. Do this in Britain and you will witness one of the worst outburts of cultural condemnation – the people sitting near you will silently raise their eyebrows at each other. They may even shake their heads or roll their eyes. Yikes!

  17. Erica Says:

    hell yeah just plain rude, as is the playing with blackberry/iphone whilst I am talking to you – you should do me the courtesy of paying me your 100% attention not fiddling with yer techno dick

  18. Jon Says:

    Ha, great piece. It’s very true – and brings back memories of living in Spain. How would it seem if English speakers answered the phone in the exact same way as the Spanish – so “Si, diagme!” would be, “Yes! Speak to me!”

    You’d sound deranged.

    Nice blog – I will check back for more.

  19. Erin Says:

    So true – or there’s always the equally friendly, but straight to the point “sí.” It’s funny how neither the words, nor the etiquette translate. You can imagine the fun arguments my husband and I have – phone etiquette is just the tip of the cultural iceberg!

    Hope I can keep bringing back the memories of Spain 🙂

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