It’s one of the most embarrassing things that can happen to us when abroad. A local remonstrating with us in a language we can barely understand, saying, “No, no, no…” Fortunately, such instances rarely arise in Mallorca but it’s still useful to know the dos and don’ts of local etiquette.
For a start, Mallorca is a cosmopolitan society that has been welcoming and hosting foreigners for decades. However, according to one of the first foreign books about life on the island, it wasn’t always so. But times have changed since Frédéric Chopin’s lover, George Sand, found the 19th century locals mistrusted her because she smoked cigars and wore trousers – though that doesn’t mean appearance is no longer important.
The locals call people from outside the island, forasters, which also includes mainland Spaniards. Mallorcans, like all Latins, pride themselves on their dress sense. Therefore, how visitors are attired is important. The most obvious case is when visiting churches and other religious buildings, when it is courteous to dress modestly.
Discretion with clothing is also advisable in city centres. Only the young wear shorts, with most working people wearing trousers or skirts.
Nine in ten visitors to Spain don’t go beyond the coastline, which means most people come here expecting to wear little. That doesn’t mean, however, that wearing swimwear or for men to go bare-chested in cities is okay. Personal appearance is seen as an indicator of character.
Shoes are considered a very important element of dress. (For my wedding, I had to buy new shoes as my Mallorcan bride and her family insisted I could not wear shoes I already owned, no matter how comfortable I would feel on the big day. I’ve also encountered repeated pressure to wear sandals instead of flip-flops.)
This may perhaps help explain why Mallorca is home to such world-famous footwear brands as Camper, Lottusse, Farrutx and Bestard Mountain Boots. If you are a female, there is a good chance men will compliment you on how good you look. This is just considered good manners and nothing more. This is where the next step of etiquette comes in – and it is one that some foreigners are often uncomfortable with.
Greeting a person
A kiss on each cheek is commonplace when being introduced to a woman on any social occasion and in some business situations, too. Many northern Europeans, unused to such physical contact, often go half way, then recoil, causing some embarrassment. Fear not and go ahead.
Subjects to avoid
When dealing with Mallorcans, criticism, however slight, of their island or country is frowned upon, as is the flaunting of superiority or intelligence. In contrast to attire, where an element of showing off is appreciated, in interpersonal relationships, modesty is valued over assertiveness. One topic that is best ignored is politics and the Spanish Civil War from the 1930s. The war had little effect on the island and the ensuing Franco dictatorship didn’t hit here as hard as other regions but it’s still best not to mention the topics. In contrast, one way of currying favour and drawing a smile is by showing an appreciation of the local culture and language, Mallorcan.
Technically, it is a dialect of the Catalan language – and on most ATMs and menus it will be described as such – but the locals overwhelmingly refer to what they speak as mallorquí. Virtually all street signage, road instructions and place names are in Mallorcan. Some efforts to implement this have been half-hearted, so you get both Santa Ponsa and Santa Ponça signs.
On the beach, the most important dos and don’ts concern loud behaviour. The playing of loud music is considered rude and is most often prohibited. It is courteous to clean up any rubbish left behind. Many Mallorcans visit the beach only on Sundays.
Customs for tipping
Tipping is not a fully established and widespread custom, and many locals often leave small change, even for a substantial consumption. Waiters have been known to marvel at the generosity of foreigners. It is not the custom to leave tips at bars, cafeterias or in taxis, which doesn’t mean it won’t be appreciated.
If hiring a car, stick to the rules of the road and avoid any confrontation with other drivers. If a local motorist is rude, don’t respond in kind.
Seven tips for good behaviour
• Men and women should not wear shorts in churches, though sometimes those below the knee will be tolerated. Shoulders should be covered by both sexes and women should display a modest neckline. Women are also expected to not wear sleeveless tops. It goes without saying that mobiles should not be used in churches. The use of flash photography is often banned. This is one case where foreigners often play the ‘no comprende’ card despite the display of picture warnings.
• Wearing swimwear in cities is considered impolite and for men to go bare-chested is most certainly considered rude. The same applies to bars, restaurants and galleries.
• A kiss on each cheek is commonplace when being introduced to a woman. There is no need to doubt whether it should be done, though not doing so won’t be considered rude.
• Don’t criticise the island or aspects of life here, or bring up historic events that may be sensitive issues for locals.
• While the local language is technically Catalan, locals will appreciate if you refer to it as mallorquí (Mallorcan).
• Avoid loud behaviour or the flaunting of superiority.
• Tipping is not widespread and is rarely generous but will be much appreciated.
The dos and don’ts of etiquette while abroad are broadly universal, with nuances depending on specific societies. In Mallorca, the main differences are centred on the attire of visitors and in their pride at their local culture and language.
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