Spanish Press: Grounded Over Coffee

Leah Wolfeld: M.S. student and ICCM Associate on exchange  at University of Valencia, Spain. 

This September I arrived in Valencia, Spain, as an exchange student in the University of Valencia’s Master’s program in Work, Organizational, and Personnel Psychology (WOP-P). The examples below focus on the treasures that lie in our differences, as observed in the Spanish culture and in the WOP-P program.

We may as humans have a natural tendency to shun outsiders or the unfamiliar. Yet, when attempting to flock with birds-of-another-feather, the skill of neutral observation is of paramount importance. Perhaps due to the fact that I adore coffee (and thus have frequent opportunity to observe coffee-related behavior), I have noted that the Spanish concept of coffee embodies a detail of day to day life that speaks volumes about culture. Forget about the venti-si
zed Starbucks on-the-go cups for your morning caffeine dose. Not because Starbucks is magically absent in this medium-sized European city (in fact, three stores within the city limits emit the trademark’s warm glow), but because of the following cultural differences between the States and Spain:

Size and service

If you ask for any quantity more than a “café con leche” cup permits (i.e. a teacup sized mug) the cafés simply won’t be able to serve you. This explanation is two-fold. First of all, as the coffee is in fact espresso, the sheer quantity of liquid you are requesting will earn you a confused glance. Secondly, Spanish waiters who go out of their way to make the customer happy are few and far between—they don’t have that size, so you should just pick something else. What a perfect way to jump-start your cultural adaptation!


On a lucky day I’ll find a place here that sells coffee in a to-go cup. If I have to sit, it’s not a big deal because the drink is so small. Combined with the “relaxed” perception of time, the lack of a to-go cup market truly marks “grabbing coffee” in Spain as a reason to meet up with people rather than a to get a quick caffeine fix. Coffee represents an excuse to sit and talk, and rarely anything more.

Or, you can skip the coffee altogether and sit on a bench to talk. I wonder whether or not Valencia truly has more outdoor benches than cities in the States, or if people simply use them more here. When was the last time you sat on a bench outside with a friend to talk? Did the conversation end just because it was over, or did one of you have something else to do? Personally, my answers are in stark contrast to those of a Spaniard’s. Perhaps by the end of my time here I will be able to incorporate the Spanish value of open-ended time with others into my daily life.

The Program:

In the program itself (WOP-P), differences between students are also embraced, despite the occasional frustration with a teammate. A total of 29 students comprise the two years of the master’s program and hail from 21 different countries (yes, I counted). Many have lived in more than just their home country. In addition to my repeated amazement of my classmates’ English skills, I have learned how our differences are in fact the glue that unifies us. If we all have different backgrounds and experiences, we can all share these and learn from each other in a remarkably influential way. As all of our assignments (with the exception of one, so far), require teamwork, rejecting differences is simply not an option. Instead, we achieve our common goal through recognition of each others’ unique strengths. Moreover, our differences permit us to focus on what we do have in common. We actually share common ground in that we are all truly different. Also, I’m guessing that the vast majority of students in this program would score high on the “openness” personality trait, and speak at least two languages fluently.

Although I have always firmly believed in the importance of understanding other cultures, my study abroad here has highlighted (as well as underlined, asterisked, and circled) the necessity of cross-cultural competencies for success in an increasingly globalized workforce. As Professor Rich Griffith says in reference to this largely unrecognized phenomenon, “wake up and smell the coffee!” What better way to do so than by drinking a café con leche with your international team members?

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