The Shame In Spain

“Es una vergüenza…”, “Así nos va”, “Normal, este país”

Last week, a nurse in Spain became the first person to catch ebola outside of Africa. Scary? Maybe. A cause for extra precaution, for more education? Definitely. Shameful? I don’t know if we should go that far. But during this past week, I’ve heard a lot of reactions from Spaniards—friends, Twitter personalities, politicians, newscasters, etc. Some offered support to a person who was risking her life to save someone else. But a lot of people talked about shame. Shame? Yes, shame.

La vergüenza ajena

I love Spain. I think it’s a pretty cool country—beautiful, with great food, open-minded people (mainly). It has its problems, but it’s overall a nice place to live. I am sometimes shocked by Spaniards’ views on their own country, the way they insult it, as if their problems made it a terrible country. As Spanish National Television put it in a blog post, “We Spaniards feel shame constantly.” As the blog mentions, everyone feels a twinge of shame when your drunk uncle does ridiculous things at a wedding. Of course! But Spaniards seem to feel shame where most of us wouldn’t, to feel shame when they personally haven’t done anything wrong. La vergüenza ajena, feeling shame on the behalf of another person.


Politicians are corrupt in Spain. Politicians are also corrupt in the U.S. Heck, politicians are pretty much corrupt everywhere. Isn’t that what politicians do? I find it interesting to read the news after some political scandal here. The word shame, vergüenza, is almost always used. It’s not just that the politician should feel ashamed; it’s also that Spaniards feel a sense of shame for having such a corrupt politician. You would expect outrage; you would expect demands for them to step down. You might not expect a whole nation to feel a collective sense of shame.


As I said before, last week a Spanish nurse tested positive for ebola. It was scary because she caught the disease in Spain, not Africa. Thus began the panic, the overreactions, and the blame game. It is a natural human instinct to look for a scapegoat. But I honestly could not understand why people began to feel embarrassed by this, as though they were embarrassed to be from a country where a mistake was made. In fact, a nurse in the U.S. was diagnosed with ebola over the weekend, and I do not feel ashamed by this fact. (Take a look at some of the memes that came out of this. It’s interesting.)


I come from the land of red, white, and blue everything, over-the-top patriotism so strong it makes you roll your eyes sometimes. We pledge allegiance to a flag. To a flag. A flag. Here in Spain, this type of patriotism wouldn’t just cause eye-rolling; it would cause embarrassment. Again, la vergüenza. This is a more complicated topic, but too much patriotism is associated with the Franco years, with fascism and xenophobia. It’s an understatement to say it’s complicated. (Thanks, Facebook, for forever altering that phrase for me.) As an American, it’s interesting for me to see the way Spaniards approach patriotism. I find that some are indeed patriotic, but it seems to be easier for people to be proud of their hometown or their village. There’s a few advertisements in Mario’s hometown which state, “Orgullosos de ser zamoranos,” proud to be from Zamora. That seems to be an easier sentiment to express.

Negative News

Whenever the New York Times writes about Spain’s problems, certain people tend to get very angry. Others feel embarrassed. This New York Times article about austerity and hunger in Spain provoked negative reactions on Twitter. Many were offended by the portrayal of Spain. I wanted to tell them that we knew that it was just one part of Spain, that Spain was also the land of charming villages and magnificent landscapes and stunning architecture. A country cannot be summed in a news article. Just wait a few days, and there will be another article writing about something positive.

This is a complex topic with many layers, and I don’t wish to trivialize it. I am just curious if anyone else has encountered this in Spain, or if any Spaniards wish to comment on the concept of vergüenza ajena.


31 thoughts on “The Shame In Spain

  1. A great post on a hot topic right now. I just had some students ask me last week if it was true that Spain´s reputation in the rest of the world has gotten worse since the crisis. I reassured them that at least in the states everyone continues to think they´re running with bulls and dancing flamenco. I meant for them to see that the stereotype of Spain is not related to ¨la crisis¨but their response was ¨oh…so they think we party all the time…?¨ I also think that this idea of shame is very much tied to how patriotism is seen in Spain (which you did touch upon). I think they are proud of their country, but their not really supposed to be proud of their country (unless it involves football/soccer). A very complicated issue for sure and one I hadn´t really considered in relationship to the Ebola scare so thank you for your well written and thought provoking post!

  2. If you hadn’t pointed this out, I would have never given it much thought! This prevalence of a ‘national shame’ is the norm in five of the six countries I’ve lived in – the US being the exception. Bearing in mind I’m not American and only lived in two areas of that country (the South and the NE), I can only speak to my perception. I found it shocking, though refreshing at times, that in the US bad occurrences were viewed as the exception rather than problems of society. Also, people showed serious concern when I would insult my homeland.

    You’re so right about the Spanish paranoia of how foreigners view Spain. In my countries, we have more of an idgaf attitude about what others think.

      1. From Canada/UK, lived in Israel, US, Iran and now Spain.
        I find the best part about interacting with people from other cultures is how they make you question what you thought was the ‘standard’ perception on things – which is one of the reasons I always love reading your thoughts on this blog

  3. i agree, that is a very good post and a good observation! I have seen it myself and the comments that you quoted from my own web surfing on the topic of Ebola and the nurse story, patriotism, etc. I see “fachistas” often associated with Spanish flag wavers. It’s pretty unfair. But I didn’t put it all together until I read your article here. And I think you are 100% right! Interesting! I love the Spanish, they are too hard on themselves! :-)

  4. I just spent this weekend at my boyfriend’s parents home listening to them tirelessly discuss this topic for at least an hour. I mostly just sat there in shock of how harsh they were on their own country saying things like “this would never have happened in the US because they follow strict protocol” and “our country’s politicians are completely retarded” as well as saying that it serves Spain right that researchers leave the country to get funding from the US and then want to change their nationality so that Spain doesn’t get the credit for these brilliant researchers because Spain wouldn’t put the money forth to fund such things. I could totally see where they were coming from with their comments but it was eye-opening for me just how far they took things!

    It’s funny how you mentioned the bit about American patriotism too because when my boyfriend came to visit the US he refused to do the whole hand over heart national anthem deal at an event we went to. That was fine (I mean he’s not an American citizen anyway) but what surprised me was that it kind of upset him! He said that he hated the idea of blind patriotism and knew that it was a problem in the US so seeing that irked him in a way!

    Very interesting stuff for sure.

  5. Been thinking about this topic as well, but from a language standpoint. Everyone has verguenza ajena about the entire country’s level of English. “Pronunciamos fatal,” “nuestro ingles es un disastre,” etc. That made the Ana Botella thing such a big deal, and to some extent people laugh at themselves about it. But I think it’s harmful to perpetuate that attitude. I see it in the 13 year olds in class who are too scared to try. (Partly because they’re teenagers, I know…) Even in the adults I teach. Every mistake corrected seems to go into the “yep, another reason why we suck at languages” pile. I would love to see that attitude shift so people can feel more confident attempting to master a tough language!

  6. Like you mentioned, a nurse got ebola over the weekend here in the USA from a patient who had recently traveled back from Liberia. Trust me, the media is making a big deal of this “breach of protocol” issued by the CDC and while it is a huge story, the general population isn’t running around throwing their hands in the air screaming, “Oh how shameful! Our hospitals are so careless!” Mistakes happen and you can’t 100% prepare for this kind of thing until it actually happens.

    Oh and corrupt politicians, we have a dime a dozen here. Considering we have more politicians here than in Spain, we have more reason to complain! My favorite politician scandal is still the one about the governor of South Carolina who pretended he was “hiking the Appalachian trail” when in reality his staff had no idea where he was for a few days. Turns out he was visiting his mistress in Argentina.

  7. Whilst I agree we should all defend our roots, and what is good about our respective countries I find myself disagreeing with the sentiment expressed. Considering why this may be I think is related to the fact I am British (living in Spain) and in the UK we have self-deprecation as a national pastime… For us the notion of patriotism, or nationalism, leads us into murky political waters, and as a happy European I don’t wish to stir these further! Recognising flaws and laughing at them is admittedly different to being genuinely critical, but I think Spain have high hopes for themselves and are just disappointed when basic errors are made (some of the Ebola stuff is ridiculous). I think that’s the embarrassment – wanting to be a key player, but not quite accomplishing what they set out to. America is far more polished and proud by comparison (not necessarily a bad thing), from my experience/perspective anyway.

    1. I appreciate your opinion! Yes, I think it may have to do with you being British. I imagine that you see things in a different light than I do, as an American.

  8. Interesting post! I’ve been wondering how people are reacting to Ebola in Spain, and I hadn’t given much thought to the vergüenza ajena in Spain.

    I feel like Australians’ reactions if Ebola were found here would be less shame, more finding ways to somehow blame it on the U.S. :P

    1. Ha, six minutes later, two of my colleagues (one Australian, one Kiwi) begin talking about how Ebola is in the U.S. and there will likely be twenty cases by the end of the week because Americans “keep stuffing it up.” Ahh the anti-Americanism in this country.

  9. That’s really interesting about the Spanish shame complex – I had no idea that was such a thing over there. I think it would be great if the world could be somewhere between ‘Spanish shame’ and ‘America – F*CK YEAH’ on the scale of pride.

    The one I think you touched on that’s really interesting internationally is the perception of patriotism. America is one of the few countries in the world where rampant patriotism won’t get you immediate branded as a far-right fascist/neo-nazi. Here in Russia, you stay away from people who are draped in a Russian flag – no questions. The same goes for most other countries.

  10. I agree with you that my country has some great things… but most of them were done/made in the past and the good things happening now are just ignored because the bad ones are way too big! I’m somehow ashamed that people won’t do what is right and the right way. That people don’t care about anything else but themselves. And I’m talking big people, the ones that have the country’s destiny in their hands, not just the average person. So yes, I feel shamed of how poorly things are done in Spain, but it’s not something shared by every other Spaniard, whereas it’s something felt by many other people in other countries (such as France).

    1. Thanks for replying! You are right that there are some terrible things being done by big people (e.g., the monarchy and many politicians). But for example I think Spain does have a good health care system, and I would feel more secure being sick here than in the U.S., and the people in Spain are quite accepting of homosexuality. Those are two things I can think of.

  11. This is a very interesting topic Kaley. A lot of my friends here in Seville feel ashamed by their country on numerous occasions, mainly due due to the corruptness you mention and because of how hard the government make it to start anything here. Thanks for a great post!

  12. Ouch, those memes! I hadn’t seen those yet–thanks for including the link.

    When I arrived to a private lesson last week, the ebola situation was blaring on the news. My student got really uncomfortable about the whole thing, and started saying what a terrible country Spain was when it came to administration. I’m pretty sure the word “verguenza” was even tossed around…

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  14. Interesting post, Kaley! I’ve been living in Spain for about a month now and just learned the word “verguenza” in relation to the ebola topic. I don’t feel shame that someone in the US got ebola, but I can understand why people might. From what I’ve heard, in Madrid the nurse contracted ebola after treating a patient by taking her suit off herself and not telling anyone. She then proceeded to go about her daily life for a few days without telling anyone before exhibiting the symptoms. The person I spoke with about the issue was ashamed because it was a Spaniard who had put others in the country at risk and was ashamed because she purposefully neglected to tell anyone that she did not follow protocol by having someone help her remove her suit. I took it more as they were ashamed of the person for being stupid than the country itself for having made a mistake in allowing the disease to possibly be spread here.

    Thanks for including the memes too!

    1. Mike that is not true, she never said anything of that some politicians blamed on her so they had not to admitd that their protocols failed, The nurse is going to sue them for telling those lies about her while she was very sick at the hospital. See it’s a shame to have a politician that can lie about a dying person to not admitd his mistakes.

      1. Maria, Sorry for the misinformation on my part. I had heard this all secondhand from someone else. Obviously, stories change when they’re coming from others and not directly from the source. My comment reflected what someone had told me.

  15. I think… I don’t feel ashamed because of a case of Ebola in Spain. I am ashamed because of the way politicians have dealt with it. Doctors had no safe procedures or instructions, nor the material. Also, they have spent a great amount of money to take a couple of people back to Spain when it could have been much rewarding if they had spent all that money directly in Africa. They just took them back to Spain because they belonged to religious orders. As for Teresa, she’s a true survivor!!

    I do feel ashamed of our politicians and our justice system. I don’t understand why some people do nothing and end up in prison and some other people get away with it. I just understand that money buys justice. Isn’t that something to be ashamed of? Why don’t those things change, always looking for excuses? And we can’t choose our politicians because over and over again, we are forced to accept the same ones. People such as Rubalcaba have been around since the 70s!!! Or Fraga, who was out there already with Franco.

    When it comes to patriotism… if you say you love Spain, it means you believe in Franco. All from the Left is cool and from the Right is bad. And saying you love Spain is extremely in the Right, apparently. I have items with the British flag, the American flag- but if I were to wear the Spanish flag, I could have problems back in Spain. When it comes to the “Orgullosos de ser Zamoranos”, it’s easy. We from Zamora are used to being looked down upon because ~it is not a cool place~ so I felt really at ease when I first saw it! Why would I be ashamed of coming from my small town? :D

    I really felt bad when I read the article of the NY Times where they talked about poverty and hunger in Spain. It is there- things are not perfect, I have left my country after 2 years without a job and I am an industrial engineer with several languages-. But it sold the idea that the whole country was suffering from hunger! And it is not like that. These things affect tourism and the economy of the whole country.

    Of course, Spain has very good things as well- it’s just that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, I suppose, and we just see ~what the others have~ instead of focusing on ~what we have~.

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