How to: Use WhatsApp in Spain

Dear Katherine,

Screenshot of ways of communicating with contact. Whatsapp in the middle.

You may or may not use it as back home a lot of people have free texts, but in Spain WhatsApp is THE way of communication—maybe because sending SMS is so expensive here—so expect to get thrown into the world of WhatsApp as soon as your feet hit the ground! If you are planning on using your own phone while abroad (check out this post on how to get a phone/number while in Spain), download the app before you leave home—it’s free—and you can get a feel for the look and use of the program. What else should you know?


Everyone (and their grandmother) uses it:

Literally everyone from your host mom to your teachers* will probably expect to communicate using this free application as it serves the same function as text messages with no additional costs (SMS probably cost between .10 and .25 euros a pop). Obviously the younger generation is ‘better’ at using this form of technology, but don’t be surprised when you see your friends messaging their grandparents. 

Also, just a fair warning, families and friends create groups to send pictures, make plans to meet up, and generally just chat. This means that you might end up in groups with 20+ people (or just really chatty people) who can blow up your notifications. There have been days when I don’t look at my phone for a couple of hours and, when I do check it, have over a 100 messages...that I don’t actually care about. This may be a good reason to look into your settings for individual groups and choose how often you would like to receive notifications about activity (it doesn't have to be set to notify you each time a message is sent). 


It is the main form of communication:

Like in the States, it is not uncommon that people send messages instead of calling each other. And, as internet is available all across Europe with no borders regardless of your cell phone plan, people don’t even have to change carriers when studying or travelling abroad. If you are someone who loves to talk on the phone, this might not be an ideal scenario for you, but if you are just getting comfortable with speaking Spanish—in person—this might be a big relief for you as you probably won’t have to talk on the phone if you don’t want to. 

Top-tip: You can use WhatsApp to improve your Spanish (as everyone is using it). However, don’t get frustrated if people use slang you don’t understand—see below.


Sometimes you won’t understand what people are saying:

Just like back home, people here write words in shorthand (such as q = que and xq = porque). In fact, I would say that only half—being generous—the people who write to me in WhatsApp actually use real words and proper grammar. While this might be a sign that you are doing really well and people think they can communicate with you like a ‘normal’ Spaniard, it can also be really frustrating because you don’t understand what they want to say. Even after living here for years, I still ask what words or phrases mean when people send me weird things or write in shorthand I don’t understand. 

Learning to understand emojis in another language can be hard...

Learning to understand emojis in another language can be hard...

I have found that be best way to deal with this is to 1) be upfront with your friends and straight out ask them to write better. If this doesn’t work, try 2) to ask about specific words and phrases as understanding how people communicate will help you understand them as well. Consider this part of your cultural education—if nothing else you will probably learn how to communicate in text-talk while abroad. 

Warning: Don’t incorporate WhatsApp language into academic life. A friend of a friend once did a really important exam to be a teacher (oposiciones) and was told by the judges that the exam was almost perfect but didn’t pass because she shorthanded it message style.


Expect to receive last minute messages:

One of the worst things (in my personal opinion) is that people use the instant connection of WhatsApp to tell you they are late. As I try to be a punctual person, it frustrates me because when I am meeting someone at, say, 3pm, it is possible that they message me at 3:05 telling me they will be 15 minutes late. I know this is not actually a problem with the app itself, but I feel like it is part of the instant culture that comes with having a communication method that allows you to send a message on the go and be (fairly) certain that the other person will receive it.

Although we will probably go into being late a bit more in a future article, one of the things that frustrates me most about the situation is the messages coming in at the last minute. However, I have to accept that this is part of the current culture and find my own personal ways to try and deal with it (usually by bringing a book to read or listening to a podcast).


Are you a big WhatsApp fan? Or have you never heard of it? Let us know!


*Not all teachers will communicate by WhatsApp with their students, but it’s not that odd either.