Coming to Terms with "No Pasa Nada"

When I first got to Spain, I was enamored with “ no pasa nada.”  Now, I feel a bit differently.

When I first got to Spain, I was enamored with “no pasa nada.” Now, I feel a bit differently.

Dear Jen,

When I first come to study in Alicante, Spain and even for my first year teaching English in Granada, I have to admit I was pretty enamored with the “no pasa nada” attitude. As I said in our introductory article about this expression, it truly did feel like a real-world ‘Hakuna Matata’ outlook and what more could a huge Lion King fan ask for!? However, the longer I spend in Spain, the more challenging it becomes to embrace this way of life.

A brief background of “no pasa nada”

In the video below, I provide a more in-depth explanation of “no pasa nada,” what it means, different scenarios in which it can be used and what it has taught me about the Spanish culture as a whole. While nothing I explained in the video is inaccurate or unrealistic, I do have to admit that I presented it in a way that was generally positive.

I mentioned how I loved how much more laid-back Spaniards are than Americans and how the sheer versatility of this expression demonstrates a lot about the culture, namely that they take so many more things more lightly. In pointing this out, I insinuate that this outlook is better and that we could all learn a thing or two from the Spaniards and their no pasa nada attitude. Again, this is not untrue and this way of life HAS taught me a lot...but to only allude to the positive side does not tell the whole story.


The truth about “no pasa nada

When you’re studying abroad or otherwise living abroad for a limited time, you often only see the good sides of the culture that you’re living in. I would argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing and it’s often the reason we end up loving it so much and coming back. However, when it comes to a limited time spent in a foreign country, this often involves only a limited experience—perhaps one in which you don’t have to subject yourself to too many challenges or frustrating situations such as dealing with any form of bureaucracy.

Let’s be real, it’s easier to “be all  no pasa nada”  with a drink in your hand.

Let’s be real, it’s easier to “be all no pasa nada” with a drink in your hand.

It’s charming when the waiter at your sun-filled plaza “is all no pasa nada” and not rushing to take your order or bring your bill; it’s less charming when the civil servant at the foreigner’s office “is all no pasa nada” about your paperwork still not being processed after you’ve waited for three months. Spending an extra hour in the sunshine on a study abroad Saturday afternoon is a ‘sacrifice’ we’re all willing to make whereas having to take off multiple days from work in order to get a simple bureaucratic procedure completed quickly feels taxing.

I’m just gonna be honest with you—I’m usually the first one to sing Spain’s praises, but each time I need to complete a new bureaucratic process here (i.e. visas, empadronamientos, buying a house, getting married, requesting a spouse card, etc, etc) I find myself longing for the fast-paced and efficient country of my birth. (And trust me, when living in the U.S. I probably wouldn’t have called all of the offices there ‘efficient’ but, comparatively, they’ve really got their acts together!)

There are certain things I’ll never be “no pasa nada” about

While there is no inherent ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to this all, I’ve personally come to the conclusion that there are certain scenarios in which I will simply never be able to see things from the laid-back “no pasa nada” point-of-view. And, if you haven’t noticed yet, bureaucratic processes are by far the most difficult of these scenarios for me to accept.

I’m pretty sure that paperwork in Spain will forever be the bane of my existence.

I’m pretty sure that paperwork in Spain will forever be the bane of my existence.

Claudia is constantly calming me down and reminding me to use my cultural competences to view these situations differently and try to approach them with understanding, patience, and acceptance. While I know that she’s right and my frustration over the situation is by no means going to make it better, the Americanness in me simply cannot get past the lack of efficiency and initiative* I’ve experienced time and time again in different offices in Spain.

Another scenario that can quickly become frustrating is the flakiness that you’ll find in both personal and professional relationships. I’ve lived in Spain long enough now to not get totally offended when a friend cancels plans just an hour before we’re set to meet but I find it incredibly difficult to “be all no pasa nada” about students cancelling lessons on me an hour before, landlords failing to set up much-needed handyman visits, or businesses not provided a service you’ve contracted until you call multiple times to inquire. I’ve certainly chilled out a lot since moving to Spain, but this beloved country still finds ways to test my patience on the regular.

However, there’s always an upside

My difficulty with embracing “no pasa nada” in all situations is not all bad. In fact, it’s sometimes comforting to be reminded of the ways in which I am American deep down into my core. After spending the amount of time I have living in Spain, I don’t feel I’ll ever truly be American again because there are so many beautiful ways in which my outlook has changed thanks to Spain’s culture. However, I would never want to erase who I’ve been and where I was raised because that is a huge part of my identity.

Some things, like where you come from, are never going to change.

Some things, like where you come from, are never going to change.

In a strange way, the sociologist in me does find it fascinating to be able to step back from my own life and analyze how I react differently under different circumstances. It’s sometimes laughable how I can so easily adapt to the “no pasa nada” way when it’s convenient for me, yet resist it with vengeance when it’s not. And I suppose recognizing the difference allows me to decipher what it is that really matters to me. Going forth, I’m going to make a sincere effort to note down when and why it is I’m resisting “no pasa nada”.... I look forward to being able to report back!


*As we’ve talked about a bit before in this article, this lack of initiative is perhaps a side effect of the funcionario, or civil servant, system into which all government employees fall. There is simply no incentive for them to go above and beyond the exact instructions they have been given and so it’s hard to find someone who is willing to do so for you.