You may or may not use this app back home where a lot of people have free texts, but in Spain WhatsApp is THE way of communication. Perhaps it’s because sending SMS is (or at least used to be) so expensive here, we couldn’t say for sure. Whatever the reason, 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. That way, you can get a feel for the look and use of the program. What else should you know about using Whatsapp to stay in touch while living in Spain?
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 we haven’t look at my phone for a couple of hours only to find over a 100 messages when we return! The worst part is, even in the group messages, it’s common to joke about and fire back messages with just one other person. The result? In actuality, the messages may not be relevant to you. 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. You don’t need to receive a notification each time a message is sent; instead you can silence them for eight hours, a week, or indefinitely and check up on the group manually instead.
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.
What may come as even more of a surprise to you is that sometimes businesses such as shops or restaurants or other professionals such as your banker or lawyer will also get in touch with you over Whatsapp, or at least offer the possibility for you to reach them in that way. While we were brought up to believe the proper thing to do when communicating in a professional manner was to make a phone call (or at least send an email), you will find that this etiquette is not as common in Spain. If someone offers you their mobile phone number (which is directly tied to their Whatsapp number), you can be confident that it is acceptable to Whatsapp them.
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 or k = que and xq = porque). In fact, we would say that only half—being generous—the people who write to us via 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, we still ask what words or phrases mean when people send us weird things or write in shorthand we don’t understand. Additionally, we’ve had a few misunderstandings over missing commas—yes, literally just a comma changed our understanding of whether a plan was for one day or the next! Keep in mind that, just like when you are using your native language, Spanish friends may not be as careful about how they write in this informal setting.
We’ve found that be best way to deal with this is to 1) be upfront with your friends and straight out ask them to write more correctly for you. 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 our personal opinion) is that people use the instant connection of WhatsApp to tell you they are late. If you are a punctual person, this can be especially frustrating because if you are meeting someone at, say, 3pm, it is possible that they’ll message you at 3:05 to tell you they will be 15 minutes late. We know this is not actually a problem with the app itself, but we also 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. If you are someone who doesn’t have a data plan, be sure to make this clear to friends ahead of time as it is not at all uncommon for people to ask to change the meet-up time or location right around the time of your scheduled meet-up. If you’ve already left the house and don’t have access to your Whatsapp, this could cause some issues.
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, especially if you are taking or giving language classes.