Toxic Ex-Pat Villages in Spain


I always try to write blogs on the positives of moving to Spain and clearly there are many.

Unfortunately, from to time you come across negative or what I would call toxic situations / people. The one curve ball that really hit us was the village ex pat gossip culture that exists in many villages in Spain. It can feel like being dropped in an episode of Emmerdale!

In my previous job, one of my primary accountabilities was to help shape and improve the culture of the business of over 4000 people which can be tough but it’s achievable with the right leaders on board. To try and change a culture of a village is clearly impossible unless there is a desire from a large group of people who can influence others with integrity.

A misunderstanding can easily turn into someone in the village being stabbed in the back without them doing anything wrong, purely because someone has taken a dislike to a person, rumours then spread between groups and perception becomes reality, business’s fold and people get hurt. This leads to a toxic culture – In a school or the workplace it would be classed as bullying.

From an outsider coming into such an environment, you would think the ex-pat community would want to help each other but there are people who behave incorrectly with one another. Quite often money / greed is the centre of all evil. The reality is, it’s hard to earn money in Spain for an expat and people become very nervous about other people starting new business ventures that could impact themselves. Humans become extremely competitive, greedy and they are quite happy for a rumour to spread to hinder other people’s lives. Another reason may be people’s reaction to ‘change’, it could be a new couple joining an existing group of friends, one person doesn’t like the boat being rocked and they start to become divisive. Others may see new comers come into the village with different values to theirs and again they become a threat to their own mini culture.

The latter can happen for those that have been around a while and feel they have a position of authority in the village. They can resist the change and become very difficult people, spreading rumours and what I would call ‘culture saboteurs’.

Money can hugely effect people in many ways. This happens all around the world but when you’re trying to earn a living in a place that is difficult earn money, I.e. the campo, it can create tensions, especially when bills or personal debts aren’t paid. This is very common indeed and if handled incorrectly, this sort of situation can implode quite quickly, especially for those who have a strong set of personal values who believe that this is not acceptable behaviour.

From a newcomer arriving in Spain with high hopes of starting a new life, it can really take the wind out of your sails very quickly to see this sort of culture in your village. Of course, the easiest thing to do is to stay out of the village but is that what you want to move to Spain for?

For those of us who already live in villages with such cultures, I believe we all have a responsibility to improve the culture. The only way to do that is to take accountability for your own actions. As soon as someone criticises others without proven facts, advise them that you find it unfair that people are being talked about behind their backs. Those that like to talk about others will soon get the point that gossiping about people is simply not a nice thing to do and incorrect.

I’ve personally witness people character assassinate others for 45 minutes for them to then say, “but I’ve never met them”.

Of course, there are many ex pats who will do anything they possibly can to help another person and the key is to surround yourself with such authentic, honest people and avoid those that seem to enjoy talking about other people.

Cultures can be changed, but it takes a few people to hold others to account by making it clear that gossiping is as good as bullying.

In a large organisation, you would have a 5-year strategy to build a great culture. It takes time, great leadership, intent and a great desire from a large proportion of people for it to succeed. You also need people to see the benefits of having a great culture where everyone feels proud of the village and the people who thrive in it. We can all run to our homes and lock down the shutters very easy.

To change an organisations culture is different to a community although you could argue a successful organisation must have a healthy community. The key difference is performance must be considered as a business needs to have a turnover for it to thrive. A village doesn’t have to worry about this challenging aspect.

Both an organisation and a village should reflect on what is culture and what culture do we want?

A simple term for culture is ‘This is how we do things around here’.

Examples of toxic characteristics that create a divisive culture,

  • People who criticise others with the intention to harm
  • People who tell lies or fabricate the truth to get themselves further on in life
  • People who avoid paying bills / debts to one another for services without strong communication / good reason
  • People who have a desire to alienate others in fear of losing control over a group of friends
  • People who prefer to be negative no matter what (they drain a good culture)
  • People who only consider themselves and can’t be bothered to help others in difficult times
  • Look for trends in peoples relationships with others – I had one person who told me to avoid one person, then another, then another, the list went on. Eventually I realised the issue lay with that person.

Of course, you can add many more to the mix and there are other terms to consider which open a bag of worms, such as, ‘so and so is rude’ – we all have our own version of what rude looks like. We also have our own version of values and morale’s which creates tensions.

Another key thing to remember is treat people as you find them but a word of warning – people may be lovely to you but if they are gossiping or critising others then you could be next. In my time working on culture, I have seen many people with split personalities. Align yourself with people who are consistent in their approach to people – these are usually emotionally balanced people.

Positive characteristics in a good village culture could be,

  • Lead by example
  • Treat people fairly
  • Don’t make assumptions about others until you have got to know them – we just don’t know what people are going through and why they behave like they do
  • Be personable
  • Try and lift people when they are down, offering to help them with the garden or buying a 2-euro flower to cheer someone up can go a long way
  • Make time for people
  • Be honest and have courageous conversations – sometimes this is very hard but if it’s done with the right intent, it’s much better than avoiding the issue or even worse calling people behind their backs
  • Look in the mirror – no one is perfect so don’t expect others to be
  • Try and have a high level of understanding even during difficult times
  • Be humble
  • Help local new business’s thrive
  • Set positive tones especially for new comers – many are vulnerable and they need positive thoughts to feel part of a strong community
  • Allow new comers to make their own mind up about people – in time they will decide what works for them and what doesn’t – warning them of potential toxic people may feel the right thing to do but it can back fire
  • Throw yourself into the Spanish community – its probably why you came but getting involved doesn’t happen by chance
  • Accept there will be fall outs, we are human after all – it’s how you respond to the issue and if you have to walk in different directions then do it with grace and dignity

I apologise for writing perhaps not the cheeriest of stories but I want this blog to help others and to do that we should reflect on the whole journey not just the beach, the sea and manana lifestyle.

It was certainly therapeutic writing it and I believe we, as guests in another country have a huge responsibility to live up the cultures that made it so inviting for us to come and live here in the first place.

It can be tough but great cultures can exist in villages but they can also be quickly destroyed. Life it too short to be mean to others so do the right thing and if you need to hold your hand up and make a few personal tweaks in how you approach people, do it.

An old boss of mine used to say, ‘If it’s to be, it’s down to me’. Recently I’ve chosen the ‘lock the shutters mentality’ so I’m now going to do a bit of my own self-refection.

Hasta Luego Amigos




2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sheena B says:

    miss you Lee. follow your journey….


    1. Lee says:

      Thanks Sheena, miss you also. Hope you are well. Keep in touch please.


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