Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: The Spanish express their deepest emotions in silence

Do not be surprised if the Spanish mourn with less display than the British showed over Princess Di
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Now you can hear the silence of the silent majority. Typically, political demonstrations are raucous with grievances, mass mournings loud with grief. When crowds gather, it is easy to work them up, hard to keep them calm. In the last two days in Spain, the silence of the crowds has had the power of a miracle. Against the blast of the bombs, no howl of pain or cry of battle would sound too loud. No emotion would seem extravagant. But Spaniards are not like that.

Now you can hear the silence of the silent majority. Typically, political demonstrations are raucous with grievances, mass mournings loud with grief. When crowds gather, it is easy to work them up, hard to keep them calm. In the last two days in Spain, the silence of the crowds has had the power of a miracle. Against the blast of the bombs, no howl of pain or cry of battle would sound too loud. No emotion would seem extravagant. But Spaniards are not like that.

The British have many myths of Spain, long overdue for revision. One of the silliest is the myth of the south - of hot blood, Latin temperament, Mediterranean excess. It all goes back to errors of medieval medicine: hot climates breed choleric characters, whereas northerners imbibe phlegmatism from their dank, cold surroundings.

It was always nonsense, but 19th-century romanticism, which filled northern heads with fuzzy images of Spain, reinforced it. It was easy to mistake baroque saints, who bleed and weep, for typical Spaniards. The romantics saw Spain not as it was, but as their imaginations re-crafted it - as a land of Moorish amours and Romany romance.

The theories that underpinned these perceptions were all false. Of course, any generalisations about "Spanish character" are unscientific: the country is too big and diverse, and comprises too many historic communities, too many contrasting cultures. But some frequently made assumptions are particularly misleading. Spain is not, for instance, a "Mediterranean" country. Much of the coast is on the Atlantic, where most of the major rivers drain. For five or six centuries, history has tugged Spanish concerns, commerce and colonisation towards the Atlantic. The climate in much of the country is more characteristic of the Atlantic than the Mediterranean.

It is true to say that Spain is a hot country - but misleading, unless you add that it is also cold: riven by mountains, hoisted on high plateaux.

In Britain, moreover, it is a common mistake to suppose that Spanish society follows a "southern European" model radically different from that of the north - more kin-based, more communal, with supposedly younger marriages, bigger families, and more participation in the rites and practices of social cohesion. On the contrary, individualism is a highly Spanish characteristic. Spanish nuclear families are, on average, smaller nowadays than those in Britain, and the privacy of family life is far more closely guarded than in northern European countries.

It is true that Spaniards are, on the whole, more civic-minded and more sensitive to family obligations than people in England - but these are the results of the crowded urban geography of Spanish life, not the products of deep-rooted differences of character.

There are, of course, differences of manners that are easily mistaken for evidence in support of traditional prejudices. In Spain, it is polite to argue, even with your hosts at a dinner party. Disagreement never implies disrespect. So you see Spaniards arguing more often - but that it is not because they are naturally more argumentative. On the contrary, because it is normal and socially acceptable, disagreement is easier to absorb in a relationship of mutual tolerance or admiration. Expressions of love and friendship are more frankly expressed in Spain within the normal limits of polite discourse, and can include a broader circle of acquaintances than in England; but this does not mean that emotions are more strongly felt. On the contrary, affections become less intense as they get spread more widely.

The English expect Spaniards to shout and gesticulate and, of course, the eye picks out what the mind expects to see. Really, Spanish body language is rather restrained. Sobriety, austerity, and dignity are values exalted by Spanish art and literature far more than in that of England. In the Spanish version of Fawlty Towers, Manolo is an Italian: his expansive gestures would be out of place in someone from Barcelona.

Times change and customs change with them. The English no longer conform to the old, self-repressed stereotype. The stiff upper lip has gone wobbly. So do not be surprised if the Spanish mourn the dead of their massacre with less outward display than the British showed when Princess Di died. They are being true to type.

Spaniards were never the emotional exhibitionists the British mistook them for. And they are now feeling a calm beyond anger - the quiet of the deep night of the soul.

The writer is professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London

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