When too many clever people sink a country

How a culture of “espabilados” can ruin a country

The ideas and opinions presented here are my own, based on my observations and exposure to multiple cultures. If you feel that I am wrong, I would love to hear your counterargument in the comments, just please be civil and constructive.


Many years ago while working at a hotel’s restaurant in Ibiza there was a guest on the slow side that was always buzzing around in an out of the restaurant into the pool.

One day I saw him stealing crips from the counter and I called him out on it, to which he apologised embarrassedly and walked away briskly.

My colleague saw this and she said: “Mira que espabilado, y parecia tonto!”, which translates to “Look how clever, and he looked stupid!”

Espabilado is a word used in Spain over and over again to describe someone who is quick-witted and streetwise, and it is something that most aspire to be. Being espabilado is not inherently bad, it can actually be really good if your morals are aligned, but the connotations it sometimes takes in Spain shows a fundamental problem with the attitude that hurts the country and economy:

If you are in the government and you enrich yourself at the expense of others, they call you espabilado.

If you are in a situation where you can take advantage by rigging the system, let’s say by claiming insurance policies for something that never happened, you are espabilado.

This sort of mindset is not only prevalent in Spain, but it is much too prevalent across all of Southern Europe and latin America, and it is in my opinion one of the main cultural factors that will sink a country’s economy or prevent it from more meaningful progress and fair distribution of benefits.

“If you trust, you are a gullible idiot”

In Spain there is a saying that goes “Te timaron como a un chino” which translates something like“They conned you as if you were Chinese”. I have no doubt that whoever came up with that saying many years ago didn’t know the difference between Chinese and Japanese, because I am pretty sure they meant Japanese.

You see, Japanese people are generally very trusting (and very trustworthy) and will take what you say at face value. This is not that Japanese are stupid, not by a very long shot, it just means that Japanese people are so used to telling the truth (except for when it comes to etiquette, in that sense Japanese are phenomenal fakers whereas Spanish are not) and not being deceived in their own culture that when they go abroad they are very vulnerable to the espabilados of the world.

In Spain, many of the people that I met associate trusting people with gullible idiots. So if you are a person who does not screen everything for lies carefully, then you are likely to get made fun or taken advantage of, so I can only imagine that to a dishonest espabilado, Japanese people will be especially good targets.

Yet if you are to compare Japan’s achievements as a whole with Spain and how orderly and effective Japanese people are at getting things done, I don’t think many Spanish people would disagree with me on who is the clear winner.

You always hear stories of how safe Japan is, about how so many people who forgot their wallets at a public place and came back an hour later to find it intact with all the money inside and how all of their products are of impeccable quality.

Being in an environment where you can trust people’s words gives you confidence to do business in ways that’s not possible if you have to constantly second guess other’s intentions, it also allows governments, businesses and institutions to offer you more perks because they don’t have to worry about too many people trying to game the system to gain unfair advantage.

I am using Spain as an example because it is my birth country and also because this sort of mindset is so integral to the Spanish society, it is not by accident that we created the picaresque novel, but by no means it is the only country with these issues. I was talking to a colleague from Ecuador who when I told him about this thoughts of mine he told me that in his city they built a very nice fountain with fish in it and the day after it was finished, someone had stolen all the fish. He just kept saying “why, who the hell would want or need those fish? They weren’t even edible fish! It makes no sense.”

Another example I saw from Greece was a policeman who wasn’t a father claiming to have 19 children to get benefits from the government, and Argentina is also quite renowned to have some world class espabilados.

I am always impressed by how capable and smart are all the Argentinians I have met, when I speak to them about this, they always agree with me that this is indeed one big problem that holds our countries back. In fact Argentina used to be one of the richest country in the world at one point and I would bet that perhaps one of the reasons why it’s not anymore is because of this same reason.

I often hear people in my country blame the government for all their problems, and I won’t say they are always wrong about this, but they hardly ever talk about personal responsibility and doing their part. Sure, you can blame the government for everything, but unless you live under an authoritarian regime that gives you no voice or options, which is not the case in any country in Europe, there is still so much you can do without having to rig the system to get it.

Espabilados are great at getting ahead and enriching themselves, and if you are an espabilado surrounded by a bunch of honest people there is so much you can take and get away with while hurting others. Think of an all-you-can-eat buffet, if a good chunk of the customers starts gorging, bringing tupperwares and taking the food home in buckets, pretty soon the buffet will go bankrupt, or it will have to increase the prices for everyone, so everyone is hurt. Not only that, the moment a few espabilados start cropping up, then everyone else is compelled to act in this way not to fall behind.

You see this a lot in the relationships between employee and employer in Spain. The employer will do anything to make sure that the employee does not take advantage and the employee will try to do the least amount of work he can get away with.

In Spain a lot of people like to point to Scandinavian countries as models of great democracy and governance, but I always wonder, would those models really work in Spain? In Scandinavian countries it works because the people there are very conscientious and mindful of not taking advantage of the benefits provided to them. If you steal from the government in Sweden they don’t call you espabilado, they call you a thief, as is the case in much of northern Europe.


I don’t want you to get from this post that all the countries I am talking about are terrible places to visit filled with con artists and liars — they are not, most people in Spain are very good and friendly and it is a phenomenal place to live. South of Europe not only has the weather to rival northern Europe, it also has a much more welcoming and gregarious social underpinnings, something I miss very much while living in the UK.

But I just wish that everyone took a step back to reflect about this aspect of our culture and society before complaining that all the maladies that afflict the country are the government’s problem.

Just remember, you live in a democracy and your government is a close reflection of the people you are surrounded with, so if you want to change things, start with yourself, work honestly and shun away espabilados from your life. If you see someone doing dishonest behaviour, even by being clever, there is a better word for it, ladron (thief)

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