What is a Guiri?

What is a Guiri

Learning to speak Spanish is crucial when living in Spain and to integrate into Spanish society, but there’s a word you’ll probably come across that won’t be included in your everyday Spanish lessons: ‘Guiri’.

In this article, I offer a personal view of my experience with the word and what it means. 

Guiri, in a nutshell, means foreigner, but it refers to a certain type of foreigner and can be used in many different contexts, according to Spanish Wikipedia. 

Guiri es un término coloquial y etnofaulismo español usado principalmente en España para referirse a turistas extranjeros, particularmente del norte o centro de Europa y especialmente a los británicos. Sin embargo, se engloba también a cualquier persona extranjera de piel muy blanca con cabello rubio y ojos azules (algo similar a la palabra “gringo”, muy usada en Latinoamérica).

This basically means the Spanish call tourists Guiris and Latin Americans call them Gringos.

`Guiris´ are generally Anglo-Saxons or Northern Europeans with pale complexions, light hair, and fair skin. When I asked a Spanish friend what the first image that comes into their head when I say ‘Guiri’ is, they replied:  “a white tourist walking on the front with sandals and white socks.” 

But the use of the word Guiri runs a lot deeper than a simple slang word for a tourist – it can be extremely offensive, very funny and even a term of endearment. This article has been rattling around in my head for a while now, and I’ve purposely not read any other content about the subject. I want to give my unbiased, honest opinion and share how I understand the word, based on nearly 25 years of living in Spain.  

When I moved to Spain in 2000, I had a baptism of fire when it came to learning Spanish. I was 21, working in a hotel and living alongside other young people (all Spanish) who also worked with me. My Spanish proficiency didn’t come through studying. It came from becoming friends with people of a similar age and making sure that no one stole my toothbrush!  You may wonder why on earth he is telling us this?

Well, one of those friends, I believe, unintentionally set me against the word Guiri very early on. 

Arriving at work one day, there was a commotion by the pool. “¿Que pasa?” I asked, and my friend Raul explained that a British tourist had left all his holiday money in a bag at the side of his sunbed, and it had been stolen. I was horrified. “¡Pobre!” I exclaimed (which doesn’t just mean poor; it’s also an expression of condolence). “¡Pobre!” exclaimed Raul,  “Tonto Guiri” – stupid foreigner. 

This immediately got my back up, and from that point on, the word Guiri, as I understood it, was an insult.  But this word kept coming up. Every time one of my friends from work or, “Colegas”, wanted to chat up a girl on holiday, they would ask me to go and speak to the “Guiri” in English to break the ice. When you had your typical milk-bottle-white tourist who spent too much time on the beach and came back looking like a well-cooked prawn, my colegas” would say, “Mire el Guiri” – “check out the Guiri”. But to me, it didn’t seem like a term of endearment, more a way of taking the mickey out of someone foreign.

For a long time, I couldn’t understand why they would use this specific insult in front of me, another foreigner, who was supposed to be a friend. Why would they say “Guiri” when speaking about people of my fellow nationality if it wasn’t a nice word? 

This word, which I thought was ugly and horrible, was blatantly used in front of me and sometimes, they even used it to refer to me… then the penny dropped –  the context was different when they associated it with me. 

Suddenly, I realised that it seemed to be almost a term of endearment towards me. In fact, my social group was almost possessive. I was their “Guiri”, and as my Spanish improved, I realised that most of them would address each other using nicknames (apodos in Spanish).  I was their friend; they were proud when I walked in, and they’d say, “Hey, Guiri, esto es nuestro Guiri”. It was almost as though there was an expectation that I should be proud to be a “Guiri” in those circles. That’s when I came to realise it all depends on context: how you use the word, in front of whom you use the word, and more importantly, how well you know the person, as to whether or not it was derogatory, friendly or even funny. 

Fast forward nearly 25 years, and aside from the fact I am a Guiri living in Spain, I am quite possibly the most typical 45-year-old you’ve ever seen, with a business, married, two kids, etc. etc., The parents of the other children in our social group readily use the term Guiri when referring to foreigners in front of me, but definitely not to address me or my family. They evidently don´t think that it will cause me any offence referring to my fellow countrymen as Guiris in front of me. So the word really can’t be that bad, can it? 

In fact, recently, one of my friends commented “Hardly,” when a dad at one of the birthday parties referred to me as a Guiri. 

When I said, by the way, I am still a Guiri, they just laughed and said that they  don’t even consider me as a Guiri.“We don’t think of it like that. We don’t see you as a foreigner because your ways are Spanish”. 

The word Guiri does mean foreigner or “not one of us”, but whether it’s an insult, an affectionate nickname or something in between, depends on tone, context and the relationships between those involved in the conversation.

In a professional capacity, a Foreigner should always be described as an `Extranjero´. It’s not a word you would expect to hear while visiting an administrative office like a police station or Town Hall. Even when visiting a lawyer or gestor, using the term Guiri to describe a  wouldn’t be correct.

Given all this, can you start using Guiri as part of your daily conversation as you integrate into Spanish society? 

It’s up to you, but I will offer a personal opinion: If you don’t want to sound stupid, then no, you can’t. In my view, it’s the same as swear words. You must have a high level of Spanish proficiency to be able to use them in the correct context and with the correct accent in a sentence.

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