“You” and “You” and “You”

Have you noticed that the Spanish pronoun chart lists five forms of “you”—tú, usted, ustedes, vosotros, and vosotras? That's a lot of options for just one English word. But let's take things one at a time.

First, consider the number: Are you addressing one person or more than one? If one, your options narrow down to or usted. If more than one, you'll be choosing from ustedes, vosotros, and vosotras (more on the special vosotros and vosotras forms later).

Next, you have to consider whether to address the person or persons formally or informally. and vosotros/vosotras are informal forms. Usted and ustedes are the formal versions (“your mercy” is a pretty exalted way of addressing someone, after all).

In English, we never have to worry about whether you should address people with a formal or informal “you,” so this will definitely take some getting used to. And it's not always clear which form to use. A good rule of thumb is this: and vosotros/vosotras should be used to address your friends, or by permission only. In all other case, start out with usted/ustedes, until the person or people you're talking to invite you to switch to the informal version. The verb for using the form is tutear. Me puede tutear means, “you can use the form with me.”

Formal/Informal “You” Guidelines

Usted, Ustedes (Formal Address) Tú, Vosotros, Vosotras (Informal Address) Demonstrates respect. Demonstrates acceptance. Used with elders (including your parents). Used with friends and people your age, as well as with younger people and children. Used with persons of rank or nobility. Used with colleagues (informality pre-established). Used with strangers. Used with friendly acquaintances. Used to maintain social distance. Used to reduce social distance.

It's All About Good Manners

Choosing formal versus informal address is really just a matter of manners. You want to show respect for the person you're speaking to, and you do that by choosing the correct form of address. But how do you guide yourself through this potential social minefield?

First, unless you are attending an event where informality is actually encouraged, remember that any initial meeting should begin with each party's using the formal form of address, usted. An exception might be when you are being introduced to a friend's social circle. Try to pick up on social cues as offered by the people you are meeting. If the situation is social and the party you meet treats you informally, try to determine why they are being familiar. Is it because that person wants you to feel relaxed and within an accepting environment (then feel free to respond with tú)? Or is it that the person is much older than you are and has the social option of being familiar (in this case, it's best to stick to usted)?

If the situation warrants it and you want to break the ice, encourage the person you meet to treat you informally—if this person requests that you do likewise, go ahead. If the person does not reciprocate this request, be straightforward and ask how the person prefers to be treated. Ask if you may address the person informally, and be prepared for any answer. There is nothing wrong with requesting familiarity as long as you do it formally and don't respond negatively to either answer. Here are some examples of what you might say:

Me permite tratarlo/tratarla a usted de tú? Do you permit me to treat you in the familiar? Me permite tutearlo/tutearla? Can I use the familiar form of address with you? Lo/La puedo tutear? May I use the familiar form of address with you?

Common Courtesy

Respect or courtesy (la cortesía) may be expressed in a variety of ways. In addition to the formality within verbs, you will find courteous titles similar to the ones used en inglés (in English).

Formal Titles

señor García Mr. Garcia señora Robles Mrs. Robles señorita Sánchez Miss Sanchez

As en inglés, Spanish uses abreviaturas de cortesía—notice that these abbreviations are capitalized, whereas the full words are capitalized only at the beginning of a sentence.

Formal Title Abbreviated

Sr. Mr. Sra. Mrs. Srta. Miss

When addressing a person directly, it is customary to simply say the appropriate title followed by the person's last name:

Cómo está (usted), señor Smith? Buenos días, señorita Salgado. How are you, Mr. Smith? Good morning, Miss Salgado.

However, when speaking about someone or when identifying yourself and others by title, the definite article is used appropriate to the person's gender:

La Sra. Menéndez vive en Lima. Yo soy el Sr. Gómez. Mrs. Menendez lives in Lima. I am Mr. Gomez.

There are two other forms of address that you may come across: don and doña. Though once used as a title for nobility and land ownership, in many regions don and doña have simply replaced señor and señora. In some regions, the term doña has evolved into a criticism of sorts, equivalent to a “gossip” or a “busy-body.”

Politeness in Conversation

When you start a polite conversation, you can rely on one of the following greetings, depending on the time of day. You'll find these quite versa- tile—they may be used in both formal and informal situations.

buenos días good morning (before noon) buenas tardes good afternoon (between noon and dusk) buenas noches good night (after dusk)

By its very nature, polite speech is very structured and almost formulaic. In addition to a universal greeting, a typical encounter will likely include the following query and response:

¿Cómo está (usted)? How are you? Bien, gracias. ¿Y usted? (I am) well, thank you. And yourself?

The following is a simple dialogue to help you practice what you have learned so far. The conversation is taking place at a conference; Linda Rodríguez and Alonso Calderón have never met before.

Linda: Buenos días, señor. Good morning, sir. Alonso: Buenos días. Yo soy el Sr. Calderón, Alfonso Calderón. Good morning. I am Mr. Calderon—Alfonso Calderon. Linda: Linda Rodríguez, con mucho gusto. Me permite tutearlo? Linda Rodriguez, nice to meet you. May I address you informally? Alonso: Sí. ¿Y yo la puedo tutear también? Yes, and may I address you informally too? Linda: Sí. ¿Cómo estás? Yes. How are you? Alonso: Muy bien, gracias. ¿Y tú? Very well, thanks. And you? Linda: Muy bien. Very well.
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