En español (in Spanish), you can’t address everyone the same way.
Whereas in English you may address everyone using “YOU”, in Spanish, there are TWO options for doing that: “tú and usted”. Each of them conveys a different level of familiarity with the person you are talking to.
If your mother tongue doesn’t have formal and informal forms of you, you might have been told that it is extremely complicated to grasp the complex distinctions of closeness and respect that go into the Spanish language.
But it's EASIER than you think! Keep reading to learn how and when to use TÚ and USTED, so you don’t come across as rude or overly polite.
In general terms…
TÚ es informal (Tú is informal), while Usted es formal (Usted is informal).
TÚ conveys familiarity and closeness, but USTED connotes respect.
We're obviously not saying that you don’t respect somebody you are familiar with, but you would use TÚ to address children, family members, someone who is younger than you are… and you use USTED to address a stranger, your boss, a police officer, your doctor.
The polite way to address somebody you have just met (unless it’s someone obviously younger than you are) is to use the form USTED.
¡Hola! ¿Cómo está? instead of ¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?
That doesn’t mean you will be stuck in the USTED-zone forever…
Tutear: using tú instead of usted
So, when do you transition from usted to tú? You don’t have to worry about it! THE OTHER PERSON will let you know…
We always start by addressing our interlocutors as USTED and, eventually and hopefully, they will say:
- ¡Háblame de tú! (Address me as TÚ)
- Puedes tutearme. (You may address me informally; You may use TÚ to address me)
Did you notice that there’s a VERB to say “you may address me as Tú?!”
We transition from USTED to TÚ, not the other way around.
De hecho (actually), it would be extremely rare that someone would correct you if you call them “TÚ” instead of Usted.
It's hard to think of an example, other than at school or before a public authority, where someone would ask you to stop using TÚ.
They might simply think you’re rude, but they will not say: “Háblame de USTED.” (Address me as Usted)
USTED may be used to mark distance
If you have already told the other person that it is okay si te tutea (if they address you informally), but the other person keeps on using USTED, they want to keep things formal.
There is an infinite number factors that determine when to use Tú or Usted: where you are from, when you where born, your own personal preference, etcetera.
For example, a Mexican Millenial rarely uses USTED to address their parents, but there are people who do because that's how they were raised.
USTED is so close to Sir and Ma’am that some people might even find it slightly offensive to be addressed that way. It makes them feel old… as if being old were a bad thing, but that’s another story…
TIPS TO REMEMBER, CHEATERS WAY TO LEARN
The easiest fool-proof way to know when to use TÚ or USTED is:
1. If you are on a first-name-basis with the person you are talking to, use TÚ.
2. As for USTED, think of it as the Spanish cousin of words like Sir, Ma’am, Your Honor, Mister and Mrs. If you feel like either of these forms of address would be best to express respect, use USTED.
Example: “Señor Presidente, buenas tardes. ¿Cómo está usted? (Good afternoon, Mister President. How are you?)
What about vos?!
There are many variations and differences in the usage of TÚ, USTED and VOS depending on the country or region.
In Argentina and Uruguay, for example, people use VOS almost exclusively, but there are parts of Colombia where people who are very close or even intimate use USTED.
While you should know that VOS is used throughout Latin America in countries like Costa Rica, Chile, Honduras, and Paraguay, you don’t have to worry about this too much because people who use VOS instead of TÚ understand perfectly and vice versa!
Five Spanish words that translate as YOU…
In Spanish, the English pronoun “you” may be expressed as TÚ, USTED, VOS, USTEDES, and VOSOTROS.
Ustedes and vosotros are the plural form of “you”, like “You’all” or “You guys”.
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