If you’re like me, you’ve taken a few years of Spanish classes in the U.S. before coming abroad and you’ve learned that there’s a proper time and place to use ‘usted’ and a separate time and place to use ‘tú.’ However, when you move to Spain you’ll start to get funny looks as you employ your use of ‘usted’ and perhaps even be lectured by strangers and elders—precisely who you were taught to use this form with—about how you should use ‘tú’ with them instead.
It’s enough to make your head spin when all you want to do is use your Spanish properly and yet natives keep telling you something different from the rules you learned. So what’s the right thing to do? Thankfully, you’ve got a fellow guiri here who has had the same prior education but also significant time spent in Spain so let’s talk about when Spaniard really use ‘usted.’
But first, a quick refresher on ‘usted’ vs. ‘tú’
If it’s been a while since you’ve sat in a Spanish grammar lesson, let me refresh your memory. Both ‘usted’ and ‘tú’ are the Spanish equivalents of the pronoun ‘you’ that can be used to replace the name of the person we are speaking to. ‘Usted’ is taught as the formal ‘you’ and ‘tú’ as the informal ‘you.’ Not only do these pronouns themselves differ but the forms of the verbs we use after them differ as well so, in any given sentence, the form you choose to use will be apparent whether you say ‘you’ explicitly or not.
¿Usted sabe dónde está el aeropuerto? or ¿Tú sabes dónde está el aeropuerto? or
¿Sabe dónde está el aeropuerto? or ¿Sabes dónde está el aeropuerto?
English translation for all of the above: “Do you know where the airport is?”
As previously mentioned, ‘usted’ is taught as the formal version meaning that this is the form that should be used with elders, superiors, professionals, and people we do not know. On the other hand, ‘tú’ is considered to be the informal version meaning we can use it with friends, family, and in other close relationships.
Of course, all of this formal vs. informal categorizing can be subjective so, in the United States, I was taught to err on the side of being too formal whenever in doubt. This used to make sense to me because using ‘tú’ felt a little bit like calling someone by their first name rather than by a title and their last name. In my personal opinion and upbringing, this is the correct way to address people outside of your close circle until you are told otherwise and so I simply aligned them in my mind.
However, Spain seems to turn all of that on its head
All that said, when I arrived in Spain I quickly picked up on the fact that that is not necessarily the way things are categorized in practice HERE*. Although my default when I arrived was to use ‘usted,’ I quickly changed to just using ‘tú’ from the get-go because that’s what everyone else around me seems to do. My understanding at this point is that, instead of viewing the ‘usted’ form as a sign of respect and esteem, Spanish people sometimes take offense (both comically and seriously), insinuating that you think they’re old and irrelevant when you use this form with them.
At first, this was quite confusing but I’ve since come to realize that perhaps the ‘usted’ vs. ‘tú’ decision is not equivalent to a first name vs. last name decision but more like using ‘usted’ is comparable ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’—it’s considered commonplace and good manners in some parts, but overly old-fashioned in others. I’ve certainly heard some women responding with “Oh no, no, no, I’m not a ma’am!” in the same way I’ve heard a similar exclamation in Spanish “Yo no soy ‘usted’—tutéame!” or, roughly, “I’m not an ‘usted’—speak in ‘tú’ to me.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that, for some people, using ‘usted’ feels cold. I’ll never forget when my study abroad program in Alicante explained to us that most of our host parents would be elderly individuals but that we should avoiding using the ‘usted’ form with them as they have received complaints about students doing so in the past. In this case, it was not necessarily about not wanted to be considered an ‘old person’ but because these elderly people were opening their homes and hearts to international students and they felt that, when they were addressed in the ‘usted’ form, these students were putting distance between them and not considering themselves to be a part of the family. Jeez, there sure do seem to be a lot of politics and nuances when it comes to these two forms!
So, when the hell do I use ‘usted’!?
This question still boggles my mind and I know I don’t always get it right. Just because I now know that the majority of people I meet (including friends of friends, people I work for, bankers, doctors, and strangers on the street) will likely address me in the ‘tú’ form I still have my doubts about when it is and is not appropriate to address them in the same way. I’ve asked this question time and time again to my Spanish-speaking friends and they always give me the ‘formal’ vs. ‘informal’ explanation written above. However, once I spell out a few real-life examples to them, they admit that there isn’t a clear-cut answer. All that being said, these are the main takeaways I’ve found:
Use ‘usted’ when…
You’re at someone’s office
You’re making a professional phone call or writing a professional email (may change after you know the person)
You’re speaking to a clearly elderly person (I find middle-aged men and women often call off my ‘usted’ usage, but little old ladies and men with canes who you offer your seat to on the bus are prime ‘usted’ candidates)
You’re a service provider (I notice that salespeople, hotel staff, etc typically use the ‘usted’ form with clientele)
Once again, all of this is subjective and you may find yourself in the above situations being told to ‘tutear’ the person you’re speaking to. On the other hand, I didn’t include many situations that may be a good time to use ‘usted,’ such as you’re speaking to a boss or professor, because in my personal experience it’s more common to use the ‘tú’ with these people. Like most aspects of culture, adapting to this grammatical difference that doesn’t exist in English is going to be a bit of a roller coaster. You’re likely to have a few occasions in which you probably should have used ‘usted’ but didn’t, and vice versa.
While I fully understand the desire to get it right, a big part of the process for me has been accepting that I’m often going to get it wrong. I’ll still do my best to be formal when the occasion calls for it, but I have my slip-ups from time-to-time. When it happens to you, simply take comfort in the reality that the person you’re speaking to probably realizes that you’re not a native Spanish-speaker and is therefore not going to take too much offense either way. At any rate, you can continue to err on the side of formality if it makes you feel better to make that mistake than to be too informal; simply be ready to be ‘corrected’ time and time again.
Hope it helps and feel free to drop us any questions or comments below!
*It is very important to note that the information I am sharing relates to the country of Spain specifically, not all Spanish-speakers. In the Americas, it IS much more common for natives to use the ‘usted’ form and this is often not even considered formal. For example, when I lived in Costa Rica, I noticed that my host family used ‘usted’ (or the Costa Rican ‘vos,’ but let’s not even get into that alternative) for pretty much everyone—their parents, their kids, and even their pets!