Although not as prominent as in Japanese, Spanish does have an interesting world of formalities. As a language learner, it is important that you are clear on what those formalities are. Let’s keep it simple. There is a formal and informal way to address someone in Spanish. The option you use will be determined by a number of factors, including: your relationship to that person, your age, and the other person’s age. If you are interacting with the person in a work setting, your position will also play a role.
If you are addressing one person only, your options will be to use the subject pronouns tú, usted or vos. Although you might hear vos on your travels, you will never actually use it. More on this later. If you are addressing a group of people, you will use vosotros or ustedes.
Let’s start with the use of the subject pronouns in the singular form.
Tú is the informal, second-person singular subject pronoun. The use of this pronoun is known as el tuteo and should be used to address:
- relatives, such as cousins
Parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are referred to formal or informally based on the country and on a family-by-family basis. In my Dominican family, for example, we have a very pronounced hierarchy where the parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles must always be shown a high level of respect. Therefore, usted applies to all of them. Although it can seem odd to you that children use usted with their parents (I do this with mine!), this in no way reflects the level of love and connection between parents and their children. This is also different in the United States, where the younger generations have more informal ways of addressing their parents and generally use tú.
Usted is the formal option of tú. You should use it with:
- your elders
- your boss
- your doctor
- your Spanish teacher 😉
- colleagues, but this depends on the country, the company culture, and the position of each individual
- strangers, generally older than you are
- anyone you are providing a service to
A store clerk, for example, should use usted with the customer. When travelling abroad, you should use usted with a stranger to whom you are asking directions and who also happens to be older than you. However, please make sure not to offend anyone who is young but perhaps at a crucial age where they are suddenly going from tú to usted.
In terms of the conjugation, usted is conjugated the same way as third person singular subject pronouns.
Is it reciprocal?
Not quite. A 60-year-old woman will probably use tú with a 30-year-old, but the latter cannot use tú with the older woman. An executive might use tú with his assistant, but the assistant should use usted with him. Someone who is providing a service to you should use usted with you. Out of courtesy, you can use usted with that person–a waiter at a restaurant, for example–but this is not entirely necessary.
Most relationships are not as equal as one can hope them to be. In Spanish, there is generally a person who is shown the most respect. Perhaps it’s your mother-in-law, your teacher or an acquaintance. Perhaps it is because they are older, wiser, or someone you really admire. Whatever the case is, never start with tú if you should be using usted. That is not your call. Also note that in some scenarios, it is not possible to use tú, such as in a hospital or a company with a standard protocol. If that person wants and can bring down the formality they will say “Tutéame.” They might even act like they are offended that you didn’t start out with tú. The minute a person says “Tutéame,” agree to it by simply saying “Muy bien” or “Perfecto,” and drop the usted form immediately. That person has the say. Listen to them.
I use vous, the French version of usted, with my French teachers. None of them have ever asked that I drop vous. I, on the hand, do not allow my clients or students to use usted with me. I’m interested in creating equal partnership and very strong bonds with my clients and students. I feel tú is appropriate because it allows them to see that what they provide for me is very important too, and that we are equals. Not all your Spanish teachers will be like this, however.
For those of you who were wondering, I’m sorry to say that unlike el tuteo (the use of tú), Spanish does not have a noun to refer to the use of usted. And it certainly does not have a word to tell someone to use usted with them instead of tú, which I’ve never heard of occurring and hope never to see!
The use of vos, known as voseo, is another form of tú used in many regions of Latin America, such as Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Colombia. In many countries, it is part of colloquial talk, while in others it is used in writing, publicity, and by the media. Vos is no longer used in the following countries:
- Dominican Republic
- Puerto Rico
Because tú is considered the standard way to address someone informally in second person singular, and because of the variety of uses of vos, language teachers do not teach vos to their students.
Vosotros and ustedes
Ustedes is second person plural. In other words, it is the plural version of tú. It is used all over Latin America. Vosotros is the same as ustedes, but it is only used in Spain. In very formal settings, Spaniards use ustedes instead of vosotros.
What you should be learning
I recommend you focus on the use of tú and ustedes when you first start learning the language. Most universities and language schools in the United States will also teach vosotros, but you will only need it if you travel to Spain, and even then, you will most likely only hear it, but will not need to use it. Keep in mind that in Spain, people address one another more informally than in Latin America, so you will also hear tú more often.