If you hail from a language without formal and informal forms of you (like modern English), you’re probably perturbed by having to navigate complex distinctions of friendship and respect in just about every Spanish sentence.
The good news is that this subject can be just as vexing for Spanish speakers.
Exactly how old do “older” people have to be to merit the respect of usted (the formal “you”)? If you’re in a new job and people seem to be using tú (informal “you”) between themselves, should you just immediately use it with everyone too?
There’s no right answer to these questions. The answers vary and depend on personalities, regions and the subtleties of the situation. The most perfect Spanish speaker in the world is bound to offend someone at some point due to these levels of formality.
On the other hand, the distinction can also be one of the pleasures of Spanish. I love that I can cling to usted, for example, with someone who’s being too friendly and with whom I don’t want that sort of relationship (this is particularly useful if you’re getting unwanted advances from someone). Tú can be useful for the converse: to indicate that a relationship has gone beyond the business at hand and become more social.
An Intro to Spanish Second-person Pronouns
In Spain, the singular second-person subject pronouns are tú (informal “you,” one person) and usted (formal “you,” one person).
The plural forms are vosotros/vosotras (informal men or mixed groups/a group of all women) and ustedes (formal, group).
Latin America is the same, except that vosotros typically isn’t used. Ustedes is used for the plural “you” in all cases.
In certain parts of South America, vos is standard instead of or in addition to tú. Vos is sometimes also seen as a formal second-person pronoun in old books, so you should know this to recognize it—but you’ll never actually want to use it in that way.
Each subject pronoun also has a different corresponding object pronoun, just like the English third-person:
She [subject] praised him [object].
We don’t say “she praised he” because we have a different object pronoun for the third person: “him.”
In Spanish, this shift happens with the second-person (you), as follows:
- Tú —> te
- Vosotros/vosotras —> os
- Usted —> le
- Ustedes —> les
Te digo algo. (I’m telling you [object, informal, singular] something.)
Tú or Usted?
1. When to Use the Informal Register in Spanish
- Children and animals: This is a pretty easy rule. No matter the situation, if you’re addressing children or, for some reason, speaking Spanish with animals, you should use tú.
- Fellow young people: If you’re a teenager or an early twenty-something, use tú in pretty much any situation where you’re speaking to people your age. Those who, like me, aged out of our mid-twenties in a Spanish-speaking land, remember the horror of the first few times we were addressed in the formal second person by some 18-year-old.
- Friends/family: People who you’re close to are addressed with tú. Likewise for people who you’re just social with. It can be a bit more delicate for people who you’ve just been introduced to, friends of friends and that sort of thing. If you’re not sure, ask (see below, “when you’re not sure”). However, people who insist on usted in such cases aren’t really worth getting to know further, in my very personal opinion.
- Insults: If you’re cursing someone out in the street for driving his car in a bike lane, it would be strange to use usted.
- Work colleagues whom you know well: This one depends strongly on company culture. In arts organizations or non-profits you’re more likely to use tú with everyone, whereas in a bank, usted.
2. When to Use the Formal Register
- Older people: If you’re a child or a teenager addressing an adult, use usted until you’ve been invited to do otherwise. Adults will probably address you with tú, but nobody said life is fair, as the saying/offhand excuse for oppression of the young goes.
- Bureaucratic situations: I’ve personally addressed the Spanish taxman with tú, but I was in Catalonia (see “Variations” below). In most jurisdictions that would be a crazy thing to do. In general, you should use usted in all legal, bureaucratic and administrative situations.
- In business: Within your company, follow the corporate culture. When dealing with those outside of your company in business contexts you’ll definitely use tú. Bosses used to be able to address underlings with tú but this is now considered pretty ugly. If there’s a difference in assigned power roles, you might use usted just to be safe and show respect, both to those whom you manage and those who manage you.
- With people you don’t know: If you’re speaking to someone on the street for directions, or anyone who you don’t already know personally, use usted.
3. When You’re Not Sure
In most borderline cases, you can cause more offense by being too informal rather than too formal, so go for usted. You can also just ask. As a non-native speaker, especially, you can plead ignorance and learn from the situation. The phrase to use is:
¿Nos podemos tutear? — Can we use tú?
4. When There Are Variations
- In bilingual Catalonia, even when people are speaking Spanish they almost never use the formal register. Here, you can stick to tú and vosotros. This is probably due to influence from the Catalan language, which has (several!) formal registers but doesn’t really use them. The only exception is that an elderly person can be addressed with usted as a sign of respect, but you should only use this with someone who’s truly old (and considers himself so!), otherwise you risk causing offense by labeling them old before his time. It’s similar to offering an older person your seat on the bus before he considers himself old enough to need it.
- You’ll hear usted/ustedes more readily employed by the many Latin American expatriates living in Barcelona.
- Latin America tends to see much more formality than Spain in general, for example, between customers, store owners and in business relationships.
- Chile has a lovely quirk: Between close sisters, lovers and others in an extremely intimate relationship, usted is sometimes used. In this case it isn’t formal but rather a sign of caring, like a pet name.
- On the other end of the spectrum, there are some regions of Latin America where only usted is used, and you’ll hear it even between a mother and a child, without this meaning any formal relationship.
Pay attention as you go, and handle registers with care
Have you noticed how difficult it is as an English speaker to remember the genders of objects in Spanish? (That’s la mano — the hand, feminine!) This is because we come from a language that has no such distinction, so it’s not something that we intuitively place importance on listening for and learning.
The same is true for formal vs. informal register. We need to force ourselves to be always actively listening for the distinction, so that we know in which register to respond and so that we can learn from new situations.
This post provides guidelines but can’t cover every possible case.
As you continue to experience and learn the Spanish language, remember that you’ll need to force yourself to pay attention to register until it starts to seem natural to you. It’s normal that you’re going to want to focus on other things in the sentence—like who is doing what to whom?—but register is also an important part of communicating.
You’ll find that in Spanish, the distinction between tú and usted constantly gives you useful information about what’s going on and how you should respond.
Mose Hayward has spent years living in Barcelona and Latin America. He blogs about “20-minute fluency” for polyglots, as well as drinking, dancing, and romance for travelers, at TipsyPilgrim.com.
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