Tú vs. Usted: A Guide to Navigating Spanish Formality with Ease
One challenge of learning Spanish is knowing when to use tú (you, informal) or usted (you, formal).
You don’t want to offend someone by addressing them informally, but you don’t want to be embarrassingly too formal, either.
In this post, you’ll learn the distinction between these two words and when to use them and their verb forms.
With some study and practice, you’ll soon be able to focus on the meatier parts of Spanish conversation and avoid the internal “tú or usted?” debate.
- The Difference Between tú and usted
- When to Use tú
- When to Use usted
- Regional Variations
- And One More Thing…
The Difference Between tú and usted
In Spanish, we use the words tú and usted to refer to a person we’re talking to (these are the singular second-person subject pronouns).
Tú is used in an informal context when talking to a friend or someone you know personally. Usted is the formal version and is used to show respect, usually when talking to someone who’s older or whom you don’t know very well.
Here’s a review of all of the subject pronouns in Spanish:
|Spanish Personal Pronouns||English Personal Pronouns|
|Tú (singular, informal)|
Vos (used in some parts of Latin America)
|Usted (singular, formal)||You|
|Él / Ella (singular)||He / She|
|Nostros / Nosotras (plural)||We|
|Ustedes (plural, used in Latin America)||You (you all)|
|Vosotros / Vosotras (plural, used in Spain)||You (you all)|
|Ellos / Ellas (plural)||They|
There are many ways to study these words, but one of the most effective is to learn them in context. For instance, the videos on FluentU allow you to see native Spanish speakers using the language naturally. By learning vocabulary in context you’ll be better prepared to actually use them in conversation, as well.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Verb Conjugations for tú and usted
You probably already know that subject pronouns are hardly ever used when speaking Spanish. Instead, the different conjugations of the verbs are what indicate who the speaker is talking to or about.
Here are the present simple tense conjugations for tú and usted with a few common Spanish verbs:
|ser (to be)||eres||es|
|estar (to be)||estás||está|
|vivir (to live)||vives||vive|
|tener (to have)||tienes||tiene|
|bañarse (to bathe/to swim)||te bañas||se baña|
Each subject pronoun also has a different corresponding object pronoun. For tú, the object pronoun is te and for usted it’s le.
Te llamo mañana. (I’ll call you tomorrow.)
Le dijé que llegaría tarde. (I told you that I would arrive late.)
When to Use tú
Children and animals
No matter the situation, if you’re addressing children or, for some reason, speaking Spanish with animals, you should use the tú form.
Ya pasó la hora de irte a la cama. Ve a cepillarte los dientes.
(It’s past your bedtime. Go brush your teeth.)
¿Tienes hambre? Ya te doy la comida.
(Are you hungry? I’ll give you food now/soon.)
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.
Hola amigo, ¿quieres ir al cine más tarde?
(Hey friend/bud, do you want to go to the movie theater later?)
Cierto, eres el novio de Lily. ¿Cómo te llamas?
(Right, you’re Lily’s boyfriend. What’s your name?)
People who you’re close to or are social with are addressed with tú. 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, just ask.
Necesitamos ponernos al día. ¿Quieres tomar un café conmigo?
(We need to catch up. Do you want to have a coffee with me?)
¡Primo! ¡No te he visto en años!
(Cousin! I haven’t seen you in years!)
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 is more common.
¿Puedes ayudarme a organizar la inauguración de la galería?
(Can you help me organize the gallery opening?)
¿Puedo llamarte? Tenemos que hablar sobre la recaudación de fondos.
(Can I call you? We need to talk about the fundraiser.)
Not to encourage insulting people, but if you’re going to do it, it would be strange to use usted as it’s a sign of respect.
¿Qué te pasa? ¿Nunca aprendiste a conducir?
(What’s wrong with you? Didn’t you ever learn to drive?)
¡Cállate! Estoy tratando de ver la pelicula.
(Shut up! I’m trying to watch the movie.)
When to Use usted
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 it’s better to show respect and use the more formal form.
This is also true if you’re an adult addressing an elderly person or someone who’s much older than you.
Hola señora Cervantes, ¿cómo está hoy?
(Hi Mrs. Cervantes, how are you today?)
Profe, ¿de dónde es usted?
(Teacher, where are you from?)
In general, you should use usted in all legal, bureaucratic and administrative situations.
¿Podría decirme dónde se realizan las entrevistas para la visa?
(Could you tell me where the visa interviews are conducted?)
Por favor, avíseme si necesita algo más para procesar mi solicitud.
(Please let me know if you need anything else to process my request.)
Within your company, follow the corporate culture. When dealing with those outside of your company in business contexts you’ll definitely use usted.
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.
¿Puede reunirse mañana a las 10:00 en nuestra oficina?
(Can you meet tomorrow at 10:00 at our office?)
Por favor revise la propuesta y déjeme saber lo que piensa.
(Please review the proposal and let me know what you think. )
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.
Disculpe, ¿podría decirme qué hora es?
(Excuse me, could you tell me what time it is?)
Perdone, ¿está en la fila para pagar?
(Sorry, are you in line to pay?)
If you’re ever not sure which one to use, just used usted. It’s better to be too formal than too informal to avoid causing offense. 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?
These are some of the main regional variations in using the different second-person subject pronouns in Spanish:
- In bilingual Catalonia, people almost never use the formal register. Here, you can stick to tú and vosotros when speaking Spanish. The only exception is that an elderly person can be addressed with usted as a sign of respect.
- Latin America tends to see much more formality than Spain in general, for example, between customers and store owners and in business relationships. In some places, you’ll even hear it between a mother and a child, without this meaning any formal relationship.
- In some regions of Latin America, such as Argentina, Uruguay and parts of Central America, vos is used instead of tú. This alternative form comes with its own conjugation and is used in informal settings.
These are just some of the regional variations, and there can also be variations between people of the same region. For example, I know adults in Ecuador who always address their parents as usted, and others who always use tú.
If you’re going to be traveling or living in a Spanish-speaking country, it’s best to look up the specific usage where you’re going or ask someone who lives there if you can.
When you’re around native speakers, try to actively listen for the distinction between formal and informal registers, so that you know in which register to respond and can learn from new situations.
Eventually, it will start to feel more natural to you and you won’t have to think much before choosing how to address someone.
And One More Thing…
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