When I was studying Spanish in school, we learned that tú is for people whom you address by their first name, and usted is for people whom you'd address with an honorific (e.g. if you would call someone Pedro you'd use tú in speaking to him, but if you would call him Señor Alvarez you'd use usted). But here in New Mexico at least I find that's not entirely true. It seems that here usted is for those who are older or in a higher station than you are, even if you'd address the person by first name (I learned this when I got reprimanded - in a friendly fashion - for addressing an older lady as tú because I always called her Teresa). What are the rules - for Latin American, and specifically Mexican/southwestern US, Spanish - with regard to tú and usted?
- Robert McKay
Well, I think you could use as a guideline that if you address someone with an honorific, you should use usted. (If you use an honorific, you probably want to show respect!) However, the fact that you are familiar with someone on a first-name basis, doesn't mean that you should use tú. See, in much of the Spanish-speaking world, usted is used in both formal and informal situations.
Let me explain you better. Usted is not only a formal way to address people...It is used to show respect or maintain a certain distance with any person. In this order of ideas, you should use usted with:
- someone you don't know well (age and title doesn't matter here!)
- an older person (yes, we address older people with usted to show respect)
- an authority figure (your boss, your teacher, a policeman, a senator)
- someone who you know but your not close to him/her (for example, a neighbor)
- someone whom you would address by their title (e.g. Dr.Rodríguez, Sra. López...)
- anyone to whom you wish to show respect
So, you should use tú to addres:
- a friend
- a peer / colleague
- a relative (Only if he/she is not older than you. i.e. You would use usted to address your uncle, whereas you would use tú to address your cousin)
- a child
- a pet
As I mentioned above, there are some local variations. For instance, in Guatemala it is common to find men addressing women with usted (and vice versa) unless they're very close or they are rather outgoing, overtly expressive persons.
If you're in doubt whether to use the familiar or formal "you", use the formal one unless you're told it's OK to do otherwise. There's no problem with using usted all the time, People will just think you're really, really polite. And those who don't want to be address that way will usually tell you "Please, address me using tú" ;-)