Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tú vs. Usted

When I was studying Spanish in school, we learned that 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 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 because I always called her Teresa). What are the rules - for Latin American, and specifically Mexican/southwestern US, Spanish - with regard to and usted?

- Robert McKay

Hi Robert!

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. 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
On the other hand, is the familiar you. It demonstrates a certain closeness and informality. Although usage can vary with locality, in nearly all cases, it is used when addressing children, family members and good friends.

So, you should use 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 to address your cousin)
  • a child
  • a pet
Note there's also a disparity with the usage of usted/tú: A young person should address and old one using usted, but the old person would probably addres the young person using . The same may be true with boss/employee relationships, for example. Of course, among friends, the use of is mutual. And among strangers, the use of usted is mutual as well.

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 " ;-)

- Karin


Anonymous said...

Perfect explanation, very usefull even for a latin american spanish speaking like me.

Ari said...

Does anyone know if Iberian Spanish uses the word "usted"? Not "ustedes", mind you; just "usted".

martinuchi said...

Hola, yo no soy español, pero he estado en España muchas veces y además se ve mucha TV de España por acá. Por supuesto que "usted" se utiliza, y con el mismo sentido que en el resto de los países hispanoparlantes. La regla es que en general a las personas mayores y desconocidas se las trata de usted, si son menores se las puede tutear. También depende del lugar y la situación. La verdad que a veces es difícil la decisión,¡y sobre todo por teléfono! Saludos desde Uruguay.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot, Karin. Your explanation is perfect. I'm learning Spanish now and this explanation helped me greatly.

Anonymous said...

Spain uses usted and Ustedes of course. The difference is in how. While I agree with most of the guidelines on when to be formal or informal in language usage, I can't ever imagine having talked to my grandfather in the formal usted. In general I use it when I am speaking to a stranger. If I had to use usted on a boss longer than the interview process for getting the job, I would quit, lol...

Anonymous said...

None of the comments above seem to point a recent trend, at least in Mexico: "usted" is disappearing! 30 yrs ago you will never walk to a bank and expect the teller, or worse the manager to address you by "tu".. what an insult would be!!! Now it is very common, which I (in the mid 50's) find it kind of annoying from a 20's unknown person. Even BANAMEX, which I was just reading an AD, has all its website in the familiar "tu". So I would not be surprised if in another 20 yrs the USTED would disappear.

Anonymous said...

I am in 10th grade and I'm struggling with Ir and Estar verbs. One of the Ir verbs was Usted, ella,el so I am supposed to use va for these. I feel like I am trying to do the impossible. So, this helped me alot on learning the word.

write-in-christ said...

such a clear explanation, Karin. thanks so much!!!

martinuchi said...

I disagree you would use 'usted' when addressing a senior relative. That's very old fashioned. I don't think you would address your uncle or grandfather that way anywhere in the spanish speaking world nowadays. There was a time when you would address your parents as 'usted', but those times are long gone. As a general rule, if you can't decide, use 'usted'. You can switch to 'tú' immediatly if you feel you're being too formal!

Karin said...

You are right Martinuchi: nowadays it is quite common to address your parents using "tú", if you're close to them, and they feel comfortable with it. However, I still see in the everyday life how people address their aunts and uncles using "usted", and to their parents as well if they are very traditional.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Karin.
I brought this up today at my sons' school, which is a dual immersion school. I am bothered that the students use "tu" with their teachers. Maybe it's becuase they are imitating their teachers who are using "tu" with them, but I still think they should be taught to use "usted" with adults in authority.

When I brought this up with the school, I was told that maybe it was because "usted" is being phased out. While I understand that this might be true in some countries like Spain and Chile, perhaps, I don't know that it is the general rule here in the US or in CA, where most of our contact with native speakers is with Latin Americans.

I'm interested in your opinion on this.

martinuchi said...

Karin, I'd like to know where you live, because I've only heard children addressing their parents as "usted" in venezuelan soap operas. I think it's better to address any senior unknown person as "usted". This is sometimes difficult for me as a native spanish speaker, so I guess it's much harder for a foreigner. There was a time when people addresses their teachers as "usted" and I remember it very well. I don't know how much effort can be actually done to stop the change. Most likely, "usted" will disappear in the long term.

Karin said...

Indeed, many students -who now belong to a new generation- are using "tu" to address their parents and their teachers. Of course, this depends on the parent or teacher personality. Friendly personalities are most likely to fit in this pattern.

In business, however, using "usted" is a sign of respect. And even then, some salesmen like using "tu" or "vos" if they feel like they can become friends with their clients.

Unknown said...

Another fairly detailed article on the topic here: http://wordsinside.com/pw
.. includes: "Interestingly, in areas of Andalusia usted/ustedes may be used in family situations, coupled with the verb form that corresponds to tu/vosotros - an adaption of usted for informal use."
... and ... "Many older people do not want to be addressed as usted, mainly because it would make them feel 'old'."

Chat 24 Seven said...

I have a sign posted on my newsfeed on Facebook can you interpret what it reads: USTEDES DEBE TENER UN PERMISO PARA JUGAR EN ESTE CAMPO

Anonymous said...

I am Mexican and the word Usted is still used for the most part througout Mexico. You address Tu with people you know well, your friends, co-workers, or young people. Usted is used to show respect. I do notice that the word usted is mostly used with Indigenous people in Mexico when the Spanish in authority didn't let them address them with disrespect. They carry on with the learning of using Usted among parents and children which is good to their children as they learn to show respect to their elders and authority figures.

Anonymous said...

Remember it kinda like you adult person that is not in my family whomever must show respect

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


- the grammar is a little off
DEBE should be DEBEN


iuhgg said...

I'm new to Spanish language (I speak English and French).
In french, if you want to show respect to someone, you use the second plural "Vous" equivalent to "Vostros". And we use it quite often when we address a girl/female (i.e. Vous ete tres belle--> You are very beautiful). Does this stand for Spanish? do we use "Usted" when addressing female?
And one more thing, if the spanish verbs always imply the subject, why do we need to use tú or usted?
(i.e. Bebes te; we dont have to say Tú bebes te)

wordsinside said...

In Spain, talking to a (young) girl you would say: "Eres muy guapa". If you addressed her as "usted" she would probably not like it, as it could imply that she were older.

On the second point, you don't generally need to use the pronoun, as in the above "eres muy guapa" you don't need to say "tú" except to differentiate, for example "tu hermana es guapa pero tú eres muy guapa". With usted you need to use the pronoun more often to avoid confusion. For example with just "es guapa" - who or what are we talking about?

eternal gospel said...

How would you say "I love you" to a parent that you use Usted with?

Also wanted to comment that the decline in the use of Usted is a worldwide epidemic of a decline in respect. Children in the U.S. used to always address adults as Mr. and Mrs., now it's almost an insult when your kids DON'T use first names with adults. I taught my kids to always say Mr. and Mrs. and this has led to some very uncomfortable situations where my adult friends get offended by it. It's along the same lines of kids not using usted.

Joe Roberts said...

Can someone explain why in Mexico, nearly all advertising (especially professional advertising as opposed to handwritten signs) uses "tu"? It seems counter-intuitive at first.

At least in Mexico, it seems to me, as a commenter far above said, that "usted" is much more rare than the descriptions of the original post would indicate.

Andy said...

Joe, it's about wanting to present a more modern, friendly image:

"Many companies use tu in their advertising, web-content and other marketing materials. In effect, this implies some existing relationship with the targeted individuals, and presents a younger, fresher image. Conversely, using usted might raise a psychological barrier, distancing that individual - probably not a desirable effect, yet possibly relevant to suppliers of luxury goods or services, or those specifically targeting older generations."

From: http://blog.wordsinside.com/en/pw/spanish-tu-usted-which