¿Qué tan importante es?

¿Qué tan importante es?


United States is much more relaxed these days when it comes to formalities in speech. Slang words are becoming more acceptable, even in business, young people call adults by their first names etc...

I'm wondering if the same is true in South and Central America, particularly when it come to the use of usted and tú?

Would it raise and eyebrow or shock someone if I was to make a mistake and address someone with the wrong pronoun? If so how much of a breach of etiquette would that be? Would I be considered very rude or just a little thoughtless?

updated NOV 28, 2013
edited by 0074b507
posted by elora
Thanks everyone for some terrific answers. I think I have a better understanding now of the importance of tu vs usted. - elora, AGO 15, 2009
I threw in a bunch of question marks and tú not tu - 0074b507, AGO 15, 2009

6 Answers


I received some very bad advice from my high school Spanish teacher (whose Spanish was not very good and which she almost never spoke), to wit, "Don't bother learning the "tú" forms because they're only used with small children and pets" When I spent the summer in Mexico, I was hanging out with other (late) teenagers and everything was "tú. It's true that, when speaking to their parents, they often used "usted" but not among themselves. Even if you have no need to use the form yourself, you will want to understand it when it's used by others.

When learning verbs, it only requires a tiny bit more effort to learn "tú" forms (and very little more to learn the forms for "vosotros"). So why not do it and be prepared for whatever comes your way? (The argument against learning the "vosotros" forms is somewhat stronger because that is almost never heard outside of Spain. On the other hand, if you ever expect to want to read Spanish literature, it may come in handy.)

updated NOV 28, 2013
posted by samdie
I received the same very bad advice, but I had one Mexican teacher who actually spoke it who was more helpful. At work I use the usted" form so little I actually wish I had never wasted so much time on it in the beginning of my Spanish-learning. - La_familiar, NOV 28, 2013

Let's say I was walking on the streets of Barcelona, wouldn't I use the "usted" form if I were asking for directions from a stranger? - Marianne- A

Marianne, not really. We use the "tú" form all the time.

However, as Lazarus has already mentioned, the "Usted" form is always more polite, but do not use it with young people, they will consider this very strange and they will even not appreciate this at all . Only really old people are addressed with "Usted" or formal circumstances.

updated ENE 13, 2012
posted by 00494d19
Thanks, Heidita, that's really good to know. - --Mariana--, AGO 17, 2009
So true! Because I was a teacher in Perú, my students tried to use "usted" with me and I was offended! I'm not that old! But it was kind of a compliment at the same time because it was a sign of respect. - Paralee, AGO 17, 2009

I recently spent time in Jarabacoa, Republica Dominicana. After months of studying and wondering if I would address everyone properly, I found out that they use the "tu" form exclusively. This is a mountainous region and somewhat separated from the rest of the country. This may be the reason they are so informal. Whatever the reason, I just wanted to point out that there are some places where the tu/usted issue doesn't even exist.

updated OCT 8, 2010
posted by Nicole-B
tú form tú/usted - 0074b507, AGO 15, 2009

In Spain, I guess that unless you avoid people over 60 looking quite serious or distant, or those with a high social ranking, "tú" is fine, but "usted" is always more polite in formal contexts.

updated SEP 3, 2009
posted by lazarus1907
Let's say I was walking on the streets of Barcelona, wouldn't I use the "usted" form if I were asking for directions from a stranger? - --Mariana--, AGO 10, 2009
I would say yes it is good manners - kenwilliams, SEP 3, 2009

I was in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico a few years ago and stayed two weeks. I stayed with a Mexican family and specifically used the "usted" form for the ama de casa (an older woman) because I wanted to show my respect. She didn't correct me and suggest I use the "tu" form to address her, although she did correct me on many other errors in my Spanish.

I also noticed that we all used the "usted" form when addressing our Spanish teachers at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca and only one young guy, Hector, said "hey, you can use the "tu" form with me because I'm not that old!

updated AGO 17, 2009
posted by --Mariana--
Thank you for the link! This definately looks like something I would like to do! - elora, AGO 15, 2009
Oaxaca is a wonderful place and the school is terrific. - --Mariana--, AGO 17, 2009

In Argentina I found it very common for anyone to talk to complete strangers regarless of age or status in the 'voseo' (equivalent to the tu form).

The only people that you would use the usted form would be religious leaders or public officials (judges, police officers, etc.).

I couldn't speak for the rest of Latin America though.

updated AGO 10, 2009
posted by Nathaniel
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