To tú or not to tú...

To tú or not to tú...


I have read all previous posts regarding the usage of tu and usted.

Clearly it is not as simple as a difference in familiarity, respect nor relative position determining whether tú or usted be used. It is also apparent that the use of usted and tú varies between cultures and subcultures.

Would native speakers take the time to offer their understanding or their usage of tú and usted, as well as specifiying exactly where they are from, their social background and any other factors that would help a non-native speaker try to get to grips with this ambiguous beast.

As a starter for 10:

I live in Bogotá.

My girlfriend, from a lower middle class background, uses usted when talking to her brother, her explanation being that they were not that close when growing up.

My male business partners, although good friends, tend to use usted. My girlfriend's explanation for this is that it would simply be gay, in the homosexual sense of the word, for these guys to tutear amongst themselves. The irony here is that marica is used in Bogotá as might be pal, mate, buddy, dude, bro etc. in many English speaking societies.

Another friend who tutears as you might expect with her friends, uses usted with her sister with whom she is very close. She tells me that this is out of the respect that she holds for her.

My girlfriend told me that it was, at one time, usual amongst the lower classes to only use usted as it was not know how to conjugate in the 2nd person plural familiar.

I've also been told that between people who normally tutear, using usted would signify annoyance, seriousness etc. Do other people switch between the use of tú and usted to signify different things? Would other native speakers understand the significance of someone addressing you with either tú or usted at different times?

It's a veritable minefield I tell you...

updated SEP 24, 2013
edited by afowen
posted by afowen
By the way, I want to show my appreciation for you ability to post a question that has been asked (and answered) a million times, in a fresh and interesting manner. Kudos! - Gekkosan, DIC 15, 2010
Thanks :-) - afowen, DIC 15, 2010

12 Answers


There are two factors involved in the use of tú vs. usted: regional use, and social custom.

For example, the Andean South American countries differ from most other Latin American countries in that they tend to use "usted" with friends and families - that's what you have observed in your Colombian environment.

Argentina is also odd, because it's the only conutry where "vos" is still used widely. Some other relatively small regions, such as Zulia, in Venezuela, also maintain the use of "vos".

In the rest of Latin America, and Spain, the basic rule stands: if the situation is informal, use "tú". Otherwise use "usted". Having said that, the tricky part of course is being able to gauge when a situation can be safely considered informal. This can be awkward even for native speakers. As an example, I consider that SpanishDict is an informal environment, and that all other Spanish speakers in the Forum are my peers - regardless of seniority, age, or gender. So I personally address all of them as "tú", and expect to be addressed the same way by everyone. So far nobody appears to be taking offense. grin

On the other hand, I have to speak with customer from different Latin American countries every week. Although there is a trend toward the informal in business communications, I can never tell whether a customer would feel more comfortable with the formal or the informal mode. So to be safe, I always start rather formally with "usted". If the customer switches to "tú"; I generally try it out to see if it sits well. Once or twice I have perceived that the other person did not appreciate my switch, even though they were still using "tú" when addressing me. So I continued addressing them as "usted".

The situation is about as clear cut as it is in the business world in the US, where the tendency seems to be to address people by their first name. I always start by addressing English speakers as Mr. or Ms. LastName, until or unless they switch to first name basis and /or ask to be called by their first name.

Sometimes, the Head Honcho of some big company in an expensive suit (say Mr. Richard Bigego) will address me by my first name. In those cases I always continue to address him (women don't seem to do this) as Mr. Bigego, never as Dick. In an analogous situation in Spanish, I'd continue to use "usted", even though he may address me as "tú".

Hopefully you're thoroughly confused by now. Else just ask me to repeat the whole thing, and I'll do my best to make it murkier! wink

updated SEP 19, 2013
posted by Gekkosan
Thanks for that. I've heard vos quite a bit in Costa Rica too. Would you, or have you ever witnessed someone switching from tú to usted when regañando anyone? - afowen, DIC 15, 2010
It does seem as if it might be more clear cut in the rest of the Spanish speaking world than here, in Colombia, según the responses so far... - afowen, DIC 15, 2010
Ha, I also reached the conclusion to tutear all at Spanish-Dict...as I would not address anyone here as sir or ma'am (since we're all a bunch of avatars). :D - webdunce, DIC 15, 2010
@afowen: Yes, it also works that if you are on usual "tú" terms with someone, you show your annoyance by switching to "usted". Regarding Colombia, I was there recently, and even though I was already reasonably familiar with their form of speech, I was... - Gekkosan, DIC 15, 2010
...thoroughly confused by their unpredictable (and inconsistent) switches between "tú" and "usted". In the end I resorted to sticking with "usted", even though I am on fairly friendly terms with some of the people I met there. - Gekkosan, DIC 15, 2010
Well, if i nail it here, I should be the veritable maestro when I take my tús and usteds to other Espanish speaking countries... - afowen, DIC 16, 2010

In Mexico is just like that... tú (informal), usted (formal)... and is used as you said, if it's someone I don't know... and older, I'd use usted, if it's someone I respect it's the same...

If it's someone I'm familiar with, or that I just met... but if it's about my same age I'd use "tú"...

The out of rule usage starts from Guatemala and down to South America... I've heard them addressing with "usted", all the time... and in many cases in which I'd use "tú"... so... there you have the demographic you need to ask...

updated SEP 19, 2013
posted by Tonyriva
By the way... I'm from Northeastern Mexico... - Tonyriva, DIC 15, 2010
Thanks, easy then when I go to Mexico - afowen, DIC 16, 2010

Old thread or not here is my take from living in Mexico.

My girlfriend, a mexicana, uses Ud. with her mother, but not with her brothers and sisters. She uses Ud. with doctors and government officials but not with her friends.

I find that the government almost always uses tú when talking to the public in written form, signs, announcements, etc. and Uds. when speaking in the plural.

Businesses also use the tú form in advertising and announcements.

updated SEP 19, 2013
posted by gringojrf
Does she use "usted" with you from time to time? Or the corresponding verbal form usted? Like " va a venir" instead of "vas a venir?" for example? - chileno, SEP 19, 2013
:) - chileno, SEP 19, 2013
No. I don't get any respect. jajaja. - gringojrf, SEP 19, 2013
Sure? Pay attention when she gets mad or extra lovely... :) - chileno, SEP 19, 2013
hahaha - chileno, SEP 19, 2013

I've also been told that between people who normally tutear, using usted would signify annoyance, seriousness etc.

Not that this answers any of your queries (which others have), and I don't get to interact with any Spanish-speakers, so take my comment in that light...

But, to me, the above would be very similar to two close people (say a boyfriend and a girlfriend) having a disagreement. And suddenly they are saying (with coldness in their voice), "yes, SIR" and "yes, MA'AM" to each other...thus bringing a cold formality to what once was a warmer relationship.

I had often wondered if Spanish-speakers accomplished the same thing by switching from tú to usted. I guess they can and do.

Also, I'm from the Southern USA, and a little comparison might help. Here, among some parts of my family (dad's relatives), it is considered very rude for the children not to address their parents as sir and ma'am (my dad, thankfully, broke with that tradition). So, there are these little spots in our culture where sir and ma'am are used in situations where most would not (it can vary by family). Keep in mind, that I've never heard of brothers and sisters addressing each other as sir or ma'am (except in cold sarcastic tones as mentioned above...usually when one or the other has acted like the boss of the other or when one has suddenly acted to formally to the other), but it would certainly be possible in certain family cultures.

Of course, I cannot comment with any depth on the whole usted - tu thing except to say that it was confusing to me until I realized that (as a general rule) I could use usted with people I would normally address as sir or ma'am and tu with everyone else (not that that would work where you are).

Apparently there can be some added regional depth to the whole issue...which I likely will never be in a position to encounter.


updated SEP 19, 2013
posted by webdunce
Sir and moreso ma'am is not used in the UK as it is in the UK. Sir and Miss is used to address teachers and also in uber and faux formal interactions such as between hotel staff and clients. - afowen, DIC 15, 2010
I rail at the fact that sir is so often mis-used in the US such as a cop addressing one as 'sir', supposedly a sign of respect, whilst openly treating one with no respect whatsoever... - afowen, DIC 15, 2010
afowen, I think cops ,because of procedure, have to Sir and Ma'am everyone regardless of context the way they have to Mirandize all arrestees. I'm employed by a hotel chain and it's procedure for me to SIr and Ma'am (Señor, Señora) all clients, even - - jaimetayag, DIC 15, 2010
- - as I'm kicking them out of their hotel room. - jaimetayag, DIC 15, 2010
Is it OK to tase someone so long as you call them sir or ma'am? :-) - afowen, DIC 15, 2010
I won't be the judge of whether it's OK or not, but it's about CYA (cover your a**). When the transcript of the episode is read, or the recording of the conversation is listened to, we employees want to be on the record for having spoken - - jaimetayag, DIC 15, 2010
- - to the "client" in the manner required by the guidebook. - jaimetayag, DIC 15, 2010

This is interesting, and I think one of those things you just have to start of with a simple model of in your head, and then tweak over time. I don´t think you can hope to learn every scenario ahead of time, nor avoid all mistakes, or compare across various languages.

I do remember being surprised by my very good friend´s Colombian wife. She had been traveling a lot, and so after I started learning Spanish, I didn´t see for for 6 or 8 months. I was indeed surprised to hear her use usted with me, not yet having heard Colombia was an exception to the sort of baseline usted-tú assumptions. And I knew her and the family well, having been in their wedding party. But she explained it was a sign of respect, and she used it even with close family. I´ve only heard her say tú with her daughter and husband. I don´t think because there is any less respect, but rather than all ceremony is tossed aside.

Otoh, another good Colombian friend and I only use tú. We´re about the same age, and maybe also playing a role, is that he´s a very left leaning artist, and ultra egalitarian. Not quite a communist, but not one who pays inherent respect, or much cares for class and title. Makes sense given his beliefs, despite him being Colombian.

This is a darn complex and nuanced topic, that much is for sure.

Buena suerte.

updated SEP 19, 2013
posted by rogspax
And yes, I know it´s an old thread, but it´s still interesting to those of us not around the first time. - rogspax, SEP 18, 2013

When I use usted the implication is we're not friends, family, peers, or equals. Whether or not I think you are my superior I will speak to you with elaborate courtesy. We're doing business, nothing more. I will call you Señor, Señorita, Señora, together with your last name.

When I use tú, it's the opposite. We're friends, colleagues, siblings, cousins, peers. We're at a party, or watching a sporting event. We use first names, or some rude nickname. We get drunk together. We pester each other with stupid text messages. Somos familia.

I know it's not usually this black & white, but for my job I have to speak with Spanish-speakers from all over the world and it's much more efficient to standardize my speech and err on the side of formality. I have to admit that I can't stand it when the people I speak to for work get too familiar with me and ask me personal questions. Of course I don't say anything, but in my mind it's, "como si fueramos amigos".

updated SEP 18, 2013
posted by jaimetayag

This isn't exactly the "tú" - "Usted" question, but I couldn't find a better place to ask.

In English, the word "you" is often used in an impersonal sense meaning people in general, and not anyone specific. As an example, in giving directions, one would hear, " You take a left at the first intersection, then you go 3 blocks."

Does Spanish ever do this as a substitute for the impersonal "se" construction?

My own training tells me I should say, "Se paga la entrada al museo aquí." But I heard recently a Bogotano say, "La entrada pagas, no es gratuito." This in reference to visiting the Salt Cathedral.

It struck me as unusual that one should pay to enter a cathedral, even though a tourist attraction, and also unusual that I should hear "pagas" in this instance.

Any native insight would be greatly appreciated.

updated SEP 18, 2013
posted by gmyers4
You may not get a response here. You can post this as a new question. - rac1, SEP 18, 2013
I´ve heard that a few times too, though not often. In English, we are really supposed to use ¨one¨ instead of ¨you¨ for the impersonal, but it is less common these days. - rogspax, SEP 18, 2013


updated DIC 25, 2010
edited by Ann-Frances
posted by Ann-Frances
Are you suggesting that tutearing represents a breakdown in manners? And, which may be related, that you should be introduces and Mrs. or Ms. InsertyourlastnamehereforIknowitnot? Being a gringo I can say pretty much what I like :-) - afowen, DIC 15, 2010
I totally agree with you on how children should be introduced to and address adults! - malcriada, DIC 15, 2010
I think it is an individual preference. I work in an elementary school, and I prefer that my kids call me by my first name. Maybe because my last name is a bit goofy, though. ;) - athegr8, DIC 15, 2010
Breaking down in that people do not err on the side of formality - Ann-Frances, DIC 15, 2010
My opinion is that everyone should be treated with respect unless they act as to suggest that is not deserved. I see no reason why someone should assume they deserve to be treated with reverence based on an age difference between the involved parties - afowen, DIC 15, 2010
"You must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left the harbour... - afowen, DIC 15, 2010
...and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about." Cheeky bit of Seneca for you :-) - afowen, DIC 15, 2010

From what I've experienced it is always best to "usted " until asked to "tutear".Especially as a new learner of the language.This has been covered well,I'll only add ,in my opinion is this.It is black and white,I like gringojrf's answer.

updated SEP 19, 2013
posted by heliotropeman

Well... I am definitely not a native Spanish speaker, but I find the tú/usted conundrum interesting and somewhat perplexing as well, so I'd like to toss my two bits in. I just read the short story "No oyes ladrar los perros" by Juan Rulfo, a Mexican writer. Most of the story is taken up by a father speaking with his son. Basically, the son is hurt and the father is trying to carry him to a small town where the son can get medical help. On the way, the father berates the son for all the awful things he has done. When the father is asking the son if he sees any signs of a town or hears any dogs barking, he addresses his son as "tú." When he is yelling at his son for letting his mother down and running with a bad crowd and killing people, he uses "usted." He keeps flipping back and forth between the two throughout the story, which takes place over the span of maybe half an hour. This would back up what people have been saying about using usted to indicate annoyance, I suppose. By the way, if anyone happens to read this and notices something wrong with my summary of the story, please feel free to point it out.

updated SEP 19, 2013
posted by quoththeraven
Oh, wow, this thread IS super old... oh, well... - quoththeraven, SEP 19, 2013

You'll have to check with people from Colombia, I'm afraid. I can tell you that in Spain "tú" is informal, and "usted" is as formal as using "sir" and "madam".

updated DIC 15, 2010
posted by lazarus1907
Is it as black and white as that? I remember a (Colombian) fiend of mine telling me that when she usteded people out of, to her, politeness, when in Barcelona, she received a frosty response, being told that to usted was a cold way of addressing people - afowen, DIC 15, 2010
I find it weird when I'm called sir or when people use "usted". Too formal for my taste. - lazarus1907, DIC 15, 2010

I use usted just out of respect, I think that is a perfect way to show your education and your good manners, however, I have some friends that think that saying is a way to show self-confidence and attitude, I don´t believe so because you can be educated and at the same time impose your attitude.

So, I use it for education with older people or with poeople that I don't know. I am from México city from a high-middle class.

updated DIC 15, 2010
edited by Dakie
posted by Dakie