“Tú” or “Usted”?

tuteo2Approaching strangers in Spanish may leave you a bit tongue-tied at first. If you are like I am, you might hesitate, while you figure out whether to use “usted” (you, formal) or “tú” (you, informal). English, offers us only one choice: “you” and others languages, like French and German, make it clear that the formal “you” is a given, unless you know a person well. In Spanish, rules are not so clear cut, so a decision on the spur of the moment.

There is also a generational gap: Young people today always call each other “tú” (or “vos”, depending on country or region) from the minute they meet. We call this “tuteo”.  On the other hand, older generations have been known to refer even to their parents as “usted” when they were children. For the most part, older adults still use the formal “usted” to refer to people they just met who are also adults. In fact some of the older generations refer to everyone who is not a close friend or family member as “usted” and reserve “tú” for children and young people.

So, how do you know when to use the formal or informal “you”? As a rule of thumb, it is polite for a young person to address elders and persons in a position of authority, like a boss or a professor, with the formal “usted”. Young people and children are “tú” or “vos”. When in doubt, however, it is better to err on the side of being too formal, than the opposite. An older adult may prefer to be called “tú” by a younger adult, and in that case he or she will ask the younger person permission to use the tuteo, or informal address.

A service provider, such as a waiter or waitress, house-keeper, retail clerk, etc. always refers to customers in the formal and customers should reciprocate, as a sign of respect.

Corporations often choose to use the informal in internal communications, but the formal in all external communications. Of course, one can get around this by using “ustedes”, the second person plural, which may be used in both contexts. In line with this, translators should check with clients regarding the company culture for translations into Spanish of technical and marketing documents and user interfaces. The use of the infinitive of the verb is a very good way to get around having to ponder about formal or informal forms of address. “Connect” may be translated as “Conectar”.

There are regional and national differences also. In Spain, a group of people would be referred to as “vosotros”, or the informal, plural “you”. However, “vosotros” is almost never heard in Spanish speaking America, where the expected form of address for a group of people is “ustedes”, the formal. However, in some areas of Spanish-speaking America, the “voseo” is common.

What is “voseo”? In ancient Spanish, “vos” was used as a fictitious plural and a courteous form of address, like the French “vous”.  The idea was that addressing someone in the plural elevates his or her stature. In English, monarchs use the royal “we” for the same reason. In Spanish, “vos” evolved into the dialectal form of “tuteo” known as “voseo” that is common in some countries of Spanish-speaking America, like Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, Guatemala and El Salvador, among other countries of Latin America.

In Argentina, “tú” has been almost completely replaced by “vos” and a modified inflexion of the verb:

Spain (you know):

vosotros sabéis que vosotros  sabéis vosotros habéis sabido

 Argentina (you know):

vos sabés que vos sabés vos habés sabido

Examples from the Web:

¿Qué tenés que saber para….?  http://www.espacioliving.com/1280237-que-tenes-que-saber-para armar-una-bodega-en-tu-casa
Mostrále al mundo quien sos y que haces!!! https://www.facebook.com/AGMarketingUY/posts/772945219387027
Consultá, contractate, encontrá lo que buscás    http://www.clasificados.clarin.com/empleos/

Five recommendations for selecting “usted” or “tú” when meeting strangers:

  1. Older person to young person or child: “tú”.
  2. Older person to person of the same age: “usted” (Better to err on the side of being too formal at the start.)
  3. Young person to equally young person: “tú”.
  4. Service personnel to customer: “usted”.
  5. Customer to service personnel: “usted”.