¿Cómo está usted?

How are you? Easy question really. I don’t have a problem answering. Neither do my students—“I’m fine, thank you” is their automatic response to my daily question. But recently I got to thinking about usted, tú, and the lack of formal English.

English used to have another way to say “you.” If you have attended church, you might recall the word “thou” or “thy”—“Our Father, who art in Heaven … thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” Is this ringing any bells? You see, English used to have a formal and informal tense. “Thou” was informal, whereas “you” was formal. Thus, “thou” and “thy” and “thine” were used with God, because was meant to be seen as a close friend and not some distant deity. In the same way, the Spain Spanish Bible uses “tú” when talking to God, and the apostle Paul addresses the people in the “vosotros” form rather than the “ustedes” form, trying to be as informal and friendly as possible.

In the past, I am almost sure, “usted” and “ustedes” were used more frequently in Spain. In fact, my husband assures me that his parents actually addressed their parents as “usted,” a fact I find both mind-boggling and extremely interesting from a linguistics standpoint. I heard my mother-in-law talking to her aunt one day, her aunt who is also her godmother. “¿Cómo está, tía?” she asked. “Queremos visitarla muy pronto.” Of course, that’s not her exact quote, but you get the gist. It struck me as extremely odd, having heard Mario refer to his parents as “tú” and “vosotros” the whole time I’d known him. I referred to his parents as “tú” almost from the first time we met.


Jesús has always been “tú” for me

I met them in November 2009, and, I admit, I was very anxious to do so. I wasn’t sure how to refer to them, if I should tutear them, but Mario assured me that I should. In fact, I’m not sure I could even have used usted; I was so not used to using that form, having lived in Spain for quite some time. Since that time I’ve learned the use of the formal form is very contested in places like France or Germany. Since then, I’ve come to feel quite comfortable, quite natural when I address my father-in-law in the tú form. I’m not sure how I would act otherwise.

For me, using “usted” is quite difficult. I struggle to use it, because it’s not a daily thing for me. When I hear someone address me in “usted,” I often am not sure if they are talking to me or about a third person, because the “usted” form is the same as the third-person form. If a person from South American uses “ustedes,” I find myself baffled—who are they talking to? I understand how to use “usted;” my problem is putting it into practice. It’s not an everyday occurrence, and so I lack practice.

Maybe someday my Spanish will improve to the point that I am very comfortable using the “usted” tense; however, I feel that will be a long time coming. How about you? Are you accustomed to using the “usted” version on a day-to-day basis? What advice do you have for me or for others in my situation?

22 thoughts on “¿Cómo está usted?

  1. I have the same problem. If people call me ‘usted’, I look around to see who they’re talking to! I mostly just skip ‘usted’ altogether, but sometimes I try to practice it with my Latino friends here.

  2. In South America not so many people use “vosotros” because it is considered very direct, so instead they use “ustedes” with 3rd person plural verbs; though I’m not 100% sure in which countries this is the norm. In the South of Spain a lot of people use “ustedes” instead of “vosotros” BUT they put the verb in 1st person plural, if that makes any sense. You can hear it a lot in Seville, for instance! This is the kind of beauties languages create!!

    1. I think people don’t use vosotros because it’s just not used. Period. I have heard that some learn it in school, but it’s never ever used.

      I agree; it’s such a great thing to study and think about! I love languages. :)

  3. I completely agree. On paper I can use it perfectly, but speaking it comes about so infrequently for me I find myself automatically using tú instead. A teacher I work with this year addresses his (high school) students as usted and ustedes, which I find incredibly weird.

  4. Having grown up in Texas and learned Latin American Spanish, using “vosotros” is extremely awkward and strange for me, even though I completely understand it if I read or hear it. As a language assistant here in Spain, I only ever use “ustedes” when talking to the class (when I have to speak in Spanish, of course!). Today I did that and one of the kids giggled and repeated “ustedes…hehe” so I guess you’re right that it has really fallen out of use.

    But on the flipside, since remembering when to distinguish between “tú” and “usted” can be difficult, I have enjoyed reverting by default to “tú” whenever I talk to anyone. It’s quite a relief! I guess this means I should be saying “disculpa” instead of “disculpe” whenever I need to ask a stranger a question…hahaha

  5. Like you, I am more comfortable tuteando than using usted (and like you, I learned Spanish in Spain). I always addressed by boyfriend’s parents with “usted,” though and it never occurred to me not to do so. I think that’s a very individual thing though, and maybe generational (I lived in Spain in the 80’s).

    I will say, though, that when I had to handle some tough situations with, e.g. my crazy and inappropriately/uncomfortably friendly landlord, I found the usted form very useful: He would address me by “tú” and I would respond using the “usted” form, to maintain formality and distance. He sometimes pressed me to tutear, but I always stayed in the usted form, sending the message “you are not my friend” without actually saying so.

    Sometimes I wish we had this linguistic means of maintaining distance in English. We do it by other means (e.g. using “Mr.” instead of first name; by body language, etc.) but that language-based distinction between familiarity and formality is very useful indeed.

    And I always loved that God is tú and not usted!

    1. Definitely generational! I think in the ’80s “la cosa” would’ve been a lot different.

      I agree that we are lacking the distance thing in English. Curiously, in Spain, I find the students are lacking distance with teachers. They call the teachers by their first name and use the tú form. I don’t like it! I prefer saying Mr./Mrs./Ms. like in the US!

  6. It’s interesting. Using tú is more natural for me. I try to use “usted” when speaking with the parents of my students, but I have to really make an effort. I of course learned to speak Spanish mainly in Mexico, so ustedes comes more naturally to me. When speaking with Spanish friends, I understand vosotros, but again I have to make an effort to use it.

  7. I have trouble using “usted” too! At my last apartment in Madrid I lived with two Venezuelans, and it always weirded me out when they’d call my friends and I “ustedes,” or when the guy’s mom was over and she called me “usted”. It always felt so distant.

    1. Yeah, I agree — and I think that’s the point sometimes! I mean, Mario uses it when talking to customer-service reps here, and I like it! It’s distancing. That’s a good thing in that case, I think!

  8. Usted is hard for me for the same reasons — lack of practice etc. I still get a thrill when I use it correctly, especially multiple times in a(n inevitably short) conversation. Today I helped a little old lady open a door and after saying, “Espere, que le ayudo” did a private little happy dance… in my head.

  9. That’s funny because, and you may have done the same thing (I think a lot of Spanish-learners do), when I started learning Spanish I learned that you should always start out in the “usted” form until you and the person you’re addressing mutually decide to “tutear”, unless you’re speaking to a small child where you would definitely use “tú”; also, if they’re significantly older than you I learned that you definitely should use “usted” and that it won’t change, you’ll always use “usted” with them.

    Well, after having interacted with actual native speakers, mostly from Latin America, it was much to my surprise to learn that this is mostly wrong, most people use “tú” with each other right off the bat, though the rule about using “usted” with old people still applies in a lot of Latin America (e.g. if you’re meeting your boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents, you absolutely use “usted”). Now, Latin America is more conservative and old-fashioned than Spain, so it’s not become quite as informal, but it’s still very much headed in that direction.

    Personally, I think this is a good thing, as I see very little reason to have formal and informal speech like that, we don’t use it in English and we don’t need it. If you really need to make a point of showing respect, you just address them as “sir” or “ma’am”, that’s it, problem solved, no big deal.

    Kaley, are you saying you would prefer that we had something like tu/usted in English?


  10. I think the use of “you” in English is the same of “vos/vosotros” in classical Spanish (or nowadays in Argentine), 2nd person of plural used in courteous form for 2nd singular (as in French or Russian). Most of you are philologists and I’m sure you know the etymology [vuestra merced > usted & vuestras mercedes > ustedes], actually a 3rd person singular/plural, with the correct conjugation.

  11. Hey, i just found your blog and am really enjoying it, just to let you know that first of all. Since my native language (Dutch) also has two forms of you, formal and informal, usted was never such an issue for me. In most cases its really just a matter of adding an -s or not in the end. Even though i started out learning Spanish from Spain, the Spanish i speak now is very Argentinean – after having lived there a while. So for me, the problem isnt ustedes, but vosotros. It sounds weird, i always have issues with conjugating the verb and i simply dont use it haha. Even in Spain i refer to everyone as ustedes, but as the accent is very Argentinean i suppose people understand its a South American thing. At least ive never got blank stares or been laughed at… But then again i also say ‘vos’ instead of tú, and use that for pretty much everyone except old people. Spanish people seem to think its quite charming, but for some countries in Latin America where both tú and vos exist (not like in Argentina where its only vos), apparently using vos can be offensive in certain situations. The joys of learning a language… :p

  12. Growing up in Texas we were always taught to say “yes sir/ma’am” or “no sir/ma’am” so to me that is the equivalent of used. We also say “y’all” so that is our vosotros. ;-)

    Studying Spanish in High School and College we were never taught vosotros. They always skipped over it, saying it was not used much. We always conjugated yo hablo, tu hablas, el/ella/usted habla, nosotros/as hablamos, ellos/ellas/ustedes hablan. Obviously when I got to Spain I realized they did me a disservice by not teaching it. I understand vosotros only because it is so different that it is easy to recognize but I only speak ustedes back. Same goes for Argentina where I understand “vos tenés” or “sentáte” but I still say “tu tienes” or “siéntate”.

    Interesting topic, fascinating language. Just like vosotros, the way Spanish is spoken differently from country to country is also quite interesting. It is cool when you can recognize where someone is from by their accent. Thanks for the discussion and the great blog.

    1. Thanks, Austin! We are in the same boat, then, as I was also never taught vosotros. After a few years here, though, it’s second nature, and I actually can never remember to use usted when trying to speak to an elder, just because in Spain usted is not used all that much! But I’m slowly getting it, I think.

  13. let’s see,

    “tu” and “vosotros” are the informal second person singular and plural, and are the ones we use in Spain….however, some people from Andalucia use “usted” and “ustedes” as informal, but i warn you that much of the rest of Spain sees them as illiterates.

    In Spain you must use “usted” and “ustedes” only as formal just to show respect, as when addressing a policeman, your doctor, the elderly, or someone you don’t know….or even a family member who is older than you to show respect, that’s the reason Mario’s parents use it when addressing their parents, or Kaley’s mother-in-law addressing her uncle, but i tell you that using “usted” and “ustedes” within a family is becoming old-fashioned, dated and is disappearing. You only find it in families that still keep very old manners, as it seems to happen with Mario’s family, which is really good.

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