Imagine meeting your Latin American parents-in-law and not knowing if you should use an usted (you) or tú (you) when speaking to them. What if you sound disrespectful? Or imagine saying usted to a friend and hearing him laugh at you. What was so funny? If you’re learning Spanish, you might have made some mistakes with “you” in Spanish. Even talking to your language teacher might be confusing, because you might not know which pronoun to use, and don’t want to sound rude.
That’s okay. It’s a common problem among English speakers because in English you only use “you” to refer to someone. It doesn’t matter if that person is close to you or not. But if you want to improve your Spanish, we’ll explain when to use usted and tú. This will give you more confidence when talking to a native Spanish speaker!
Usted vs Tú vs Vos vs Vosotros
There are countries, such as Argentina and Uruguay, that prefer to use vos instead of tú. The meaning is the same though: the second person singular. To speak in a more formal way, they use usted.
In other countries where they prefer tú, they also use usted in a formal way.
In Spain they use tú and usted for the second person singular (you). But they use vosotros / vosotras to refer to the second person plural (think you all, you guys, y’all, etc) in an informal way, and use ustedes in the formal way.
The other countries only use ustedes as the second person plural.
When to Use Usted and Tú
The first thing to have in mind is that tú is less formal than usted. That will save you in many confusing situations.
You use usted when you’re speaking to someone that you don’t know very well. For example: “¿Usted es nuevo por aquí?” (Are you new around here?)
You also use usted with older people, since it’s a sign of formality and respect to your elders. You also use this pronoun when speaking to all kinds of authorities; if not, you could sound disrespectful. So, remember to use usted when speaking to a teacher, a police officer, a boss, or someone in a position of power. For example, reporters about to cover a press conference with a politician, refer to him/her as usted.
If you’ve ever studied abroad, you might’ve heard students talking to their teachers with a tú. Though children are always taught to use usted with teachers, nowadays teens and young adults sometimes prefer to use a tú. It depends on the professor, how serious he/she is, and if they let you use that pronoun. But it’s always better to address an educator in a formal way first and let them tell you to use tú later if they prefer it.
You use tú when talking to kids, friends, romantic partners, and people that you know very well and have an informal relationship with.
It’s also fine to speak to other people your age using this informal way of speaking, even if you’re meeting them for the first time. Especially among young people, you’ll hear a lot of tú, even when they don’t know the other person very well yet.
Here comes a tricky aspect: when talking to a family member, you usually use tú. But some people, depending on the state and on how traditional the family is, use usted. If the family is more conventional, they might find the tú disrespectful. For others, though, it is not rude. So, sometimes you will hear some kids saying tú to their parents, but others will say usted. If you are new to the family, like a son-in-law, it’s best that you stick to usted. For Americans, you can hear some families say yes, ma’am and yes, sir to their parents, so it’s something like that.
In the same line of thinking, you’ll also hear people from other states, towns, the countryside, or with a traditional education using usted with everyone. No matter if it’s a friend, a boyfriend, or how close they are to the person. For them, usted is the way to go, due to the respect and formality that it shows.
If an elderly person is talking to you, no matter your age, they might always use the formal way of speaking, because they prefer that. For example: “Usted es un joven muy inteligente.” (You are a very intelligent young person).
Immerse Yourself in the Spanish Language
This topic can be complicated because of the many types of relationships that exist. There are romantic relationships, friendships, boss-employee relations, colleagues, business relations, classmates, and more. But it’s not a reason to be afraid of speaking Spanish. You just have to remember the golden rule: usted is formal; tú is informal.
If you’re still insecure about this topic, watch some international shows, read some books in Spanish, and immerse yourself in any kind of Spanish activity. That way, you’ll absorb the way people speak with others. You can also sign up for TruFluency’s Spanish classes. Our teachers are native speakers, so that will help you understand the pronouns, improve your conversational skills, and more. You’ll learn useful things and become fluent. Take a trial class now!