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Tu vs. Usted


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This is a much more complex topic. There are no rules, as in, grammatical rules determining whether you should use one or the other, this is a pure cultural thing and it is very different from country to country. For example, Colombians use the formal Usted almost all the time, even when talking with their own family.

Here is how I determine the usage when I am talking in Spanish:


  • If the person is older than me, I use the formal tone. How old? That depends, but usually 5 years or more if I can determine it.
  • If the person is a figure of authority like a judge, a police officer I use the formal tone. You probably are also safer using the formal tone with your professors and teachers, and the person behind any counter.
  • In almost any type of work or professional environments I use a formal tone. Germans are much more into this, in Spanish speaking countries the rules are more relaxed.
  • If it is a child I use Tu, using Usted with a child looks weird and the child would be looking at you funny, unless you are his or her teacher

Now, for more nuanced situations:

You usually can't go wrong with Usted, as using the Tu may be seen as you taking to many liberties with a person that you just met, but, yet again, if you go with a formal tone you are also signaling that you want to put a distance between you and the other person.

Just like in German, you have to learn both.

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  • 4 months later...

Usted is used when you are speaking to an unfamiliar entity or when trying to show respect. T'u is used when the person being spoken to is a friend or family member. They both mean the same thing but one has a better sense of familiarity attached to it. For example, you wouldn't use usted on someone you have been friends with for years; it would seem a bit too formal to them.

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  • 5 years later...

Reviving this thread: Learning "textbook Spanish" in the US, I was taught "unfamiliar and familiar rules" for second person. But the second person has long bothered me in Spanish. After starting to research topics which interested me such as this, I realized that the "rules" for familiar and unfamiliar I was taught are nonsense. The use of the second person varies widely across the Spanish speaking world, even vosotro/as was spoken in Latin America "not that long ago". Anyhow there are many resources online, but here is an eye opening map of current second person "cultural usage" around the world, https://alturainteractive.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/tu-and-usted-usage-fixed.jpg-2.png

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