When should you use "usted" when speaking Spanish in Latin America?
When learning Spanish, one thing that non native Spanish speakers learn about is the difference between "tu" and "usted" when addressing someone else directly.
We are told initially that "usted" is more respectful and formal than "tu."
However, given we are foreigners to the culture in any Latin American country we visit, it could be the case that some of us gringos get confused initially as to when it is appropriate to use "usted" instead of "tu."
Who should get the "usted" treatment?
The family of your girlfriend?
The taco guy across the street?
That cute and only redhead Latina from Tinder in your new Latin American city that has big tits you want to fuck?
Maybe the stray dog harassing you?
............."Órele a su casa!!"
So on and so on!
Well, let me describe to you my experience, some thoughts on the matter afterwards and the general idea of who you should technically use "usted" for in the end.
My Experience Using Usted When Speaking Spanish
If I'm being honest, I almost never use usted for anyone.
While I can't remember for sure, I'm pretty confident I didn't use usted when meeting the parents of any Latin American girl I was dating.
When I go to the pharmacy to have a quick meeting with the "on site doctor" for whatever, I don't address them as "usted."
When I studied at two different universities in Latin America in Colombia and Argentina, I probably didn't refer to my professors as "usted."
Granted, it's been years since the first and third scenarios above and so I can't remember.
It wouldn't surprise me if maybe I wrote an email to one professor and somehow remembered to be more formal.
But that's the issue: I generally forget to use "usted" for such occasions because it doesn't really matter.
Not a single Latin American has ever given me shit or seemed annoyed at me not addressing them as "usted."
And, quite frankly, if some Latin American did try to correct me and insist that they want to be referred to as "usted," that'd rub me the wrong way.
Like who the fuck are you?
I'm usually pretty informal with people and have a more hostile idea to anyone demanding extra respect "just because" they are a doctor or some shit. You can suck my dick if you are like that.
But, having said that, I probably have referred to someone as "usted" when I'm interested in getting something from them and they are in some position of authority to help me out.
Though, like I said, the idea to use "usted" completely slips my mind in most social interactions and nobody gives me shit for it.
Not a hint of annoyance whatsoever.
Never an issue.
That's the summary of my experience anyway after living here for 7 years in various countries and involved in various social interactions.
But there are some other things to be said.
General Thoughts on Usted
So, like I said, I personally have never had anyone give me shit or be annoyed at addressing them with "tu."
However, there are some thoughts I've had with why this might be the case.
First, most people seem pretty chill anyway. Like I said, I just never met anyone who gave a fuck about this in real life.
Second, most people I personally hang out with these days are young Latin Americans around my age. I don't have a boss as I work for myself, I don't have any professors anymore and I almost never meet the parents of chicks I am fucking for most of them.
Also, I'm more commonly found in poorer or middle class areas of Latin America these days and your average person in a "barrio popular" setting is more relaxed than say a fresa of Polanco.
Though, even in Polanco, I don't think anyone would normally give me shit for not using usted but I'd bet you'd find it more commonly there than say in Iztapalapa.
Third, I could see some few Latin Americans trying to correct you on the "usted" that just want to practice their English.
The basic idea is that you do have some Latin Americans who will look for any flaw whatsoever in your Spanish and will shit all over it.
They're not actually trying to be helpful in "teaching" you Spanish or helping improve.
These types just want to shoot down your attempts to have the conversation in Spanish so that you can speak to them in English and they can get either 1) free English lessons or 2) a chance to show the world how "MUY MUY EDUCADO" they are for speaking some English.
So, if someone was to shit on you for using "tu" instead of "usted," this is one scenario that wouldn't surprise me if it happened.
I'm just trying to think of scenarios where MAYBE someone is annoyed at you for speaking to them with "tu" and this one wouldn't shock me if it did happen.
Fourth, obviously some people in any part of the world generally have a big ego and will get offended if not addressed properly.
Though, like I said, I haven't met any that get mad at me for not addressing them with "usted."
Fifth, as I think it through, it wouldn't surprise me if Mexican-Americans or Latino Americans in general that don't have perfect Spanish and are from the US get shit for this more than us non-Latino foreigners to Latin America.
The idea being that the expectation for them to know Spanish is higher and sometimes local Latin Americans give them more shit than they give us for various reasons. .
Sixth, going off on that, it should be said that the probably one of the bigger reasons why a Latin American won't give you much shit for not using "usted" is because they don't expect you to know Spanish as a non-Latino foreigner.
Though, in my experience, I have met the rare Latin American who is a pretentious cunt that insults me for my Spanish.
For example, I remember dealing with some migration lady in Uruguay when trying to get on a boat and she gave me shit and straight up mocked how I pronounced a certain word in Spanish after she asked me for my address in Argentina.
It's very rare though for a Latin American to be a cunt though about your Spanish by straight up mocking how you pronounce a certain word in your gringo accent.
But these people exist in every country and culture.
The types to demand you speak their language perfectly or "GO HOME!!" despite not speaking a foreign language themselves and not being understanding that my accent does influence how certain words are pronounced.
Having said all that, I'll repeat the main point here that, above all, I think your status as a non-native Spanish speaker gives you more legroom to not use "usted" when addressing people here.
The expectations are lower for you and a vast majority of people are understanding that, due to your non-native Spanish skills, the idea to use "usted" might simply go over your head, maybe you were not taught it and maybe you are not understanding of the cultural context in which to use it down here.
Seventh, there are some Latin Americans who see you in a higher place in society for being white and/or being from a "more developed" country like the US.
Not all Latin Americans obviously.
But some are like that.
That, due to your background, you are seen in their eyes as more educated, more well traveled, have more money, etc.
Of course, there are those who think the opposite and hate you for who you are or are suspicious of you anyway. Have negative stereotypes about you in their head or whatever else.
Either way, in some contexts, I could see how, for some Latin Americans, they would be less likely to feel that being addressed as "usted" is necessary if they have any self-hating going on or see you with more respect given your background.
Anyway, that's all I got to say for now on the topic.
Let's wrap this up.
So When Should You Use Usted When Speaking Spanish in Latin America?
Of course, every country is different in Latin America.
And even some areas of every country are very different in formalities.
For example, in parts of Colombia, it's not unheard of for people to use the words "su merced" like I wrote about here.
Putting that aside, I'll summarize it as this:
First, there is technically more risk to not using usted than using it. Nobody is going to get mad or annoyed at you using "usted" but there are some Latin Americans that probably do have a stick up their ass and would get annoyed at you not using "usted."
Second, what are your intentions? If you wish to express friendliness or familiarity, use "tu." If you wish to express respect or courtesy, use "usted."
For example, when using "usted" in a social context, it would be more socially smart to use it when addressing the parents of your girlfriend, doctors, cops, officials, professors, old people, etc.
When it comes to using "tu," it would make more sense for people around your age, drinking buddies, people you meet at social events like house parties, concerts, etc.
Also, I generally hold the opinion that people of the upper class would be more strict about wanting a "usted" versus people from a "barrio popular" or working class/poorer area.
If you want to know more about the "barrio popular," check out this article I wrote here.
Still, I think most people even in richer areas are chill too about it. Just more likely than those from more humble backgrounds to demand respect like that.
Anyway, you get the idea now regarding when to use "tu" or "usted."
If you got anything to add or any questions, drop them below in the comment section.
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Thanks for reading.