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My prometida (she's Ecuadorian) has occasionally referred to me as usted, but she said that in this context it can convey not only formality / respect, but also affection! I'm fascinated by this concept, but curious if this is common in other Spanish-speaking regions.

I have read that in Colombia, usted is used nearly always (including towards children and pets), and seeing how Ecuador is a neighboring country, could this be dialectal assimilation of sorts? (Side question: Is it still the case in Colombia that the formal usted is used predominantly / more so than in other Latin American countries?)

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    Fascinating! In Japanese they have a similar case with the word anata. It is used in a way similar to usted, but it is also used by wives to refer lovingly to their husbands. – Charlie Mar 6 '17 at 7:59
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    I remember reading a book (maybe by Gabo?) where an old couple that had been married for many years referred to each other using usted. I thought it strange at the time (not being a native speaker) though this could very well explain it. I will be interested to hear the answers to this question. – John D Mar 6 '17 at 22:08
  • In Chile we do not use the word "usted" in these cases, but we can conjugate using the formal pattern when we talk with someone very dear, for example the mother with the son or the boyfriends with each other. E.g. "amorcito, a qué hora va a llegar" (using formal "va" (usted) instead of informal "vas" (tú)). – Rodrigo Mar 7 '17 at 14:39
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It seems that the use of "usted" to indicate affection is quite frequent in several countries in Latin America. At a footnote on page 8 of this paper, I have found this statement belonging to an author mentioned in the text:

12 Este mismo autor señala cuáles son las situaciones en las que se observa con mayor frecuencia el uso de tú y, asimismo, indica que la forma usted posee también en algunos países americanos un uso afectivo, al que también aluden Alcina y Blecua (Gramática española, Ariel, Barcelona, 1991, 592), cuando a los interlocutores los unen vínculos estrechos.

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I do not know much about Ecuadorian way of speaking but since you asked about Colombia let me say this.

We mainly use two forms: Usted and Vos. (there are many questions on this site about tuteo and voseo that you could check out.)

The Usted is the more commonly used on the south and central region while vos is more used around the "coffee region". However on the Caribbean part of the country the use of "tú" is very common.

The use of and vos in Colombia always means familiarity and is used among people that are close friends or with family while usted is always used with people that deserve some respect or people you do not know very well.

Regarding love relationships it is common for people to keep using the usted but most people cross the respect barrier and start using (or vos according to the region).

For us the usted alone does not mean affection. It could be used in a sentence that expresses affection but it is the meaning of the sentence and not the use of usted that conveys the feeling.

Being that your girlfriend is from Ecuador and that could mean that their ways are similar to our people from the south, I think it is very normal that she uses "usted".

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  • Thank you for this answer -- I kinda remember 20 years ago when a co-worker (L1 Spanish speaker originally from Dominican Rep.) remarked at how unusually formal Colombians spoke, especially addressing family and friends. P.S. It seems that Coastal Colombia's language and grammar would be influenced by e.g. Panamá, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dom. Rep., etc.... – pr1268 Mar 7 '17 at 16:03
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    That is correct. Caribbean culture is similar to that from those countries you mention (not costal since language form the Pacific cost is very different) and they are more informal but in the south and most of the Andean region the use of usted is the most common. I understand why this should sound very formal to other people but we don't see it quite that way. – DGaleano Mar 7 '17 at 16:34
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I have a close friend from Ecuador, who always uses usted with me. My friend explained that their upbringing inculcated the custom of using usted with almost 100% of everyone they dealt with. I guess the exception would be when talking to a small child who is a relative or a close friend -- but I even have a hard time imagining my friend using in that situation.

This related answer adds to what @DGaleano was explaining: https://spanish.stackexchange.com/a/22491/9385

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