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Is it OK to use (tutear) when addressing a stranger in Spain?

By stranger I mean a person that is unknown or with whom one is unacquainted, I do not mean a foreigner.

Background: I recently visited Spain. I tried speaking in Spanish and virtually all the people addressed me as (with all the verbs in the second person). I know that in some countries (e.g. Finland and probably all the other Nordic countries?) their languages technically distinguish between formal and informal you, but it is nowadays socially acceptable to use the informal you even when talking to strangers on the street.

Is it the same case in Spain? Are you perceived as rude if you address a stranger "Me puedes decir..." instead of "Me puede decir..."?

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    Personally I do not mind if the person I am speaking to is from Spain or a foreigner, so I would apply the same rules in both cases. Basically I use "tú" almost always except for people older than me and in formal occasions.
    – Charlie
    Apr 23 '18 at 12:11
  • @Charlie: I mean a stranger in the meaning of 1c merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stranger Apr 24 '18 at 5:51
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I'm not from Spain but I think the following will work anywhere, basically. What you're referring to is called the T–V distinction and, though it shows itself as a distinction between formal and informal registers, that's not always the case. Moreover, formal and informal contexts are defined in different ways in different cultures and regions.

In most Spanish-speaking places nowadays the V in the T–V distinction (the "formal" register) tends to be used

  1. when addressing someone older than you (older by one or more generations, really) or simply above a certain perceived age;
  2. when addressing a client in a business, taking into account the formality of the business itself (a bank should be considered more formal than a street vendor's stand, in general);
  3. when addressing someone who commands respect in a formal setting, such as a conference or lecture.

The "informal" register (T form) will be used elsewhere.

If you're a young person (or look like one), then people on the street will probably address you using the T form (), unless they are younger themselves. This last point depends a lot on the culture; in some places children might be taught to address anyone they don't know as usted, and carry that into their teenage years and beyond, while some might grow up speaking informally all the time except to certain authority figures.

If you're an older person, then people will tend to address you using the V form (usted), and you might get that even from people of your own age.

Obvious non-native speakers will be forgiven if they use the "wrong" form. If you're out in the street asking for directions you won't do wrong if you use for people your age and younger, and usted elsewhere (or if in doubt). Beginning with a light apology (Disculpa...) will help as well.

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    This is very true for most of Spain. is basically the default, and unless you're >40 years old (at a minimum) you won't probably hear usted from a random person on the street. Apr 23 '18 at 16:02
  • Gracias por la confirmación, @guifa. 👍
    – pablodf76
    Apr 23 '18 at 16:15
  • @guifa: How do school children in Spain address their teacher? "Carmen tú", or "Senora García Usted"? Apr 24 '18 at 5:58
  • @HonzaZidek Tú is most common in elementary school. I never taught in high school, so I can't speak from personal experience, but glancing at teacher blogs online it seems that most use tú, but some teachers still require their students to address them with usted (those teachers likewise address their students with usted). I don't think I've ever heard a teacher address as Sr. or Sr.ª X, the norm is either first name (elementary and preschool) or profe(sor X) (all ages). Apr 24 '18 at 6:11
  • @HonzaZidek if the teacher is female: "señorita X" (kids would address her as "tú" while older students would address her as "usted"), if the teacher is male: "don X" (same approach for "tú" and "usted").
    – Charlie
    Apr 24 '18 at 6:12

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