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I've just moved to Madrid and am trying to understand the way Spaniards use tú versus usted. My first hypothesis was that they are simply more inclined to tú than much of Latin America (even in work situations), but I'm coming to a different conclusion.

As a journalist (in my 40s), I met an older gentleman, a retired banker and well-connected aristocrat, and naturally used "usted" with him, and he "tú" with me. Fine. He is the senior figure. He then introduced me via e-mail to another useful contact (a middle-aged woman who runs an NGO), using "tú" with both of us.

This is where I get confused: she "tú"s me in her first mail saying "I'd love to meet". I "tú" her in reply. She then "usted"s me in the next e-mail reply ("cuando prefiere", etc). So I, wondering if I've screwed up, "usted" her back after that. Only then she "tú"s me again in the latest round! All of this is in an e-mail thread, so if she cared to, she could at any point have checked to remind herself what we'd done in the last round of the conversation.

My new tentative conclusion about Spain: they just don't care much about the distinction. Sure, use "usted" in highly formal situations beyond doubt (meeting the prime minister), but in sort of mixed-age, semi-formal work situations, fluidity is natural and the cost of "screwing up" is fairly low.

Is there anything I'm missing? Do Spaniards normally switch back and forth?

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  • As a side comment, I would compare Germany, where adults meeting in work situations would nearly always use "Sie", and the respect is mutual - it would be very rare for an adult to "Sie" a person who says "du" back to him. And once you are on "Sie" terms, a shift to "du" is an undertaking that usually has to be agreed with both sides. In friendly contexts it can be casual - "Oh, by the way why don't we 'du'," but traditionally it was a major step that signalled a close friendship. In any case, you would remember who you were on "Sie" terms with and wouldn't switch thoughtlessly.
    – RLG
    Sep 22, 2021 at 8:53
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    It's just a formality. An old person might use ''usted'' with another old person. A young person would sound unbearably stuffy if they used ''usted'' with another young person. Just think about the context. Sep 22, 2021 at 18:18
  • The usage is changing, so it often becames unpredictable. My grandmother always used "ustéd" with their parents, my daughters use "tu" with nearly everybody.
    – Pere
    Sep 22, 2021 at 23:28
  • @RLG it wouldn't be a german trait if it wasn't properly overdissected in situ
    – lurscher
    Sep 23, 2021 at 3:33
  • When unknown people address me using , I just ignore them.
    – aerobiomat
    Sep 23, 2021 at 12:17

4 Answers 4

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Your conclusion is right. Using 'tú' is nowadays the norm in conversations between people who know one another, even in a work environment. Even people who object to the increasing use of 'tú' would rarely feel offended (or they would live in a state of permanent irritation in present-day Spain).

The way I use 'usted' is as follows:

  1. When talking to somebody I don't know over the phone or email (for example, when writing to ask for information or services from a company).

  2. In person, I only use 'usted' when addressing somebody who I don't know and who is clearly older than me. For example, if I ask an elderly woman if she's queuing in a shop. As I'm 50 myself, this means I only use 'usted' with elderly people (over 70 or so).

In other situations, I stick to 'tú'. For example, if I need to phone my bank I would use 'usted' if I talk to an anonymous person in a call centre (unless they tú me, which they sometimes do), but if I talk to the guy who works at the local branch and who I've met before, I would always use 'tú'. Using 'usted' with somebody you've met before may even come across as a bit rude, as if you're trying to stress that you're not their friend and that you want to keep the conversation short.

The situation where I may hesitate is when talking over the phone to somebody I don't know but who sounds relatively young. I tend to use 'usted' but I may lapse into 'tú' if the conversation is a bit casual. Similarly, I tend to always use 'tú' when talking to shop assistants, but I may hesitate or change to 'usted' if they 'usted' me.

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    I suspect younger people (born after or around year 2000, say) tend to use 'tú' much more often. Is it so?
    – Pablo H
    Sep 27, 2021 at 17:06
  • I agree with this answer. I only use usted with elderly people and when I want to keep some distance, as in strictly professional temporary exchanges. And I don't like been usted-ed outside these strictly professional temporary situations; if I have a frequent exchange with, say, a bank agent (they tend to be quite formal), I don't like them to use usted with me. I don't like it at all, I must say.
    – Gorpik
    Sep 28, 2021 at 8:12
  • The situation I'm in very often at the moment is being introduced by e-mail from someone I have met and "tú" with, to someone I hope to meet. The person I already know says "tú" to us both but I don't know what I should do in my first reply. As I'm a journalist they're influential people - politicians or people who run foundations and things. I don't know how much this is a status thing - "I'm an MP and you should use 'usted', how dare you?" or "don't think I'm stuck up just because I'm an MP."
    – RLG
    Oct 6, 2021 at 15:54
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In tú o usted - cuándo tutear en España you can find these guidelines:

  1. Kids and young adults (under 25) almost always tú a tú among themselves.

  2. If the person is of similar age (between approx 25 and 50 yrs old) and there is little familiarity:
    a) in a professional/work environment, especially in positions of authority, professionals, civil servants, doctors, police, etc., it's best to start off with usted.

    b) in a social or relaxed environment, e.g. a party, bar, street, probably start with tú, but usted may also be used if in doubt.

  3. Above 50-55 years old usted is generally used for new acquaintance or little familiarity whether older or the same age.

  4. If you are an employee, most companies will use usted with all customers. If dealing with predominantly young modern customers, though, tú may sound more natural.

  5. The way someone is dressed, or any other subtle 'status symbols' are also likely to affect one's choice: a 30-yr-old in suit and tie may be more of usted than a 50-yr-old in baggy hippie trousers smoking a joint. The left-right duality in Spain is always present.

  6. In written Spanish things are very similar. Most formal or official communciation will use usted. Students are encouraged to use usted in emails when addressing officialdom or new contacts, but tú is becoming increasingly common among colleagues, acquaintances and even first contact between businesses.

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I haven't been in Spain for many years now, so this may be dated.

Nearly 30 years ago in Spain the custom was to use tú for people your own age or younger, use Ud. for strangers and those considerably older, and to use tú for those who were older but who were close or well-known, e.g. a relative, a teacher, or God (in prayer). With strangers or older people it was customary to use Ud. until they told you you could tutear them.

The professors at the university would consistently use tú with the students unless things seemed to get a little out of hand. They would not need to scold the students or even say anything much, but simply by switching to Ud. the students would instantly realize that the instructor was asking for a little more respect and would get the message. Once things settled down, the professor would revert back to using tú.

This is but one example of how, in Spain, the usage could sometimes go back and forth. It was not, in either case, offensive--but using Ud. just put a little more distance to the relationship--even if only momentarily; whereas tú was more familiar, typically used among friends and colleagues.

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Summarizing from ¿"Tú" o "usted" en España?:

  • Mandatory use of "usted": when talking to older people, authorities or with higher hierarchical status (judges, policemen, professors, politicians ...).
  • Recommended use of "usted": to anybody who addresses you with "usted", unknown people of any age.
  • Use of "tú": all other cases

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