Mexico fortunately isn’t wracked by the linguistic controversy that has swept France in recent years: the conflict over when to use the informal form of “you” (tú) and the formal form (vous in French, usted in Spanish).
On Bastille Day this year, the Los Angeles Times published a detailed chart on when and when not to use the tú form of address when visiting France. For example, “Are you speaking to a child? Is the child like a prince or something? Yes: use vous. No: use tú.” Or, “Do you consider the person a peer? Yes: use tú. No: use vous.”
Despite such guidelines, in France young people now throw the tu around as easily as Americans call one another by their first names. However, this breakdown in linguistic tradition has created a conflict between not wanting to seem too disrespectful (too tú) and not wanting to seem too unhip (too vous).
In Mexico change has happened more slowly. Young people now address their parents with tú – a generation or two ago only usted would have been acceptable – and now usually call strangers their own age or younger tú as well.
Usted, the Spanish language’s polite form for you, is a contration of old Spanish “vestry merced” (your grace). It is traditionally used between people who do not know one another, by younger people speaking to older people, or to show respect.
The two forms of you often confound people learning Spanish if the distinction does not exist in their native language. Teachers admit there are subtle differences but may use the example of the difference between addressing someone in English by their Christian name, or “Mrs. Jenkins.”
Native Spanish speakers may also change their manner of address depending on the level of cordiality and confidence they feel in the other person. In one Guadalajara office, a secretary may call another colleague usted, even though she gets called tú back.
The rule that usted goes for anyone you don’t know still seems to hold. For a younger person speaking to an older person, the best tactic is to wait until the older person says, “call me tú.”
And with any official you’re trying to impress, bring out your most polite usted. For example, no matter how much younger the traffic official is you are trying to persuade not to fine you is, he or she will probably not take kindly to being called tú, despite the fact that you want to create a feeling of amiability.
If you approach a person younger than you to ask for the time, on the other hand, tú will most likely not offend – through strict constructionists maintain usted is more proper. And if you walk into a a store of office, don’t be offended if you’re informally told, “Ahorita te atiendio” (I’ll be right with you).
Use usted to address:
- People to whom you wish to show respect, (especially older people)
- A figure of authority.
Use tú to address:
- In general anyone who addresses you using tu.