Should your Spanish communications use “tú” or “usted”?

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¡Eres tú!Remember addressing others as thee and thou? Of course you don’t because its usage disappeared before anyone living today was born. But in other languages this change from the formal to the informal mode of address is happening right now!

Consider Spanish in Mexico (other Latin American countries follow different rules) for example, where the change from the use of both modalities “” or “usted” to the single “tú” signifies a rather profound cultural shift.

Up until about 5 years ago, usage rules in Mexico were clear and followed slavishly. The informal tú was allowed only for intimate relationships, children, or those below the speaker on the social or economic scale. The formal usted was reserved for those whom the speaker considered of equal, or higher, social status. Only those addressed by the informal tú were to be called by their first name. Adherence to the rules began changing when advertising started to use the familiar to address end users. Prior to this, it would have been considered insulting. As the informal tú to address everyone became more the norm in advertising, it began to take over in several other areas of everyday life.

Whenever custom is in flux, there are dangers in the choices one makes in their communications. In translation, deciding whether to use the formal or the informal address has become a hot topic!

Context may dictate the choice, as legal text and banking materials retain the formal structure and it is recommended the address in these materials be the formal “usted.”

When the context is marketing, we recommend honing in on the end user: if the target audience is young and/or modern in their habits, the natural mode of address is informal, as they strive for informality in the English materials. If the materials are intended for an older or more traditional audience, then the formal is in order, out of respect for the now old-fashioned formal style, until the current younger generation has moved into their spot and then the “usted” form in Spanish will be as obsolete as thee and thou in English.

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2018-09-28T17:57:41+00:00

5 Comments

  1. Reed James October 11, 2017 at 7:46 am - Reply

    This article is an accurate depiction of the current forms of address in Chile. A good guideline to follow. I hate to be picky, but “tú” as a personal pronoun has an accent on the u. If it is written without the accent, then it is taken to be the possessive pronoun for the second person singular (informal), e.g., Mi casa es *tu* casa.

    • Norma Armon November 4, 2017 at 4:31 pm - Reply

      You are right and we stand corrected, thank you!

  2. Jon Branch October 29, 2017 at 10:50 am - Reply

    Good general rule of thumb, but… I have lived and worked in marketing for over 40 years in Mexico and while the scenario the author poses is correct for Mexico City and generally for Guadalajara and Monterrey it is not so for the rest of the country. In what people in the capital call “la provincia” (the provinces) the use of usted for people of greater perceived social, economic, job description or age is still wide spread. Another consideration is that people who “have made it” like to be spoken to as usted as it is a mark of social differentiation and, on occasion, will even go so far as to demand that be addressed as usted. It is true that this is changing, but it will be years yet to be a nation wide habit. Other things to keep in mind who is talking and the age of your target group. For advertising a world recognized luxury brand like Rolex, Louis Vuitton, etc has a reputation which allows it to use “Tú” as this reflects positively and denotes equality on the owner, while it is certainly not the case for potato chips (which would also use Tú but only because they skew younger and informal) or medicines (which use Usted as a sign of respect and because it emulates most Doctors speech).

  3. Norma Armon November 4, 2017 at 4:34 pm - Reply

    Indeed, it reinforces our point – slowly or fast, the form of address is changing.

  4. David Gish June 26, 2018 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    How then should a mobile application address its users? When soliciting feedback, for example, which would be better:
    “Envíanos sus comentarios” or “Envíanos tus comentarios”?

    For apps targeting a younger demographic I’m guessing the latter would be more suitable but that the former would be better in general?

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