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LEARNING SPANISH

Do people in Spain actually use the formal ‘usted’ form anymore?

It was once common in Spain, but nowadays the formal 'usted' (you) form is rarely used besides in some pretty specific situations. So why is the more informal 'tú' form becoming ever more dominant among Spaniards?

Do people in Spain actually use the formal 'usted' form anymore?
The more formal 'usted' form used to be very common in Spain, but not anymore. Photo: Suzy Hazelwood/Pexels

If you live in Spain or spend time here, you’ve probably heard the word (you) a fair bit. It’s one of the very first words you learn when learning Spanish, and pretty crucial (obviously).

But you may have also occasionally heard Spanish speakers using the word usted (also meaning you) from time to time too.

It’s far more likely that you hear in Spain, but perhaps if you’ve heard a respectful younger Spaniard talking to an elderly neighbour, or their boss on the phone, or even watched something like a political debate or interview on TV, you probably heard usted used.

Similarly, if you have noticed usted being used while out and about in Spain, it could well have been from the large Latino population in Spain, and it’s likely that you heard Colombians, Venezuelans or other Latinos saying it.

READ ALSO: Why Spain has allowed regional languages to be spoken in Congress

Though they do sometimes use it, the use of usted among Spaniards is slightly different, much rarer, and saved for select circumstances.

In fact, it’s becoming so rare in Spain that some feel its usage is dying out completely, if it hasn’t already.

So, what’s going on here?

Usted vs tú

Firstly, let’s start with a definition. According to the Real Academia Española (RAE) usted is a:

Form which, in the nominative, in the vocative or preceded by a preposition, designates the person addressed by the speaker or writer… [used] generally as a polite, respectful or distancing address.”

Eg) disculpe, ¿sabe usted dónde está el hospital? (excuse me, do you know where the hospital is?)

In understanding the usted form specifically in Castilian Spanish – Spanish spoken in parts of Latin America it can be slightly or very different, depending where you are – that last part of the definition is key: “generally as a polite, respectful or distancing address.”

It’s worth noting that with usted the verbs are conjugated as if they were third-person singular (el as in he or ella as in she), so it’s usted sabe instead of tú sabes

Usted is a form used to show respect or seniority: that you understand there’s a hierarchy (in which usted is at the top, so for example when speaking to your boss or someone interviewing you for a job), but also occasionally to mark social distance between two people (because could be considered overly friendly in certain situations) and then, finally, it’s also used more generally to show respect in terms of seniority, like when speaking to an elderly person.

Tú vs usted in Spain

Respectfulness is the key word here. In short, if you hear usted used in Spain, it’s probably for a reason.

In Spain, usted is generally only ever used with authority figures, the elderly and in some formal and/or professional settings, but many Spaniards will just skip over it and use the tú form. can be used with everyone else: your friends, partners, neighbours (around your age or younger), siblings, co-workers, kids, and other people you don’t know but are roughly your age or younger.

In fact, in some cases people might actually be offended if you use the usted form because you could be implying that they’re old, a mistake or social faux pas that is somewhat similar to calling a woman señora and then being quickly corrected (usually with a scornful look) that is should be señorita.

In such cases, they may say trátame de tú (treat me as ‘less formal’ you) or me puedes tutear

The verb tutear actually means to speak to someone using the more informal form. 

The only part of Spain where the plural form of ustedustedes – is used all the time is the Canary Islands and some parts of southern Andalusia, where locals prefer this form instead of the standard Castillian vosotros (you in plural). That doesn’t mean that they say usted instead of in the singular form, this exception only applies to the plural.

Do people actually use the formal usted form anymore in Spain?

Less and less. It’s dying out in Spain, has been for a while, and is now reserved for those rare occasions outlined above. It’s thought by linguistic experts that it began dying out in the 1970s and 1980s.

The use of usted in Castillian Spanish is now very rarely used in casual conversation. In many cases can only be heard in very formal or ceremonial settings, such as in judiciary, the army, or in certain academic culture contexts or events.

In day to day life, usted only really shows up (besides the examples given above) in advertising, something that generally needs to reflect cultural attitudes and keep up with modern day parlance, so now only really uses the usted form in some specific campaigns for financial services or medical products. As such, depending on the context and age of the people involved, you could also hear usted in spoken Spanish in banks and doctors or hospitals.

An article in Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia entitled ‘Usted is dying’ published back in 2012 looked into the disappearance of the formal form in detail. The fact it was published over a decade ago means that, if anything, the trends it discusses have deepened since then and usted is even lesser used than it was then.

“The use of usted has been reserved for very formal campaigns where a kind of protocol respect for the interlocutor is maintained,” Josep Maria Ferrara, founder and creative director of the Paulov advertising agency, told La Vanguardia.

But this was not the case twenty or thirty years ago. A study on the use of and usted in advertising at the end of the 1980s showed that the usted form was used for the most part and that only 11 percent of the advertisements analysed used the form.

Changing world, changing language?

So, what changed? Secundino Valladares, professor of Anthropology at the Madrid’s Complutense University, says that Spaniards have embraced  to such an extent “that the phenomenon is now unstoppable; young people, educated in ‘tuteo’ [the use of the tú form] are sweeping to victory with the , and as society is dominated by the value of youth… many older people feel flattered if you them,” he said.

In Spain in the 1940s and 1950s the usted form was still well established in many parent-child relationships, and in teacher-student relationships until well into the 1970s. But a changing world and progressive, more egalitarian political ideas seems to be partly responsible for the change. Of course, in Spain, this linguistic shift may have something to do with the changing power and interpersonal dynamics of Spanish society as it transitioned from dictatorship to democracy around this time.

Headline by Spanish radio station Cope reads “Speaking to the teacher at school with the usted form must be brought back”.

Sociologist Antonio López pointed to this trend: “The tendency towards a more egalitarian society, towards the loss of hierarchical distances in social relations, means that it does not seem right to establish prior distances and that is why is used instead of usted, which for many denotes distance.”

In that sense, the decline in the formal usted form can be understood both in terms of the laid back nature of Castilian Spanish compared with countries in Latin America, but also in terms of language reflecting social change, similarly to how today, in modern day Spain, there is debate over the use of inclusive language and the dominance of the masculine form in Spanish grammar.

READ ALSO: What is Spain’s inclusive language debate and why is it so controversial?

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For members

SPORT

IN DEPTH: Why is Spain so good at sport?

Tennis, football, basketball, motor sports, golf and many more - how does a country of 48 million people produce so many great athletes? Spain has basically found the 'sweet spot'.

IN DEPTH: Why is Spain so good at sport?

In case you missed it, Spain has just had a pretty big weekend of sport. And as Spaniards have become used to in recent years, it was a rather successful one.

Spain’s football team, La Roja, won another international title, beating England to win Euro 2024 in Berlin, and on the same day, Murcian wonder boy Carlos Alcaraz won his second successive Wimbledon crown and Spanish golfer Sergio García won the LIV Golf Andalucía tournament.

Last summer Spain’s selección feminina footballing side won the 2023 Women’s World Cup, again beating England in the final.

In terms of footballing prowess, Spain reasonably has a claim to being the best football nation in the world, if not certainly in the 21st century.

La Roja dominated the global game and won three straight international tournaments: Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup, and then Euro 2012 Euros. Remarkably, Spanish club and national teams have won all 23 major finals in which they have played since 2002.

READ ALSO: The best photos of Spain’s epic Euro 2024 win against England

Spanish sporting dominance

But it’s not just football. Rafael Nadal is considered one of the best, if not the best tennis player of all time, winning 22 grand slams so far in his career and leading Spain to four Davis Cups between 2004-2011, backed up by a selection of world class players such David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco, and Juan Carlos Ferrero.

In Formula 1, Spaniard Fernando Alonso has won a pair of world championships (2005 and 2006) and established himself as one of the world’s best drivers. In MotoGP, Spain has always been well represented in recent years by Jorge Lorenzo (winner of three world titles) and Marc Marquez (winner of six), as well as other world class riders like Dani Pedrosa and Fonsi Nieto.

The Gasol brothers, two of many Spanish basketballers to play in the NBA in recent years. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

The Spanish basketball national team is arguably the second best national team in the world, winning back-to-back Olympic silver medals in 2008 and 2012 (they lost to the dominant U.S team, which there’s no shame in) and sandwiched between that they won the FIBA World Cup in 2006. They also won it in 2019.

The Spanish domestic basketball league (Liga ACB) is also generally thought of as the second best league in the world, after the NBA. Its two biggest teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are giants of Euroleague basketball, and Spain has sent plenty of professionals to play in the NBA, notably the Gasol brothers.

Spain also regularly performs well at international handball and volleyball competitions, and though it’s not a traditional powerhouse in track and field it’s performing increasingly well in events like the long jump.

Even in mixed martial arts, Alicante-based Ilia Topuria is currently the UFC’s Featherweight champion.

Why is Spain so good at sport?

But what explains this sporting dominance?

Anecdotally, many Spaniards claim that the pleasant climate means kids are generally more active and spend time outside. For athletes and sportsmen and women, this means there are less interruptions to their training schedules due to bad weather, as may be experienced in other countries, and perhaps less need for indoor facilities.

But maybe there’s an economic reason underpinning all this success, as well as one specific ‘trigger’ event.

Spain’s Carolina Marín is considered the best female badminton player in the world. (Photo by BAY ISMOYO / AFP)

In an article for El País, Víctor Lapuente argues that Spain’s sporting success comes from the country enjoying an economic sweet spot during the developmental years of some of its major stars.

“During the formative years of our great sportsmen and women, more or less from 1980 until the beginning of this century, we have had the ideal per capita income for sport,” Lapuente writes. “Spain has been rich enough for the vast majority of boys and girls to have access to sports infrastructure and training clubs.”

Spain has been a wealthy enough country to have all the adequate facilities needed to get kids into sport, and then, if they show any promise, has the sporting infrastructure to take them to the next level and potentially even the professional ranks.

However, Lapuente argues that this is a fine balance, and one Spain has had just right. In other words, rich enough for opportunity and infrastructure, but not too rich to kill motivation and work ethic.

Spanish-Georgian mixed martial arts fighter Ilia Topuria, an example of how more foreign-born athletes are reaching sporting prowess in Spain. (Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty/AFP)

“And, at the same time,” Lapuente adds, “we have not been rich enough for the vast majority of parents to rule out a sporting career, full of sacrifices and risks, for their children.

“This is what happens in more developed nations, such as Switzerland or Norway. Or among the wealthier classes in all countries, be it the USA, Australia or Spain: the goal is for children to get the best grades, not to score the most goals.”

Beyond having that base-level sporting infrastructure available, the Barcelona 1992 Olympics also played a role in transforming Spain into a great sporting nation.

This is certainly true in terms of basketball, as during the ’92 games the famous U.S.A Dream Team, featuring legends such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, captivated the Spanish public and planted the basketball seed. It’s now of Spain’s most popular sports.

It’s no coincidence that many of Spain’s basketball stars of later years, notably Pau and Marc Gasol, as well as players like Rudy Fernandez and Ricky Rubio, would have been children or were born around this time and in the aftermath of the ’92 Games when Spain went basketball mad.

An iconic image that springs to mind whenever Spaniards think back to Barcelona ’92 – Fermin Cacho of Spain winning the 1,500m final. (Photo by JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU / AFP)

More generally, in preparation for the ’92 games the Spanish government invested huge amounts of money, starting with the ADO Plan in 1988, which allowed Spanish athletes to focus on their training in a way they hadn’t been able to before. Sponsors also began investing in Spanish sport in a significant way.

Money was invested not only on the organisational and transport infrastructure necessary to host an important international event, but, as hosts, on its sports programmes too so the Spanish athletes could compete and wouldn’t be embarrassed on the international stage.

As El País puts it: the ‘92 Olympics were, for Spain, “the definitive take-off of sport, which has been climbing to new heights ever since then.”

READ ALSO: Tour de France to start in Barcelona in 2026

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