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Hey Tú (You)! – How to use ‘tú’ in Spanish

Hey Tú (You)! - How to use 'tú' in Mexican Spanish

When I first began living here in Xalapa, Mexico, I strolled over to the nearest verdulería (a fruit and vegetable store) to buy some mangos. I remember seeing only vegetables and asking the shopkeeper, “¿No tienes mangos?” (You don’t have mangos?) He replied, “No seño, pero pasa usted mañana y habrá más fruta.” (“No ma’am, but come by tomorrow, and there´ll be more fruit.”)

That’s when I realized that I’d made an embarrassing mistake. I should have said, “Usted no tiene mangos?” [You (formal) don’t have mangos?] There was no going back now. I’d lost my grammatical footing and was unsure of how to save face. Once the mistake was made, once I used , it would be awkward to suddenly switch to usted (formal – you). That could be interpreted as putting up a barrier after I had used the friendly . My escape tactic? I started using ustedes (formal – you, plural), referring to him and his wife, until I was sure he had forgotten the incident.

You see, the usage of and usted is a very complex and very cultural part of Spanish grammar. If this young man’s wife, or for that matter my husband, had overheard me refer to the shopkeeper as , I would have found myself in an uncomfortable situation.
One of the many ways in which we can use and usted is to define one’s intentions when speaking with the opposite sex. When I speak with men who are merely acquaintances, e.g. waiters, shopkeepers, delivery boys, etc., I always use usted. Most respectable men do the same. This rule, of course, varies from country to country and region to region. Here in Mexico, it would be wise to use usted more often than not. It sets limits and helps avoid potentially aggravating situations.

Many other factors go into play when deciding whether to use or usted. It may be used as a sign of respect for a person’s profession, age or social stance. It may be used to create a barrier, to distance one’s self from another person or, likewise, to draw in a person, to break down barriers. It takes experience and practice to master and usted. There will be plenty more discussion on the topic in upcoming posts.

Vocabulary

  • – You (Informal)
  • Usted – You – singular (Formal)
  • Verdulería – A fruit and vegetable store
  • Tener – To have
  • Seño – Ms. It is used when one is not sure if señorita or señora is appropriate.

Want to learn even more about Mexico?
Check out our Culture File: Mexico series!