Tú or usted? Navigating grammar and politeness

Jessica Piper
October 18, 2017

Being polite is important to me while I am in Ecuador. Politeness is generally a good tactic, and as I am visibly a foreigner here, I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes about rude Americans. Plus, Ecuadorians are habitually polite—you are expected to say hello and goodbye to everyone you know every time you see them and you ask the bus driver to stop by saying “gracias.”

The Spanish language adds an interesting nuance to politeness: There are two ways to address someone as “you”: “,” which is informal and used among friends or equals, and “usted,” which adds an extra level of respect. (Each of these forms also has their own distinct sets of verb conjugations).

Speaking Spanish every day has forced me to practice using and usted. But this fairly simple grammar concept has also made me think about my place in Ecuadorian society.

As a very general rule, I know to use usted with people older than me, to show respect. At the university where I study, students address professors as usted, even though we also call them by their first names. I likewise use usted with my host mother.

Usted also has its place in formal interactions. Even though Ecuadorians are very friendly (often referring to strangers as pana or amigo—words that mean friend), they still use usted in these situations. When I’m giving directions to a taxi driver or asking a vendor about the price of something, I make sure to use usted too.

Usted can also be used to create a distance between two speakers. A professor advised female students during orientation to use usted as an implicit way to reject male advances. If you’re being hit on and reply with usted, the guy is supposed to receive the message that you’re not interested.

As I navigate these norms, I have also been taking note of when people refer to me as usted. In the case of a taxi driver or a salesperson, it makes sense that we both use usted, maintaining a degree of formality. On the other hand, my professors typically refer to students as —they are informal with us, while we still show them the respect they deserve. My host mother calls me as well.

Here in Quito, I live in a gated community with security guards at each entrance. As I go in and out of the neighborhood several times each day, I always try to be friendly and polite with them—and since I’ve been here for two months, we know each other decently well. They great me each morning on my way to class, ask if I’m cold when I come home without a jacket, inquire about my travels when I’m leaving with my duffel bag, and meet all my friends who visit.

In each of these interactions, the security guards always refer to me as usted. This confounds me slightly—all of them are adults and I am not; we see each other every day; I don’t feel a need to create distance; I don’t think I’m deserving of the elevated respect that usted connotes.

I have the same experience with my host family’s housekeeper. Although we see each other regularly, he always calls me by usted—creating a distance and formality that I don’t feel is necessary.

Living in a new place means accepting its norms. I’m not going to break and social rules by asking the guards or the housekeeper to address me as . I don’t even know if my personal assessments of the cultural implications of usted are correct. As I navigate interactions here in Ecuador, I want to treat others—and be treated—with politeness, kindness, mutual respect, and equality. I just hope that’s happening.

Jessica Piper

<p>I grew up in Colorado, but moved across the country to attend college in Maine. I'm an economics and Hispanic Studies double major with a minor in math, but writing is my real passion. I work for my college newspaper and have done other work for several blogs, magazine, and websites.</p>

Home University:
Bowdoin College
Louisville, CO
Hispanic Studies
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