Formality/Informality in Spanish or why screwing up is a good learning experience?

Since there is no interview ready for today, I dediced to go with a topic I have seen a lot on different groups and boards. How does formality/informality work in Spanish language? Will the knowledge I learned from this guide help me for my ultimate Latin American trip? Will High School Spanish help me to communicate better with locals? Will telenovelas teach me about culture and how to address my peers?

The answer to most of them is: NO.  Rules depend on many factors and what may seem acceptable and expected regarding interpersonal communication in one country, in another country may have a complete different meaning and you won’t find that in most books, guides or online. You will simply learn them by making a fool of yourself. You will get giggles from your friends, peers or the shopkeeper, but at the same time, someone will come up to you and give you a piece of advice you will probably never forget and say “it’s okay, it’s not a great thing… but, keep in mind this and that :)”. I should say I’ve even had that experience even when traveling to other Spanish-speaking regions (i.e. I once greeted an Argentinean male friend with a handshake while he was trying to hug me and kiss me on the cheek -something I do with my close male relatives in Chile-… no, he wasn’t being invading or so since I knew that his intentions were clear. He was just happy to see me).

Anyways, what I can do from here is give you certain tips, carefulness and of course, learn some vocabulary and ways to not screw up things a lot. I cannot mention things for every single Spanish-speaking region, but I can talk about my random experiences with different countries and of course, Chile.

Chile has a special formal/informal language. If you ever talk to my parents or so, you will easily notice they would address my grandparents as “Usted” and use formal language when talking to them, while I would address my parents as “tú”. Thing is, before the 80’s, relationships in Chile would be strictly asymmetrical. “Usted” was the expected form to address anyone older than you or that you owe some respect to. That is to say, parents, older siblings, grandparents, bosses, et al. Even some couples would call each other “Usted”. Now, probably due to a generational change (oh hi sociopolitics!), children started to address their parents as tú, some equal peers or shopkeepers (who can easily be peers)… while still addressing grandparents, friends’ parents or such as “usted”.

Now, to make things even more complicated, in informal interactions, tú is barely used unless you want to keep a bit of distance. Almost everyone in Chile uses voseo 🙂 (vos being an alternate form of tú, used mostly in Rioplatense Spanish and Central American Countries, such as Costa Rica) despite no one will recognize it or such since saying “vos” in Chile isn’t well appreciated (even more at a highly class-concious society), but will try to hide it by using verbs conjugated in vos plus tú. So, several times you will get asked “¿Cómo estái?” or “¿Estái bien?” and no, it’s not wrong Spanish, despite what prescriptionists say. You don’t get to hear it unless you are in Chile because most Chilean media does not get exported to other countries. And then, greetings? Most men do handshake with each other, while women may expect a kiss on the cheek from other women or men. Most people would expect you, also, to adress them by their first name (or nickname), but hardly ever by a similar structure to English (Mr/Ms./Mrs. + Surname) as it sounds too “formal”.

As I have mentioned before, Argentina uses vos instead of tú and you will interact with your peers with it. Usted is used quite rarely, except in very formal language, if you are in a small town outside Buenos Aires, or over a certain age. And greetings? expect to be kissed and hugged by lots of people 😉 Most of them will be sincere, though.

In some parts of Colombia, you would be expected to use Usted in most interactions, even with your significant other! And of course, Spain with its extended use of tú and vosotros 😀 (which in Latin America is only used at religious settings, in order to convey a closer relationship there).

So, what is the most important rule here? Screw up! Even native speakers screw it up some times and it is completely okay and expected to do so. Books, classes, self teaching methods do help to learn a language, but you won’t get much of them unless you use them in real settings. You are not only learning a language, but a culture that goes along with it, too. Do not take giggles personally, as well.

Have you had an awkward moment with formal/informal language or with interpersonal behaviour in your target languages? Share them in the comments!



  1. It’s interesting what you said about Colombia – I didn’t realise there were differences in the use of ‘usted/ustedes’ between different countries.

    Polish has a very similar system, doesn’t it? Although, I think it might be changing – I sometimes feel slightly lost when talking to people my age when I’m in Poland because I find it hard to tell how old somebody is and whether they mind me using the ‘ty’ form. It’s all too complicated!

    • Oh, Polish has a similar system, but it’s very interesting how to things change in certain countries or times. My mum would hardly refer to her mum by her name or so… it’s always with a generic “la mamá” (the mother).
      I remember when in high school, some cool teachers or the ones you’ve got good relationships with one (and were young) allowed you to adress them by their nickname and as tú.
      In Spain, less and less people use Usted in most interactions… also you can see how the language surrounding the “usted” can be to convey positive respect or just create distance.

      • The idea of creating distance is interesting. In Polish, German and Spanish the verb form that follows the polite pronoun is in the third person so it feels like you’re talking about somebody rather than to somebody. Hence, it can be quite impersonal – especially if you’re addressing a family member!

        • Yeah, that’s true… but then, tone and some words would help you understand that you’re not being impersonal, but showing respect and care for that person.

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