Some Colombian people might feel uncomfortable with the ‘wrong’ pronoun when choosing tú vs usted.
Read More: our Spanish-language coverage explains much more than just tú vs usted!
The first (and only) time I got beaten up happened when I was eight years old. The person responsible for that attack was a boy I used to hang out with in a Taekwondo class. He kicked me three times in the chest as he felt threatened because of something terrible I did. The offence: placing my hand on his shoulder and asking him “¿Quieres ser mi amigo?” (Would you like to be my friend?)
At the time, I was more shocked at his overreaction than at the stinging pain in my chest. I wondered what I’d done wrong, as I heard that phrase frequently when watching TV. What I ignored at the time too was that TV shows for kids were dubbed in ‘neutral Spanish’ (although a bit Mexican-focused), a variation of Spanish that was so different from what you hear daily in Colombian streets.
Believe it or not: the way I conjugated that sentence was understood as something only gay people would say, and, unfortunately, that was a big no-no in my school days. When it comes to tú vs usted, it’s important to make the right choice.
Tú vs usted: the basics
One of the most basic things people learn when studying Spanish 101 is that there is a pronoun, usted, that can be used to replace the singular second pronoun tú, and that uses the same conjugations as the third person pronouns (él, ella).
For example, if we want to say “you are a student”, we can either say “(tú) eres estudiante” or “usted es estudiante”. When asked, teachers always say the difference is that tú vs usted is that the former is informal and the latter used for formal speech.
That is certainly true. However, the nuances of the difference of tú vs usted are for use of a better word, skipped in the explanation. Most teachers don’t explain that people from some countries or regions prefer one pronoun over the other whether it is formal speech or not.
For example, men from the central zones of Colombia (Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Ibagué, Neiva, Villavicencio, etc.) always use usted among themselves. It is the default option and it sounds odd when men choose to use tú with each other.
Tú is a way to address someone that entails higher proximity in the relationship. In Colombia, it feels like touching or hugging that person. That is the reason why some men will not mind using that pronoun with women but will find it off-putting when hearing it from another man. Also, women are more likely than men to accept a conversation where they are called tú.
But you might be thinking that Colombian men do hug each other. Although that is true, we only do it in specific moments: greeting each other, celebrating, partying, taking pictures, saying goodbye, etc.
There are more factors like age difference or generations each one belongs to, but randomly hugging another guy might not go down well – much like trying to have a conversation using tú vs usted, which would be less touchy-feely.
Thus, some Colombian men are taught, from a very young age, to keep some physical distance with other guys. Failing to do so, even in the way they speak to each other, might lead to group mockery. Whether or not you agree with this way of being, like gender-neutral language, it’s something you’re likely to come across in other people.
Using the pronoun usted is a way to keep a kind of linguistic distance. Even if you have a close friendship with another guy (and you are a man), he might use usted and its conjugations anyway. Tú vs usted has a lot of cultural implication behind it.
Don’t think, either, that usted sounds strictly respectful. We can use it in formal situations, but also in rude conversations. When Colombian people want to insult each other, we conjugate our verbs with that pronoun.
It sounds weird to combine the word ‘hijueputa’ (son of a bitch) with ‘tú’. Colombians often start a fight with phrases like “¿qué le pasa, hijueputa!” (what’s wrong with you, son of a bitch) or “¡su madre!” (your mother [fuck you!]).
Insults with tú are not taken seriously. Also, if a Colombian person uses tú all the time and, suddenly, changes to usted, be sure you did something wrong that upset that person.
Obviously, usted is still used as a polite way of talking to someone you don’t know, older people or people with higher status such as bosses. However, you already know that switching between tú vs usted is more complex than just informal vs polite.
The evolution of usted
To understand these kinds of reactions, we can check the evolution of the word usted. As Instituto Cervantes states, we need to go back to the 15th Century, when the polite expression ‘vuestra merced’ was introduced in the language. That courtesy title was born with a similar grammar and purpose than ‘su majestad’ (your grace) but for common folk.
The word ‘merced’ can have many meanings. DRAE lists most of them as ‘gift’, ‘reward’, or ‘mercy’. It is also included in some grammar forms like ‘estar a merced de’, which means ‘to be at the mercy of. To summarize, we can agree it was a respectful way of addressing someone.
The expression evolved into shorter words: vuesasted, vuested, vusted and finally usted. This helps to know that every time we say usted, we are not addressing (or “touching”) someone directly, but a persona that represents the recipient of the message. That’s why we use a third person conjugation when we say usted.
Nevertheless, evolution does not always take one single path to its goal. There was a special deviation that happened in Colombia. In zones like Boyacá or Cundinamarca, you can hear people saying sumercé as a very polite way of addressing someone, way beyond usted in respect but with the same conjugation rules. It is thought that only people who live in small towns use sumercé, but you can also hear it in Bogotá.
This is common among campesinos, people who work at stores, gas station attendants, and everyone who provides a service. Customers, clients, bosses, and elders are especially treated this way. However, this word can be used with anyone. Be alert, and pay the same respect if the word sumercé shows up in a conversation.
¿Vos S.O.S. gringo?
Before ‘vuestra merced’, the standard phrase to respectfully address people was vos. When the first one became the rule, vos was used for closed friends or to express contempt towards somebody you might think of ‘inferior people’, such as your employees or children. Using it in the wrong context was considered an insult.
The Hispanophone world is separated by a common language and in some countries and regions it became the standard singular second person pronoun, pretty much replacing tú – especially in the Southern Cone as well as parts of Central America. On the other hand, in some other countries like Colombia, it’s a third option alongside tú vs usted.
The problem with vos is it has its own conjugations in present simple and imperative forms (the other tenses share conjugations with tú). Some examples:
- Ser: Vos sos.
- Decir: Vos decís.
- Comer: Vos comés.
- Hablar: Vos hablás.
- Dormir: Vos dormís.
- Entender: Vos entendés.
- Saber: Vos sabés (people from Cali might pronounce it like vojabés).
It is known that people from many cities from the Western regions of Colombia use vos. To make it harder, they can mix the use of that pronoun with tú vs usted depending on the context or the speaker.
Which pronoun should I use?
Fortunately enough, most Colombians identify a foreign language accent when someone is talking to them. If you are still a Spanish language beginner, you can just focus on trying to get yourself understood rather than thinking on what pronoun to use according to the context.
Colombians who have chatted with foreigners (even Spanish native speakers) are used to talking with the former when thinking of tú vs usted – trying to mimic the ‘neutral Spanish’ variation we discussed above, learned from dubbed TV shows.
But, if you have a higher proficiency and want to improve your Spanish, by all means, do give it a try. Here are some tips you can follow to know which pronoun is best when considering tú vs usted in Colombia:
- If you and the listener have a significant age difference, use usted.
- Say usted to your boss, teachers, and business people. However, you can make an exception if they show themselves as easy-going and chill people. If they use tú with you, you can test the waters and try to use it as well.
- Say usted to authorities. Police are not likely to be kind with people who do not respect them.
- For most men, use usted with men and tú with women your age.
- For most women, it is okay to say tú to people your age.
- It is desirable to tell children tú.
- If you insult someone, always use the conjugation for usted.
- Tú is often a good choice with people from the Caribbean region. For Vos, check the map above.
- The same rules applies within Colombian families. For example, it is better to use usted or sumercé with the parents of your partner.
- Romantic partners are expected to use tú. If your Colombian partner suddenly switches from tú to usted, is because something worrying is happening. If you also switch to usted, it can be seen as a challenge.