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The Spanish Language: Informal vs Formal

OK, so perhaps a silly question. How serious a faux pas is it to address someone you don't know informally, like, say, the hotel receptionist or a waiter? I am purposely avoiding focusing on "tu" and second person singular verbs, but still I can see myself at the hotel reception desk blurting out "como estás". Will it just be laughed off as my being a dumb Yankee?

Posted by
1880 posts

Naaaaa, do not worry about it. You are at least trying.

I remember years ago, THINKING I was saying how beautiful the building was, when I later died laughing realizing I had been repeatedly telling the man who helped with the luggage how beautiful HE was. No wonder he kept looking oddly at my husband.

Traveling and making attempts at other languages (I know enough of about 10 different ones to be dangerous), it sure does make one much, much more understanding with those who come to our country (as visitors or residents) who may not have perfect English.

I hired a young Hispanic man recently to do some rock work in my garden....other then the pleasantries, he communicated details with both of us talking into his cell phone, translating English to Spanish and vice versa. I am guessing some of the text messages he sent used the translation device, because some the wording was a bit off. I just overlooked the errors...did not point them out...and privately realized that I had probably made much bigger errors with languages in my travels. No, let's not say PROBABLY, let's say DEFINITELY :) :) Humbles us, doesn't it?

In one of the NYC airports a few years ago, I noticed a couple from another country confused about having to exit the secure area and then re-enter.........(it was one of those weird temporary set-ups and truly odd), realizing how confused I would be in somewhere that did not speak English, I approached them an offered to help, ultimately taking them to a close-by Delta desk and explaining the confusion so the agent could clarify where they needed to go. I saw it as a pay-it-forward moment, hoping some dear soul may realize I need assistance some day.

If I am not sure I stated something correctly in the right language, I will then (and it happens a lot) follow it with: "Did I say that correctly?" Usually results in all sorts of smiles, nodding of heads and a nice foundation for however long or short the interface is.

Posted by
2209 posts

You will find in Spain, our Spanish not so formal as what one might find in some Latin American countries. I don't think one would even notice if you forget to use the formal vs informal pronouns, especially if you look like a tourist ;-)

Posted by
571 posts

I was in hospital for a few days here in England last year, and one of the care assistants was a young Spanish man. I have been learning Spanish, and tried greeting him one day with a "Como estas". He rebuked me for using the familiar second person.

Posted by
3213 posts

Formal or familiar, most will be happy you’re attempting to speak Spanish. Nobody will laugh. At least you know the difference between the two; that’s more than many from the U.S.

Posted by
2575 posts

Hey, probably the only thing you need to remember, to avoid embarrassment, is the correct translation for the commonly used "I am hot". This one is a typical (very typical) mistake by English speakers. Most do translate as "Estoy caliente", instead of the correct "Tengo calor". Note the first one means, literally, "I'm horny", LOL!

Posted by
129 posts

To be clear, I'm NOT worried about embarrassing myself--He**'s Bells, I've done that for almost seven decades and I'm used to it by now--LOL. What concerned me is that I might offend someone by accidentally being too informal.

Signed: Un caliente hombre (LOL)...er, un hombre caliente

Jazz+Travels: I'm confused by the "lesson" on "Yankee"? My use of the term was as a light-hearted, self-deprecating joke.

Posted by
2575 posts

Seriously now.... generally speaking, it's not really the form you're using, it's the context, tone and manner. Thus, you can freely use the "tu" form if your attitude and tone are respectful and nobody needs to be upset. Also, keep in mind that Spaniards, same than us Catalans, we do have quite a lot of "leniency" with non-natives trying to speak our respective languages :)

The above might not be necessarily true with all Latin Americans, in many countries they do extensively use the "usted" form -sometimes even among young people- and while I can't really speak for them in saying whether they can be offended if using the informal way, I know for certain that in quite a lot of instances they feel "uncomfortable" when someone's addressing to them using the "tu".

Posted by
256 posts

Honestly, some of this depends on your fluency, but I wouldn't worry too much. If you seem like someone who speaks very well and you make errors like that, it's much worse than if it's clear that you are a learner and then the message becomes "hey, (s)he's trying!"

I speak Spanish well enough to do quite a bit, but it's clear I'm not fluent. I've found native speakers will sometimes more automatically use "tu" with me in informal settings (granted, my experience is mostly with Latin American Spanish speakers). However, I have not found that to be the case at work, where I use "usted" with Spanish-speakers and they use it back with me. I tried "tu" at first because I was thinking "colleagues," but switched when I realized they weren't using it with me!

I work with language learners and this is definitely an issue for us English-speakers - lots of us revert to informal naturally. If you want to prepare yourself, you could even try training yourself to use "usted" by thinking through scenarios in your head and practicing using the formal automatically.

Posted by
4368 posts

Hey, probably the only thing you need to remember, to avoid embarrassment, is the correct translation for the commonly used "I am hot". This one is a typical (very typical) mistake by English speakers. Most do translate as "Estoy caliente", instead of the correct "Tengo calor". Note the first one means, literally, "I'm horny", LOL!

Lol, this is EXACTLY what my wife texted to her new boss when she was a few weeks into the Barcelona segment of her project in her attempt to try and learn a bit of Spanish. He politely pointed out her error.

Posted by
2575 posts

uhh, JC, your wife sexting to her boss?? LOL!

Posted by
4368 posts

uhh, JC, your wife sexting to her boss?? LOL!

Yes, I've since confiscated her phone.