Easy, but important…and often skipped. That’s how I’d put this. We all have a certain set of manners ingrained in us since birth by our society that we do automatically, things you do to be considered polite (e.g. saying “please” and “thank you” when appropriate, not cutting people off at the exit to a building, not cutting in line, etc.), and Spanish and English speaking cultures share many of those, but there are some they have that we don’t (and vice-versa) and those are what we’re going to focus on today so that you don’t inadvertently offend someone at some point.
There really isn’t a direct equivalent in Spanish for our English word, “polite”. The closest is probably “educado”, which literally means “educated” but isn’t really used that way, it more often means that someone has good manners or is, as used to be said but not so much anymore, “well groomed”. There are other words, such as “amable” and “pulido” but those more accurately translate to their English equivalents of “amiable” and “polished”, respectively. The term “educado” could be just as readily and accurately applied to the high-school dropout mechanic down the street as it could to a university professor, so it really doesn’t refer to the person’s education level, it refers to how well they were raised and brought up, which doesn’t just include manners and politeness, but mainly so.
Upon meeting someone, depending on the circumstances, there are a number of greetings you can employ. The first one that Spanish students are typically taught is “Buenos Dias” if it’s morning or “Buenas Tardes/Noches” if it’s afternoon or evening, and then “hasta luego” upon departing–this is fine if you’re dealing with a shop clerks, waiters, etc. or if the person you’re greeting will likely only ever meet you this one time. If it’s someone who you will almost certainly see again, such as a new coworker or a friend’s friend, then from the second encounter onwards you’ll be expected to use a more personal greeting, of which there are several that most Spanish students have been taught: mucho gusto (most common one and an excellent choice, this one’s always safe), tanto gusto, and…encantado/encantada–a word about this word: in short, don’t use it, it basically translates to “enchanted” and sounds about as goofy in Spanish as saying “Enchanted!” upon meeting someone in English would sound. I’ve noticed that a lot of Spanish texts, especially the sort used in high school and university Spanish classes, teach this word as if it’s a perfectly normal thing to say: it’s not. “Muchísimo gusto” would be appropriate for someone you’ve been dying to meet, such as the mother of your boyfriend/girlfriend that you’ve been going out with for 6 months and who you’ve heard “such wonderful things” about 😉
After this you’ll want to say some version of “How are you?” or “How’s it going”, here’s your list of options in order of most formal to least:
- ¿Cómo está? or ¿Cómo está usted?
- ¿Comó le va?
- ¿Qué tal? or ¿Qué tal tu?
- ¿Cómo estamos?
- ¿Cómo estás?
- ¿Qué hay de nuevo?
- ¿Qué pasó? or ¿Qué pasa? (varies depending on country)
- ¿Qué me cuentas? or ¿Qué me dices?
- ¿Qué onda? or ¿Quiúbole? (Mexico and Carribean)
Please note that every one of those except the first one (“¿Cómo está?” and “Cómo está usted?”) are informal to some degree or another and imply that you have some level of friendship/familiarity with the person.
Obviously, if you’re using someone’s nickname with them, you’re being informal and friendly with them, but another thing to note is whether or not anyone else does the same, just like in English: if no one else calls José “Pepe”, then you shouldn’t either. Use generic nicknames only when you know the person well enough that you’re certain they won’t be offended (e.g. calling someone “viejo” which translates to “old man”, or “compadre” which is like the U.S. English equivalent of “buddy” or “dude” or the British English equivalent of “mate”).
An interesting cultural note is that in Latin America women in the work place will often be referred to with affectionate, pet names by the men, such as “linda” or “cariño”–this is one of many things that’s frequently looked down on in North America but isn’t in Latin America. Just be aware of it.
Make sure you greet and say goodbye to everyone, even if they’re in a large group, whenever possible–to not do so can be seen as rude.
Also, on a related sidenote, shopkeepers and retail employees will frequently answer the phone with “A sus ordenes!” (“at your service” or, literally, “at your orders”)–I know this is extremely common in Colombia, though I can’t comment on elsewhere. Edit: In Argentina they’ll frequently answer with “¿Qué desea?” or “¿En qué lo puedo ayudar?” (thanks, cuentanueva 😉 ).
To use “Usted” or to use “Tú”?
This is something that Spanish learners tend to worry about far more than they should, and they tend to make it far more complicated than it needs to be. This particular problem can be solved 99.9% of the time with one very simple rule: if you would use “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, or “Ms.” with the person, then you use “usted”, if you would use their first name, then use “tú”, that’s it.
If you move into a new apartment or house, you may initially greet your neighbor as “Mr. Garcia”, and you would certainly use “usted” for the time being, but if you later began addressing each other by first names and he became “Juan” to you, that is precisely when you would start using “tú” with him.
This applies even when you don’t know the person’s name, such as with a bartender, taxi driver, or cop: would you call your bartender “Mr. Smith” or would you call him “Joe”? “Joe”, right? Then you use “tú” with him. A police officer you would almost always address as “Officer Smith”, and therefore you would use “usted” with them.
The one thing that will throw this rule awry is a significant age difference, this is the only time that it might not apply and/or you could end up in a situation where you are calling the them “usted” and they are calling you “tú”, or vice-versa. If their is a significant age difference, the younger person will almost always continue to use “usted” with the older person even after the older person has started calling them “tú”, such as would be the case with someone and their friend’s grandmother, or between you and a young child (you would use “tú” with them while they would continue using “usted” with you). You’ll notice, however, that this still obeys the “Mr./Mrs./Ms.” rule that we established earlier.
People will not hesitate to tell you to use to with them (“Tuteame!”), but they will almost never tell you to use “usted” with them because it would seem rude, so if you’re really uncertain then yes, “usted” is definitely the safe bet. The best way, though, to really determine what to do is to listen to those around you and how they are addressing the person in question, and then simply follow their lead.
Also, note that in Argentina and the Southern Cone in general it’s quite common for them to use “vos” in place of “tú”, and the rule there is that you just use “vos” anytime you would use “tú”, very simple.
Titles and Old People
Titles are a bit more important in Latin cultures than they are in the English-speaking world, and, oddly, a bit more loosely used: anyone in a position of importance or, sometimes, with at least a university degree, will be referred to as “doctor”, e.g. a secretary will very frequently tend to refer to her boss as “Doctor ____” even though they’re very rarely actually a doctor, they get this title simply by being in a position of importance or authority. Lawyers are always given the title of “doctor”, as well. Engineers get the title “Ingeniero”, teachers are called “Profesor”, and teachers are also sometimes referred to as “Maestro” which is also usually extended to any craftsperson or skilled tradesmen and sometimes even plumbers, carpenters, electricians, etc.
The most common title you’ll run into, however, is “licenciado” which literally means “graduate” and is extended to basically anyone who wears a tie and is a lot like the “doctor” title except even more generously applied.
The default title, as you probably already know, is “señor”/”señora”, which you use if you don’t know the person particularly well, aren’t sure what to use, and none of the other choices immediately fit. It’s roughly equivalent to “Sir” or “Ma’am” in English and is precisely what you use day-to-day when it’s someone that you’re not particularly well acquainted with, or if you’re just not sure it’s the safe bet that should always be acceptable.
Are you speaking to an old person (“old” generally means 50+)? If yes, use “Don/Doña” almost without exception, obviously in conjugation with the “usted” conjugation of any verbs. This applies to everybody, regardless of their status or status relative to you: the 80 year-old doorman at your hotel should be addressed as “Don Alberto”, the 60 year old waiter gets “Don’ed”, the old woman begging for change even gets the “Doña” treatment. Edit: this is not so common in Argentina, it’s something that’s considered a bit old-fashioned and not really done any more, though it is still highly prevalent in Mexico and, I’m pretty sure, Colombia, at a minimum.
This may also be applied to someone of especially high status, such as the CEO of your company, though even then the person will typically be older.
There are lots of little words and expressions in English that function as what’s known as “social lubricant”, little niceties such as “excuse me”, “pardon”, “with your permission”, “may I”, “if you don’t mind”, etc., and Spanish is no different except that these sorts of expressions are used even more frequently than in English.
One particular thing you’ll notice they do much more frequently than you may be used to is ask permission, and they have 8 different ways of saying it (in order of most formal to least):
- Con permiso (“With permission”)
- ¿Me permite? (“Will you permit me?”)
- Perdón (“Pardon”)
- ¿Se puede? (“May I?”)
- Comper’ (shortened version of “con permiso”)
- Hágase un poco para allá, por favor (“Move over a little, please”)
- Abreme espacio / Abreme cancha (“Give me some space”)
- Hazte pa’llá (explained below)
The first 5 are acceptable for most situations regardless, the last 3 are much more slangy and should be used with care. Note that “¿Se puede?” (“Can one?” literally, meaning something like “May I?”) or “¿Se puede ver?” (“Can one see?”) is the common way of asking to see something in a store or asking permission to pick up or touch a product such as a painting, china, food, or something else delicate. “Hazte pa’llá” would mean “scoot over a bit” if you’re speaking to a friend in a friendly way, or it could mean “Get out of the way!” if not.
If you’re carrying a heavy object, like if you’re helping someone move a large piece of furniture, and you need people to get out of the way, the way you would say “Coming through!” would be “¡Golpe avisa!”. Edit: The above-mentioned Argentinean informs me that he’s never heard “golpe avisa” because these sorts phrases vary greatly from country to country, he says: stick with “Disculpe”, “Perdón”, “Permiso”, and “Cuidado” if you need someone to move, those will work everywhere.
Give my regards…
Always remember to say “gracias” when someone does this–English-speakers will frequently just say “Sure, will do” or something similar when someone says something like “Give my regards to your wife.” In Spanish you always, always say “thank you” when someone does this, as you’re expressing gratitude for their “detalle“, or thoughtfulness (literally “detalle” translates to “gesture” in this case).
Spanish-speakers tend to be a bit more formal and polite on the phone, phrases that you’ll frequently hear used (overused?) on the phone are things like:
- “Si es tan amable” = “If you please”
- “Si no es mucha molestia” = “If it’s not too much trouble”
- To ask for someone, you might say “¿Me puede comunicar con _____?” or, more casually, “Está por ahí _____?
- To say our equivalent of “Speaking” in response to someone asking for you when you answer the phone, you simply say “Él/Ella habla”.
Mi Casa Es Su Casa
Not only is this a saying so common in Spanish that it’s made its way into regular usage in the English language, but it’s also representative of a very common sentiment, a certain special type of hospitality, in Spanish-speaking countries.
A frequent point of confusion for foreigners is the reference by someone to their own home as “your home”, or “tu casa”–someone may give you directions to their house or apartment, for example, and then at the end of it say “…y entonces llegas a tu casa!” (“and then you arrive at your house!”) where “tu casa” is in reference to their house. It’s just a nice gesture of hospitality frequently used there, that’s all.
Another common expression is “Estás en tu casa” or “Está usted en su casa” in response to any request a guest makes in someone’s home, such as asking permission to use the phone or pull up a chair. They’re telling you that you are, effectively, in your own home so of course you can. Edit: Additionally, there’s: “Siéntase como en su casa”, “Como en su casa”, and “Como si estuvieras en tu casa”, etc.
Also, one more thing that’s just an expression of hospitality and not to be taken literally is the expression “es tuya” (“it’s yours”) in response to you complimenting something in their home (a painting, china, rug, etc.), this definitely does not mean they literally want to give it to you.
All that time spent learning the imperative and now you’re about to find out that you’ll never use it (well, rarely): sorry. When asking for something in Spanish (whether you’re “ordering” at a restaurant or bar or asking a friend for something, you’re still really asking, not giving an outright order), you would almost never use the imperative, it sounds far too rude. You may have been taught that the way to ask for a coffee is “Traigame un café, por favor” but even with “por favor” that’s still far too pushy and will come off as impolite, the way that ordering something in a restaurant, bar, or store is done 98% of the time is by using “¿Me trae ______, por favor?”, e.g. “¿Me trae un café, por favor?”. Edit: You’ll also frequently hear “No” tacked onto the beginning of these phrases, it still means the same thing and is sort of like us saying “Couldn’t you please ____?” e.g. “Couldn’t you please bring me some coffee?”, so it would be “¿No me trae un café, por favor?”, etc.
The same sort of thing goes when asking for just about anything else from just about anyone else, the only thing that varies is the level of formality depending on who you’re talking to: just use the same formula as above with one of several of the most commonly used verbs:
- Traer (“to bring”): This should be your automatic default that you use with the great majority of people the great majority of the time. This one is always a safe bet, regardless of who you’re talking to. Use this with friends, waiters, and random people on the street.
- Permitir (“to permit”): This is one of the most formal, and the expression you’ll be using, “me permite”, most closely translates to “May I?”; this is what you would use with someone who would rate an extra bit of respect and formality, such as your father-in-law or your boss, someone you would certainly be using “usted” with.
- Dar (“to give”): A bit informal, safe for use with friends and people you’re familiar with and normally address with “tú”, usually just means “Can you hand me that?”, e.g. “¿Me da ese bolígrafo, por favor?” = “Can you hand me that pen, please?”.
- Prestar (“to loan”): Informal and implies that the item in question will be returned in short order, “¿Me presta _____, por favor?” means “Can I borrow ____, please?”.
- Regalar (“to give as a gift”): Be careful, as this implies that the item in question will be permanently gifted to the person requesting it, as in “Can I have ____? [permanently]”.
- Pasar (“to pass”): Very common in colloquial use and is a more informal version of how “prestar” is used, it means precisely what it seems: “Can you pass me ____, please?”.
- Another common, formal way of asking for something is to say “¿Puedo tomar ____, por favor?”, which literally and actually means “Can I have ____, please?”.
You’ve got lots of different choices here and, frankly, this isn’t as big a deal as a lot of other stuff. “Adiós” and “Hasta luego” are appropriate for almost all situations, though you should remember that “adiós” is typically used for situations where you’re not going to see the person for a while (if you’re going to see them the next day when you come back into work, then you wouldn’t use this). “Nos vemos” is a very common informal farewell that basically means “See you later”, as is “Ciao”/”Chau” (spelling varies, pronunciation stays the same: “Chow”) and “Hasta mañana”.
A somewhat more formal way of saying goodbye is “Que le vaya bien” which roughly means “I hope it goes well for you” but note that this is only used when the person you’re saying it to is the one leaving, not you. A much for formal one is “Vaya con Dios” which means “Go with God”, but this one is rarely heard unless it’s coming from a priest or it’s an especially formal situation or ceremony.
A couple of informal, colloquial ways of saying farewell that you’ll commonly hear used amongst friends are “Cuídate” which means “Take care” and “Pórtate bien” which means “Behave yourself”. If they’re about to go to bed, you could say “Que descanses” which means “Rest well” or “Rest up”.
- When you pass by someone you’re even vaguely acquainted with who is eating, you always wish them “Buen provecho” or just “Provecho” which means “bon appetit” (which is French, ironically).
- Generally speaking, don’t throw things, it’s almost always considered very uncivilized behavior, e.g. don’t crumple up a piece of paper and throw it, or anything else, in in the trash can, and especially don’t throw someone at someone (e.g. tossing a pencil to someone who asked for one).
- Don’t turn your back on someone, especially if they’re speaking to you or part of your group, this is still kind of rude in English-speaking cultures, but it’s much more so amongst Spanish-speaking ones.
- Don’t point at people.
- Spanish-speakers tend to stand closer when talking, try not to back away or act weird about it.
I would like to note that these are all very broad generalizations that were chosen to cover things that tended to be prevalent throughout the Spanish-speaking world in general, and Latin America in particular: there is so much stuff that’s country-specific or even specific to a certain region of a country (such as the Paisa region of Colombia versus the coast/carribean region versus Bogotá) that I couldn’t possibly cover it in a single post. I’m sure there is stuff in here that doesn’t apply in X country or X city, and of course plenty of stuff that does but isn’t here, this couldn’t be helped. You are more than welcome to mention stuff like that in the comments, I sincerely welcome additional information that may be useful to other people who will read this: yes, seriously, please post it.
Also, on an related note, I’ve got another post I did in a very similar vein to this one that you should also checked out called How to Not Sound Like a Gringo – The 17 Most Common Spanish Errors and How to Avoid Them.
A Quick Note Before We End…
I’ve got two posts that I’ve put up that I’m recommending everyone interested in learning Spanish go read if they haven’t already (if you have, ignore this, sorry): How to avoid wasting months learning Spanish the wrong way (basically this is my “how to get started right in learning Spanish” post for complete beginners) and The Telenovela Method where I cover how to use popular media like movies, music, and books to learn Spanish. Additionally you can check out the front page for a more complete list of my best and most popular posts.
Sources: Joseph Keenan’s Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish, Cuentanueva on reddit, some friends over at Colombia Blog who have helped me understand Colombian culture immensely over the years, and my own personal experience with countless Spanish-speakers kind enough to share their culture with me.