¿Cómo está usted?

How are you? Easy question really. I don’t have a problem answering. Neither do my students—“I’m fine, thank you” is their automatic response to my daily question. But recently I got to thinking about usted, tú, and the lack of formal English.

English used to have another way to say “you.” If you have attended church, you might recall the word “thou” or “thy”—“Our Father, who art in Heaven … thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” Is this ringing any bells? You see, English used to have a formal and informal tense. “Thou” was informal, whereas “you” was formal. Thus, “thou” and “thy” and “thine” were used with God, because was meant to be seen as a close friend and not some distant deity. In the same way, the Spain Spanish Bible uses “tú” when talking to God, and the apostle Paul addresses the people in the “vosotros” form rather than the “ustedes” form, trying to be as informal and friendly as possible.

In the past, I am almost sure, “usted” and “ustedes” were used more frequently in Spain. In fact, my husband assures me that his parents actually addressed their parents as “usted,” a fact I find both mind-boggling and extremely interesting from a linguistics standpoint. I heard my mother-in-law talking to her aunt one day, her aunt who is also her godmother. “¿Cómo está, tía?” she asked. “Queremos visitarla muy pronto.” Of course, that’s not her exact quote, but you get the gist. It struck me as extremely odd, having heard Mario refer to his parents as “tú” and “vosotros” the whole time I’d known him. I referred to his parents as “tú” almost from the first time we met.


Jesús has always been “tú” for me

I met them in November 2009, and, I admit, I was very anxious to do so. I wasn’t sure how to refer to them, if I should tutear them, but Mario assured me that I should. In fact, I’m not sure I could even have used usted; I was so not used to using that form, having lived in Spain for quite some time. Since that time I’ve learned the use of the formal form is very contested in places like France or Germany. Since then, I’ve come to feel quite comfortable, quite natural when I address my father-in-law in the tú form. I’m not sure how I would act otherwise.

For me, using “usted” is quite difficult. I struggle to use it, because it’s not a daily thing for me. When I hear someone address me in “usted,” I often am not sure if they are talking to me or about a third person, because the “usted” form is the same as the third-person form. If a person from South American uses “ustedes,” I find myself baffled—who are they talking to? I understand how to use “usted;” my problem is putting it into practice. It’s not an everyday occurrence, and so I lack practice.

Maybe someday my Spanish will improve to the point that I am very comfortable using the “usted” tense; however, I feel that will be a long time coming. How about you? Are you accustomed to using the “usted” version on a day-to-day basis? What advice do you have for me or for others in my situation?