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Cómo está usted?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Here’s the basics: in Spanish (like many other languages), there are two ways to say “you”– the casual is tu, and the formal way is usted, each with a separate conjugation.  In some countries there is also voz and vosotros, but here in Chile, it’s just tu and usted.  I learned back in Spanish 100 that you use usted when you first meet someone, with someone older than you, and in a professional context.

But, like most things, the more I know, the more interesting it gets.  I remember going to the movies in Mexico and spending the whole time thinking about the translation– it was an American romance, and when the characters first met, the subtitles had them addressing each other as usted, but by the time they slept together, it was tu.  Here in Chile, I’ve gotten conflicting reports when I ask people about this.  One teacher I work with who is about my parents’ age told me that her generation addresses their parents as usted.  Most people my age seem to address all family members as tu, except grandparents, who remain usted.  Someone else told me that sometimes pololos (boyfriend-girlfriends) address each other as usted to make it kind of special.

In school, I am always addressed as usted by students, and I have to say, it really makes me feel like a grown-up.  Also, in Spanish, you can use usted and titles to articulate rank and status, but still use a person’s first name.  For example, students address the principal by his first name, but it’s “Don César, cómo está usted?“, where as it would be “César, cómo estás” or even “cómo estai?” for a friend.  Of course, women become Tía (literally, aunt, catch-all term for respect), Señorita (single), and Señora (married).  Doña is more formal still– and as someone explained to me, the address of choice for an older unmarried woman, since it would be awkward to address a woman over 50 as Señorita (because it would call attention to her failure as a woman, i.e. not marrying?).  Men can be Tío, though at school, I’ve only heard male teachers addressed as Don; I wonder if this relates to the fact that in Palena, like in the US, male teachers by and large work with older students.  On the first day of school, the principal stumbled as he introduced the new female teachers– is it Señorita or Señora? — while I was thinking, why does it matter?  Male teachers are Don, end of story; we don’t need to know if they are married or not to classify them socially.  Apparently there is no Ms. in Spanish.

But back to tu and usted.  How do you address the slightly older (say, 35) friend of your friend when you first meet them?  These situations are still grey for me, but I know that when in doubt, start with usted.  People here are also used to foreigners using tu all the time, but I take pride in getting it right and showing respect.

I’ve also discovered a situation when I am grateful for the distance of usted: with viejos verdes.  That’s the Chilean term (literally, green old men) for a concept we all know well: sketchy old guys who hit on much younger women.  Here, like everywhere else I’ve lived, I’ve run into a few older men who hug too long (after the requisite kiss– but that is the standard male-female greeting), make too many compliments, and appear to lack the emotional intelligence to realize their sentiments are not welcome– or they just don’t care.  Suddenly, usted is a strategy for keeping the distance and formality.  For example:

Viejo verde: “Cómo estás, linda?”  [“How are you (informal), pretty girl?”]

Me: “Bien, cómo está usted?” [“I’m good, how are you (formal)?”]

Viejo verde: “Usted?  Cómo usted?  Soy tan viejo?” [“You’re going to address me as usted?  Am I really that old?”]

Me: “Hahahaaa, bueno, que le vaya bien.” [Girly yet curt laughing it off (i.e. yup, you’re older than my dad), walking away, “Take care” in formal tense].

I’ve talked about this situation with Chileans, both male and female, and they all agree that usted is the way to go, and it’s fine to fend off the kiss with a handshake.  Normally men greet men with a handshake, men greet women and women greet women with a kiss on the cheek; the same goes for leaving.  I recently met a gringo in Palena (shocking!), and we laughed about how we didn’t know how to greet each other– as he pointed out, if you kiss a woman you just met in the US, you are way out of line.

In the end, this tu and usted business articulates power and rank in a way that has no equivalent in English.  Of course, even if students address me as usted, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been whistled at by high school boys in the hall (that’s a piropo, also means pick up line).  So, as usual, I can’t really talk about power without talking about feminism, but we’ll save piropos, and what I’ll do if it happens again, for another post.

Unrelated picture of me on horseback from a few weeks ago.

One Comment leave one →
  1. sally johnson permalink
    Tuesday, March 15, 2011 2:41 pm

    Fascinating discussion about the pronoun YOU singular and YOU plural and formal. I believe the same holds true in French and perhaps other languages. I love the kiss off of the male version of the dirty old man. I guess they are everywhere, huh? Hopefully no pinching like in Italy! 🙂 Your wisdom and insight continue to move me. Can’t wait to talk in person after this chapter is completed. Hope the teaching is as wonderful for you as I’m sure it is for the kids! much love,

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