There is nothing more cringe-worthy than a monolingual English-speaker from a privileged background sauntering up to a native Spanish-speaker and slapping her with an “¡Hola, amiga!” Twice as cringe-y if you have a strong accent. Ten times worse if that “amiga” staring back at you (as if you were a talking giraffe) is actually your boss. If you want to keep your job and you work in a Spanish-language office environment, it’s time to learn some Spanish workplace etiquette. Here is an explanation for the most important rule on how to talk to your boss in Spanish.
The most important rules for how to talk to your boss in Spanish
1. Formal vs. informal language in Spanish
If you learn Spanish at home or take online Spanish lessons, you get face-to-face video time with a native Spanish speakers from a variety of backgrounds. If you take traditional Spanish lessons in a classroom, you may not have been trained in proper etiquette based on formality.
In English there is no longer any such thing as a formal verb conjugation. We use educated vocabulary and contextual clues instead to indicate formal language. If an interviewer thanks us for our time, we don’t say, “Right back at-cha!” Instead we say, “You as well. Thank you very much.” By contrast, Spanish has an actual grammatical format where certain verb conjugations are understood as formal.
2. Conjugating formal Spanish in usted form
Formal and informal speech still exists in some English language, though it’s associated with archaic practices like royalty. Look at the term you. I can use it with nearly anybody. If I am standing in front of the Queen of England, though, I wouldn’t call her you, I’d say Your Majesty. It’s formal.
Now, imagine that you had a formal/informal dynamic for many people in your daily life. Both mean “you” but tú is informal version while usted (abbreviated Ud.) is the formal version. Remember from your basic Spanish grammar that usted is the same as él/ella form of every verb.
Yo trabajo, tú trabajas, él/ella/Ud. trabaja, nosotros trabajamos, ellos/ellas/ustedes trabajan
Here is the same question in both forms:
- ¿Dónde trabajas? (Where do you work?) – Informal speech is ok for friends, peers, and people younger than you
- ¿Dónde trabaja? (Where do you work?) – Formal speech is for royalty, strangers, customers, business situations, older people, and anybody deserving of respect.
3. Go with formal Spanish to begin with
When you first meet your boss you should use the formal way of talking. This means from the first interview until your final day at work, use the usted form of verbs. Change this habit if you hear work colleagues doing otherwise and even then, only when your boss explicitly tells you it’s ok. They will speak to you in tú form but you need permission to use it with them. Does strict hierarchy sound outdated? The Latin American business world can be rather conventional and you don’t want to burn bridges. In casual offices such as artistic or tech sectors, it is appropriate to ask your boss if you can drop the formal speaking habits.
¿Puedo tutearle? or ¿Nos tuteamos? or ¿Sería correcto tutearle? are all ways of floating the question (Can I treat you as you/tú?). Notice that the indirect object pronoun le is the usted form and not te. Be respectful even in asking and prepared to follow any answer. Here are all the ways your boss might respond. These are all direct or indirect phrases that mean “Yes, speak to me informally”:
- Trátame de tú/ti.
- Tutéame por favor.
- Puedes hablarme de tú.
- ¡Vamos! Háblame de tú.
- No me trates de usted.
4. Tu vs. Tú in Spanish
Final note: The word tú with an accent mark means you. The word tu without an accent mark is an adverb used to show possession, meaning yours. ¿Tú tienes a tu sueter? ¿No? Pues vete a buscarlo. (Do you have your sweater? No? Then go and look for it.)
Have you been using the informal tú version with people you are meeting for the first time? Don’t worry, lots of Spanish language learners do. Now that you know better, you will sound more refined in every situation you encounter.
Ready to start practicing formal vs. informal Spanish language? Sign up for a 7-day free trial with Lingoda’s native speaking Spanish teachers today.