How to talk to your boss in Spanish

How to talk to your boss in Spanish

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated August 7, 2023

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. To ensure you keep your job and your behavior in a Spanish-language office environment is punctual and polite, it’s time to learn some Spanish workplace etiquette. Here are some guidelines on how to talk to your boss in Spanish. 

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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 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. 

Conjugating formal Spanish in usted form 

Formal and informal speech still exists in some English languages, 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 is the 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.

YotrabajoI work
trabajayou work (informal)
trabajahe/she works
you work (sing, formal)
Nosotros/astrabajamoswe work
trabajanthey work
you (plural, formal)

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.

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 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 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/?). 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.

Tu vs. Tú in Spanish

Final note: The word with an accent mark means “you”. The word tu without an accent mark is an adjective 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.)

On point with your Spanish

Understanding the distinctions between formal and informal language can greatly enhance our ability to connect with others and navigate various social situations. Formal Spanish, with its adherence to grammar rules and respectful tone, is typically used in professional settings and when addressing individuals of higher social status. On the other hand, informal Spanish allows for a more relaxed and casual tone, making it ideal for conversations among friends and family. By being aware of these differences and adapting our language accordingly, we can better express ourselves and build stronger connections within the Spanish-speaking world.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Turkish. Her consulting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

Alison Maciejewski Cortez
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