In many ways, Spanish is a more formal language than English. Therefore, it is important to understand the social nuances and signs of respect already worked into the Spanish language. To speak the language it is critical to understand and properly use the forms of addressing people.
Whereas in English we have one singular and one plural form of “you,” there are several forms in Spanish that can also change by region.
Singular Form of “You”
When you are talking to one person you can always use one of these three forms.
*Cultural Note: If you are addressing someone that you don’t know, or are addressing elderly people, it is best to always use usted to be polite and show respect.
Plural Form of “You”
When you are addressing a group of two or more people, use one of these two forms.
Spanish-speaking cultures hold their elderly in high regard and, as noted before, it is vitally important that you always show them the utmost respect through the use of titles. Here are some of the most common titles you will use in Spanish.
Titles: Mr., Mrs. and Miss
señor (Sr.) → mister (Mr.)
señora (Sra.) → missus (Mrs.)
señorita (Srta.) → miss (Ms.)
* Cultural Note: The use of señora and señorita can be a touchy subject as in Spanish-speaking cultures it openly implies a woman’s perceived age. You might even hear someone refer to an elderly woman as señorita used in an endearing way as to call her a “young lady.” As a general rule, women who look under 40, who are unmarried or have no children can be referred to as señorita and anyone who looks over 40, married or who has children can be referred to as señora. Further, if you don’t know someone’s name but you need to call to them, you can always say ¡Señor! (or señora/señorita) to get their attention.
More Titles: Don and Doña
don + name→ mr./sir
doña + name → mrs./lady
* Cultural Note: Don and Doña were old titles used, mostly, in the 19th century to address men and women of high social status. Although they are not as commonly used anymore, you will still hear them now and then when addressing elderly people as a form of endearment and respect.
doctor/a → doctor
su señoría → your honor (judge)
padre → father (when addressing a Catholic priest)
majestad → your majesty
alteza real → your royal highness
Here are some examples of real world situations where you have to consider who you are talking to as well as which country you are in. See if you make the right choice!
Situation #1: You are at a dinner party for your company’s annual Christmas party and you are introduced to the vice president. You talk for awhile and then it’s time for him to move on to mingle with other guests.
Your response: Fue un placer hablar con usted. → It was a pleasure speaking with you.
Situation #2: You need to speak with the head of the Department of Human Resources, María Hernández, so you call her secretary to see if she is in her office.
Your response: Hola, buenas tardes. ¿Se encuentra la Señora Hernández? → Hello, good afternoon. Is Mrs. Hernandez in today?
Situation #3: You are in Spain and you want to know what plans your classmates have for the weekend.
Your response: ¿Y vosotros? ¿Qué planes tenéis para el fin de semana? → And you (guys)? What plans do you have this weekend?
Situation #4: You are in Peru and your little brother and his friends are going to a movie. You actually really want to see the movie so you ask to tag along with them.
Your response: ¿Puedo ir con ustedes? → Can I go with you (guys)?
Situations #5: The elderly lady, Julía Ortiz, sells homemade tamales at the same Mexican market every Saturday and Sunday. She is adored and well-respected by everyone in the market. You walk up to her to buy tamales and ask her how she is.
Your response: Doña Julia/Señora Ortiz, ¿cómo está usted hoy? → Mrs. Julia/Ortiz, how are you today?
Forms of address can seem a little daunting at first as it is never our intention to offend people. As a starting point, learn the conjugations for usted first and then move onto the more informal forms of address. That way, you will sound proper and respectful from the very beginning!