Colombians often think of themselves as friendly, highly informal and very warm people. And the truth is that, for the most part, they really are like that. However, for foreigners, there is yet another fascinating and confusing game of perceptions in Colombia that is directly linked to this question.
Europeans and North Americans in Colombia are seen as cold and distant, and frequently as people that Colombians find hard to understand. So they are promptly invited by Colombians to become more relaxed and more informal as to their way of dealing with the locals. The problem for foreigners is that things don’t actually play out as Colombians believe they do – which can be extremely confusing, albeit amusing, in what we can call the “Tú” or “Usted” Game.
Let’s go to the defining terms first, in order to understand this question. In Spanish, both “tú” and “usted” mean “you”. However, “tú” is the informal way of addressing someone, whereas “usted” is the formal way of doing so. So, most Colombians will tell you that, in Colombia, people mostly use “tú” when addressing each other (“tuteando”, the custom of using “tú”), in an informal and relaxed way that is supposed to reflect the easy-going way of Colombians.
That sounds fairly simple, so, as you want to blend in and speak in a way that meets, as much as possible, the social conventions of the country where you are, you accept the suggestion and you start going around “tuteando”. The problem is that, as you do it, you begin realizing that a lot of people don’t use “tú” to address you, and use “usted” instead. As it turns out, that suggestion does not really fit perfectly into the Colombian reality, which makes you take a flexible approach – if someone treats you with the formal “usted” mode, you use “usted” instead, and you use “tú” whenever someone starts “tuteando” with you. Simple, right? Wrong. Reality is more complicated than that.
Some days, people that you see, greet and talk to often will treat you using the informal “tú” mode, whereas some other days they will be on the “usted” mode… Even if they are your age or even younger (by the way, forget about age – if you think it’s as easy as deciding based on the person’s age, this has nothing to do with it). So, again, you start taking cues from those people – if today they treat you by “usted”, you do it as well. If tomorrow they treat you as “tú”, you treat them as “tú” in return. Okay, that sounds like a plan.. Only it doesn’t work either.
People may begin a conversation with you treating you by “tú” and quickly move to “usted”, only to treat you by “tú” again soon. It’s impossible to follow their cue – and, if you try real hard to stay on the same conversational mode, you’ll only get frustrated and feel lost. The conclusion is simple, though. No one knows what’s coming next on the same conversation – a “tú” or an “usted”.
Not even they know that. You find young couples treating each other by “usted”, even though that is supposed to be formal. And you have people in their twenties treating people in their sixties by “tú”, even when they don’t know each other. And then it changes, only to change again. So relax, don’t worry too much about it, and use whatever term you feel more comfortable with. After all, you’ll always have an easy excuse to get away with whatever option you choose: you’re a foreigner and you’re hard to understand. And how convenient that can be…
Written by: Miggy, check out his site for more from him.