Working Spanish – Formal vs. Informal
Want to speak Spanish like a pro? Then you will need to learn the business lingo.
Spanish is the official language for 21 countries and territories- not including the USA which has 41 million Spanish speakers alone!
Entonces, si quiere comunicarse con la gente de estos países, ¡necesita aprender y practicar español! (So, if you want to communicate with the people of these countries, you need to learn and practice Spanish!)
Vamos a empezar con usted…o contigo…o con vos…(Let’s start with you…or you…or YOU…)
What? There are 3 ways to say ‘you’ in Spanish??
YOU. We use this word every day and don’t think much about it. In English, ‘you’ is one simple word used to address everyone: your boss, kids, great-grandmother, legal advisor, business counterparts, financial planner, and anyone else.
In Spanish, ‘you’ can be polite or insulting, depending on which form is used. Let’s learn more about the nuances of this important word and how to use it in the workplace.
Which Variation of ‘YOU’ Do You Use and When?
There are many ways to say ‘you’ in Spanish – see below to decode this seemingly innocuous word:
Click here to learn more about Vos!
When To Use Formal vs. Informal Language
Formal and informal language exist to fulfill different purposes. The two styles differ in tone, word choice, and the way the Spanish verbs are conjugated.
Formal language is less personal than informal language and is utilized in most business contexts. You will use formal speech when addressing professionals and respectable people, such as legal, banking, and other official branches, as well as store owners and customers. It is safe to default to formal language with strangers and older people. Formal language does not use colloquialisms, slang, or abbreviations.
Informal language is more casual and personal, and it is used when you are speaking to someone who you are comfortable and familiar with. It can be used for work colleagues who you know well and socialize with, as well as those who have the same rank/title and education level as you. Informal language is used when sending text messages, writing personal emails, and in some business correspondence.
Here are some examples of when to use formal speech in Spanish:
Introducing yourself at a business meeting or presentation:
In English, you introduce yourself by saying, ‘Hello, My name is Mia. It is a pleasure meeting you.‘
In Spanish, you say this formally:
Hola, mi nombre es Mia. Es un gusto conocerle.
If someone introduces themselves to you first, you could also say:
El gusto es mío.
Or, the pleasure is mine. The informal way to say this would be:
Me llamo Mia. Mucho gusto.
This is literally translated to ‘I call myself Mia, nice to meet you.’
Introducing someone else at a business meeting or in a presentation
In English, there is one way of saying, ‘Let me introduce you to…’
In Spanish the formal introduction is:
Le presento a Señor Rio…
The informal version is:
Te presento a Señor Rio…
There is a small difference in words (le vs. te), but great variation in meaning. Another formal way to introduce someone is:
Me permite presentarle a Maya…
May I introduce you to Maya…
The informal version would be:
Permíteme presentarte a Maya.
The difference again is le vs. te.
Addressing people with higher authority, such as your boss, business partner or customer – or older individuals to whom you want to show respect
Your boss greets you with:
Or, how are you? You respond with:
Estoy bien, gracias. ¿Necesita (usted) algo para el proyecto hoy?
This would mean: I am well, thank you. Do you (formal) need anything for the project today?
Notice the verb necesita is used with Usted and this formalizes the sentence, while necesitas is used with tú. In an informal setting, it would be:
¿Necesitas (tú) algo…?
Note: When speaking you can drop the tú and usted. Here, they are in parenthesis to show how they are tied to the verb.
Another example – your customer calls you with urgency in his voice and you say:
Buenos días. ¿Cómo le puedo ayudar hoy?
Good morning, How can I help you (formal) today?
The informal variation would be:
Buenos días. ¿Cómo te puedo ayudar hoy?
Again, there is a difference between le and te.
Salutations and Closings – word choices for business and professional emails
In English we begin formal correspondence with ‘Dear Mr. or Mrs. Ramos’ or ‘To Whom It May Concern’
In Spanish, formal greetings people you do not know begin with:
This directly translates to ‘Esteemed Mr./Mrs. Ramos,’ but to English speakers, this is just a formal way to say ‘Dear.’
If you want to keep it formal, but have a relationship with the person, then you can use:
Querido Señor/a Lòpez
This would also translate to Dear Mr./Mrs. Lòpez.
To Whom It May Concern is:
A quien corresponda
English speakers conclude emails/letters with ‘Sincerely’ or ‘Regards,’ which would be:
If you want your closing to be more formal you could say:
Espero su respuesta. Saludos cordiales, Mari Barco
This translates to ‘I await your response. Cordial Greetings, Mari Barco.’
Saying goodbye after a meeting or job interview
When saying goodbye, you will want to say ‘Have a good day’ which is said in Spanish formally with:
Qué tenga un buen día or Qué le vaya bien
The informal versions are:
Qué tengas buen día or Qué te vaya bien
‘Hasta luego’ and ‘hasta pronto’ are also good semi-formal choices for ‘See you soon.’ On the other hand, you do not want to say ‘chao’ (slang for goodbye).
Cuando no esté seguro, trate a las personas de usted. When in doubt, use the formal ‘you’ (usted), or ask the person you’re speaking to what form they feel most comfortable with. This ensures you are speaking respectfully and not offending anyone. If someone invites you to “tutear” (this word means to address each other as tú)– then you can move from usted to the tú form.
Let’s Have a Conversation
John is new to his position at work and is speaking to his business colleague, Mari, for the first time. She has the same title and education level but has been in the job longer. Therefore she is, in essence, a superior.
John: Hola, Mari. ¿Cómo está (usted)? ¿A que hora empieza la reunión con la gerencia?
Hello, Mari. How are you (formal)? What time does the meeting start with Senior Management?
Mari: Hola, John. Estoy bien. Me puedes tutear. La reunión empieza en 15 minutos.
Hi, John. I am well. You can go ahead and use the ‘tú‘ form with me. The meeting begins in 15 minutes.
John: Gracias, Mari. Entonces, voy a caminar contigo. ¿Necesitas que te ayude llevando algo?
Thank you, Mari. I will walk with you (informal). Do you (informal) need me to help you carry anything?
What just happened? John was ‘invited’ to use the tú form with his coworker, and hereafter he can be comfortable using tú instead of usted. Notice that John moved from formal to informal pronouns and verb conjugations.
Why Is It Important to Use ‘Usted’ in The Workplace?
We always want to put our best foot forward at work. Learning the correct usage of ‘you’ and the verb conjugations are not only a way to communicate politely with your business counterparts, but also impress them by showing that you have a good grasp of the language.
Many languages put an emphasis on respect, and Spanish is one of them. It is imperative that you also do research on cultural etiquette to learn what is respectable. Read more about respecting Latino culture here.
In a previous blog, I discussed the importance of communicating in the local language when doing business abroad, including why and how this gives you a competitive advantage over your monolingual peers.
Mistakes Are Part of the Learning Process
If you studied Spanish in school or with the Spanish Academy, you are probably more accustomed to conversing using the tú form – except maybe with your professor – so it is easy to fall back into your comfort zone when speaking with other people.
As a non-native Spanish speaker, you are going to make mistakes – just be sure to take it in stride as best as possible and correct yourself when you can.
I, myself, have had the uncomfortable experience of addressing someone in a business setting with tú. I was so focused on conjugating the verbs correctly, that the tú form got blurted out. After this blunder, I immediately adjusted my sentence structure to accommodate usted and got my confidence back.
Learn From a Native Spanish Speaker!
It’s not always easy to know what pronoun to use. The best way to improve your usage of tú and usted is to communicate with a native Spanish speaker. Arranging for a local conversation is a great option, but unfortunately, many of us have busy schedules and cannot find a time that is convenient for both parties. That is the brilliance of Spanish Academy – schedule a time that works for you, speak to a Spanish language professional, and pay an affordable price.
One of my favorite parts of taking classes with Spanish Academy is that I can ask questions about confusing words or phrases before a big meeting or traveling abroad. One-on-one help from native Spanish speakers is only a click away AND you can approach the business meeting with poise and assurance.
Sign up for your free class today!