Why is there a difference between formal and informal Spanish? Most languages have always used this difference, but English has phased out formal language. We have become a more informal speaking society, while Spanish has kept theirs and lots of other cultures have as well. They differentiate between their peer group, those that are younger, and those that are in higher ranks in relationships and work. This is a way to show respect.
In English, we sometimes differentiate this by saying ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma'am’. In Spanish, there’s an entirely different tense for how you would speak to someone formally. A boss, a teacher, parents of a spouse or partner, are great ways to practice more formal Spanish. This is especially polite when meeting someone new.
It is most easily understood by thinking about olden days and pretending you are the butler. For example, the butler would not dare say how are you Mr. Jonathan? Heavens no, you don’t know him that well!
The butler would say: “How is Mr. Jonathan today?” This creates separation, therefore implies formality.
Butler: “Is Mr. Jonathan going to the plaza today?”
Mr. Jonathan: “No I'm not. Why do you ask?”
Butler: “Why? Because I thought he would need his jacket because it’s windy. It seems like he doesn’t after all. Mr. Jonathan, I hope that he has a good day!”
Remember: this whole time you, the butler, are looking in his eyes and speaking directly to Mr. Jonathan, but the language sounds like you’re talking about him. This again, creates the illusion of separation and that shows your respect for your boss. This is the same way formal Spanish is spoken. Try it when you meet someone new! Start with the formal then switch to the easier “you/tú” form until it becomes more natural. They will understand that you mean respect, but aren’t as familiar with the language. Please ask any questions you have in comments below!
Brittany is a bilingual Spanish teacher who has lived in Spain and Argentina. Through this blog, she hopes to relate her travels, insights, and Spanish speaking journey!