On a visit to Colombia years ago, I was talking with my cousin when he abruptly asked me, “Y porque no tuteas?” I had no idea what he meant. He explained that I always use the usted form, instead of the tú form. I shrugged my shoulders, “Ay, yo no se!” and kept talking.
This wasn’t the last I would hear of this. Years later, I was hired for a job in which I needed to speak Spanish on a daily basis, and was asked the same question by my co-worker. She said that usted was too formal and that I should try using the more casual tú form.
What a mess that was! I honestly tried, but my sentences ended up sounding ridiculous, (i.e. Usted sabes que te puede ir y mas tarde regresas…). People must’ve thought there was something wrong with me. Eventually, I gave up, but it took me a while to get my Spanish back to normal.
Why was it so hard for me to convert? I just wasn’t raised to speak that way. My family uses the usted form. In fact, they even use su merced which, incidentally, made my co-worker cringe with horror when I told her.
It all has to do with respect. Respect is a big deal in our culture, especially towards our elders. There’s nothing wrong with using either form, but some families take the respect thing quite seriously. In my house, it goes further than just usted and su merced. For example, when my mother calls out to me, I respond with “Señora?”. If I ever answered with “Que?”, you’d immediately hear chanclas smacking the floor at warp speed, followed by a quick Pop! as she slapped me on the mouth.
There are similar rules in other homes. For example, growing up with a Honduran best friend, I noticed that instead of saying “Señora” when her mother called, she’d respond with “Mande?”. Another tradition I’ve seen is the act of asking for “Bendicion” from your elders upon arriving or leaving a home.
These small acts of respect aren’t found in every Latino home, but I think their occurrence is based on a combination of two things: what country your family is from, and your level of assimilation. Each country has different customs and ways of addressing people, and if you or your parents were born here, I think you’re more likely to lose some of these customs over time.
As for myself, I will try to pass down the customs that I think are important and make sense in our changing world. I don’t think I’ll make my own kids answer me with “Señora,” but I’ll be damned if one of them ever answers me with “Que?”!