Is “usted” Really Always the Best Option?

I’ve noticed lots of confusion regarding this matter: many people are under the impression that it’s correct to use “usted” at all times, in all cases.

I’m afraid that that’s not correct, however: not always, not in all cases.  It depends on the objective to be accomplished.

According to the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (

“Usted” constitutes a treatment of:

1.    courtesy
2.    respect
3.    distancing

Similarly, the Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas ( offers a similar appraisal:

Compared with “tú” and “vos”, the singular “usted” is the typical treatment among educated speakers in Spain and the Americas; in general, “usted” implies certain distancing, courtesy and formality:

Usted escriba su reclamación en un papel. [“Usted” write your claim down on paper.]
Ustedes perdonen. Soy el Oficial del Juzgado. [“Ustedes” forgive me. I am the Court Official.]

As a consequence, if a mother were to treat her child as “usted” she would most likely be lecturing the child, quite the opposite of treating someone with courtesy.  And in other contexts similar treatment could also be interpreted.

In marketing, showing respect to the client is of course a major priority, as such people are the source of a company’s earnings; nonetheless, “usted” is rarely used in such occasions as this would mean distancing the brand from the buyer.

For example, Coca-Cola, the leading soda company globally, tends not to use “usted” in its Spanish language marketing campaigns (

The most creative marketers across the planet contribute to the company’s lauded advertising campaigns, generally without using “usted.”  It’s that the company precisely wants to create a sense of empathy, of sharing the same lifestyle.

It’s unlikely that the company’s Sales Department would look favorably on even a rather clever ad using “usted.”  The notion of implicit distancing it creates simply wouldn’t be considered ideal.

Therefore, common sense is always the best guide when determining whether to use “usted” or “tú” in a given translation into Spanish, especially in projects dealing with spoken language.  And, of course, client preferences should be kept in mind.

It’s often discussed whether students in the classroom should be able to address their teachers with “tú” as they would their peers, some arguing that this tends to weaken the teacher’s authority over their many students.  Visit for further opinions on this topic.
Is addressing teachers in school with “usted” an old-fashioned practice that has remained in place after dying off in the family setting?

Among family, it was common in previous generations for children to address their parents with “usted” as addressing them with “tú” was considered as simply intolerable insolence.  Today, on the other hand, family relations are much more relaxed and it is practically impossible to catch kids referring to their parents with “usted” anymore.

Are there still countries where children speak to their parents as “usted?”

Why does the use of “usted” seem to wane as the years go by?  Is it because it alludes to bygone eras of greater authoritarian rigor?