A visiting Colombian student at one of Mexico’s universities complained about the expression ¿mande?—the Mexican way of saying ‘pardon?’ or of responding to someone who has called your attention. Literally, it means ‘command’ hence the dismay of the student who failed to see why one would submit to the orders of the speaker just because he or she wanted you to hear something.
But Mexican speech is polite even by Spanish or Latin American standards. As with many modern languages, English excepted, Spanish has two forms for the word you: the formal usted and the informal tú.
Most people form their own ideas about when and to whom the polite form should apply, and when the chummier tú is in order.
You may imagine that the difficulties only exist with people you don’t know well, since friends and family will almost always be tú.
But what would appear to be a straightforward matter of categorizing other people—and ultimately yourself—actually turns out to be a rather complex maze in which it’s beyond most people’s ability to be congruent.
There’s no getting away from the class element which lies at the heart of the matter, but it’s not always a case of superior and inferior (although it can be). It’s often a case of like and unlike, and age also plays a role. You may think to address the plumber as tú, except that he may be twenty years your senior and was probably called-in after you flooded the kitchen trying to repair what started out as a simple drip. Usted would be quite correct.
In nearly all the service trades in Mexico, the formal usted is the preferred usage in conversations between the provider and the customer, whether it’s at the corner shop, in a restaurant, a taxi, or at the hairdressers. One’s elders ought to be addressed as usted, at least to start with, so probably ought figures of authority, and grumpy-looking people in general.
Tú is the common form used to children, among teachers and their students, co-workers—and strangers arguing over parking spaces: it’s hard to vent in the polite form.
Children can call everyone tú, so can the outgoing and self-confident; while people just learning Spanish can happily get them mixed up along with their corresponding verb forms. (Usted takes the same verb form as the third person singular, and this can be a source of confusion even among native speakers, particularly when using the imperative which takes a subjunctive form with usted.)
Grammar aside, what happens when you’re calling somebody tú and they’re addressing you as usted, or vice-versa? Often this seems normal and no one is uncomfortable with it, but occasionally it can make a conversation stilted, with each speaker trying to avoid any direct reference to the other as a way out of the dilemma. Anyway, it’s better to start with the polite form and progress to the informal, than it is to go the other way.
No one I know of has ever suffered any serious emotional damage from being wrongly addressed, and so the problem, if there is one, is of perception. And you know you may be going native if someone calls you tú and you think they might not unreasonably have addressed you as usted.
As for the Colombian student, some people politely agreed that he was probably right about the expression mande. Of course there’s no reason for the speaker to ‘command’. It might have been more in-keeping with the time and place to point out that it doesn’t mean ‘command’ at all, it means ‘pardon?’. Otherwise, why would people who always address each other using the informal tú say ¿mande? when it’s in the imperative polite form?
¿Qué? I hear someone saying.
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