How to Be Polite in Spanish


May 12, 2021

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I think we can probably all agree that being polite is a golden rule when talking to people. In this article, we’ll look at politeness in Spanish from a variety of different angles.

Be careful, though. If you’re usually super polite (looking at you, Canada and the UK), bear in mind that Spanish (especially in Spain) isn’t quite as excessive with the pleading and thanking. Overdo it and you risk sounding sarcastic and/or rude!

Be Polite in Spanish

It’s all about you

In English, we use the word ‘you’ whether we’re talking to a child, a group of friends, an elderly lady, or a group of politicians. In Spanish, all of these have different forms. The main thing to remember is that we have to distinguish between formal and informal (that’s a very simplified way of putting it).

  • ‘Tú’ – you use this when you’re talking to someone (one person) of roughly equal age and/or social standing to you, or someone you know well.
  • ‘Usted’ – you use this when you’re talking to someone (one person) older and/or of higher social standing than you. Use it when talking to an official or authority figure, and pretty much always with a stranger (unless the stranger is clearly a lot younger than you).
  • ‘Vosotros’ – this is the plural form of ‘tú.’ This is used pretty much only in Spain.
  • ‘Ustedes’ – this is the plural form of ‘usted.’ In most of Latin America, this is used regardless of age and social standing when talking to more than one person.
  • ‘Vos’ – this one isn’t taught as widely as the others, but it’s useful to know. It’s used instead of ‘tú’ in certain Latin American countries, like Argentina and Uruguay. It has its own conjugations!

Did you know?

The Spanish language even has a verb to describe calling someone ‘tú’! It’s ‘tutear(se),’ so if an old lady tells you ‘puedes tutearme,’ she’s inviting you to be on less formal terms with her—you can start calling her ‘tú’ instead of ‘usted.’
Tú Usted Old Lady

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When you look at a verb conjugation table, ‘tú’ and ‘vosotros’ each have their own spot, ‘usted’ shares with ‘él/ella,’ and ‘ustedes’ shares with ‘ellos/ellas.’ As an example, we’re using the verb ‘ser’ in the present tense, as it’s one of the most important conjugations to learn!

Yo soyNosotros somos
eresVosotros sois
Él/ella/usted esEllos/ellas/ustedes son

The "magic words" in Spanish

Okay, now we know how to say ‘you,’ it’s time to learn those little magic words that everyone learns as a kid in their native language. They were probably some of the first words you learnt when you were new to Spanish, too!

Por favorPlease
GraciasThank you

Simple enough, right?

Saying ‘excuse me’ in Spanish

So, when you first meet someone, you want them to actually notice you. This is where ‘excuse me’ comes in handy.

There are a few ways to say ‘excuse me’ to get someone’s attention:

PerdonaExcuse me (‘tú’ form)
PerdoneExcuse me (‘usted’ form)
DisculpaExcuse me (‘tú’ form)
DisculpeExcuse me (‘usted’ form)

*This one adds an apologetic tone, for example if someone is in the middle of a conversation but you need to (apologetically) interrupt them for something.

If you want to use ‘excuse me’ to ask someone to move out of the way, use these:

Con permisoExcuse me (Literally: with permission)
PermisoExcuse me (Literally: permission)
Disculpa/eExcuse me

*As mentioned above, this is more of an apology, so you could use it if you’ve already gone ahead and pushed past someone and they don’t look too happy about it!

How to Politely Introduce Yourself in Spanish

Once you’ve got your Spanish-speaker’s attention, you’ll want to introduce yourself. Here are some ways of doing it:

Encantado/a*Nice to meet you (Literally: enchanted/happy)
Mucho gustoNice to meet you (Literally: much pleasure)
Es un placer conocerteIt’s a pleasure to meet you (informal)
Es un placer conocerlo/la**It’s a pleasure to meet you (formal)

*The ending depends on the gender of the speaker.

**The ending depends on the gender of the person you’re speaking to.

Physical interactions

Something fascinating about studying various cultures is observing their greeting customs. In a lot of Spanish-speaking countries, it’s customary to give one or two cheek kisses when you meet up with someone you know. 

As a very general rule, Latin Americans give one kiss, and Spaniards give two. If it’s two, then start with one where you lean to the left (right cheek touches right cheek) then lean to the right (left cheek touches left cheek). 

In Latino and Spanish cultures, the cheek kissing is usually only applied when at least one of the people is female. It’s generally not commonplace for two men to do the cheek kisses.

When you’re meeting someone new, kisses may be appropriate, like within your social circle. But try and read the social cues: if it’s someone like a super formal new business associate, shake their hand, don’t start kissing without consent, okay?

Shaking Hands

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Titles in Spanish

Obviously it’s important to know who you’re speaking to. Here are some words and titles that you might use.

DonSir/Mr. (formal)
DoñaMs./lady (formal)
DoctorDr. (male)
DoctoraDr. (female)
ProfesorTeacher/professor (male)
ProfesoraTeacher/professor (female)

Asking how it’s going in Spanish

When you run into someone you know, it’s polite to ask how they’re doing. Here are some ways of doing it:

¿Qué tal?How are you?
¿Qué pasa?What’s up?
¿Qué onda?What’s up? (Certain countries, e.g. Mexico)
¿Cómo estás?How are you? (informal singular)
¿Cómo estáis?How are you? (informal plural)
¿Cómo está usted?How are you? (formal singular)
¿Cómo están?How are you? (formal plural for Spain/all plural for most of Latin America)

"I didn’t quite catch that"

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that Spanish seems to go about a hundred times faster than English. Understanding spoken Spanish comes with practice, and it’s totally normal to need to ask someone to repeat something.

¿Podría hablar más despacio, por favor?Could you speak more slowly, please?
¿Podría repetir lo que ha dicho, por favor?Could you repeat what you said, please?

"I’m so sorry" in Spanish

Maybe you’ve asked the person on the phone to repeat themselves five times, and you still can’t quite catch what they’re saying. Maybe you’ve just spilt your drink on someone. Maybe you’ve accidentally broken someone’s phone. Whatever the situation, you might need to apologize. Here’s how:

Lo sientoSorry
Siento que + subjunctiveI’m sorry that …
Perdóname/discúlpame, por favorForgive me, please (‘tú’ form)
Perdóneme/discúlpeme, por favorForgive me, please (‘usted’ form)

Polite Ways to Make Requests in Spanish

When you want to request something, there are a variety of ways of going about it.

One way is to use the imperative form with ‘por favor.’ Here are some examples. 

Ponme un zumo de naranja, por favor.Give me an orange juice, please.
Espere aquí, por favor.Wait here, please.

These phrases may sound a bit blunt to native English-speakers. Certainly as a Brit, I’ve been conditioned to go in hard with, ‘Sorry, please may I have an orange juice if it’s not too much trouble, please? Thank you, sorry, thanks.’ However, in Spanish (at least in most of Spain), using the imperative is polite enough as long as you have a smile on your face and maybe even throw in a ‘por favor.’ 

If you want to play it safe and be extra polite, try using ‘poder’ (‘to be able to) in the conditional tense:
¿Me podrías ayudar?Could you help me?
¿Podría esperarme aquí, por favor?Could you wait for me here, please?

You can even use the imperfect subjunctive with ‘querer’ (to want) to say that you would like something:

Quisiera una hamburguesa, por favor.I would like a hamburger, please.
Mi hermana y yo quisiéramos hablar con usted.My sister and I would like to speak to you.

You might also see ‘hacer el favor de.’

Hágame el favor de acompañarme.Would you do me the favor of coming with me?

Polite Ways to Say Goodbye in Spanish

Once your interactions with someone have finished, it’s polite to say ‘goodbye.’ Here are some options:

Hasta luegoSee you later
Hasta la próximaUntil next time
Hasta mañanaSee you tomorrow
Que te vaya bienTake care
CuídenseLook after yourselves
Wave Goodbye

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If you did the cheek kisses to greet each other, then you’d probably do it again when parting ways.

¡Hasta la próxima!

Hopefully this lesson has given you some insight into politeness in Spanish-speaking countries across the world, and that extra bit of confidence to speak with natives! 

About the author 

Annabel is a language-enthusiast from the UK. She studied Spanish and French at the University of Southampton (with an Erasmus study year in Madrid!) and recently graduated. She has interests across the Spanish-speaking world, and is a fan of language in general.

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