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!
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).
Did you know?
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 soy||Nosotros somos|
|Tú eres||Vosotros sois|
|Él/ella/usted es||Ellos/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!
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:
|Perdona||Excuse me (‘tú’ form)|
|Perdone||Excuse me (‘usted’ form)|
|Disculpa||Excuse me (‘tú’ form)|
|Disculpe||Excuse 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 permiso||Excuse me (Literally: with permission)|
|Permiso||Excuse me (Literally: permission)|
*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 gusto||Nice to meet you (Literally: much pleasure)|
|Es un placer conocerte||It’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.
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?
Titles in Spanish
Obviously it’s important to know who you’re speaking to. Here are some words and titles that you might use.
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:
|Siento que + subjunctive||I’m sorry that …|
|Perdóname/discúlpame, por favor||Forgive me, please (‘tú’ form)|
|Perdóneme/discúlpeme, por favor||Forgive 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 luego||See you later|
|Hasta la próxima||Until next time|
|Hasta mañana||See you tomorrow|
|Que te vaya bien||Take care|
|Cuídense||Look after yourselves|
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!