Usted a Tú

In the north of Colombia, I completed a five day trek through the jungle to get to La Ciudad Perdida (“The Lost City”), a sacred site of the indigenous people in the region. I ended up with a small group: a couple from Belgium (Marie and Greg), a doctor from Bogota (Carlos), a guide from the local Wiwa tribe (Lorenzo), and a talented chef (Josè). We were a good crew: friendly, curious, and determined to meet the challenges that the jungle offered.

Lorenzo is a guy with a quiet energy who occasionally flashes a big, heartwarming smile. He’s the kind of person that you immediately want to be friends with. He only spoke Spanish, so that gave me a lot of opportunities for practice. At the beginning, we mostly asked Lorenzo questions. We were curious about the local culture and wanted to get to know him.

In Spanish, there are two ways of saying “you”: usted, which is formal, and tú, which is familiar. (There is actually some more nuance than this. If, like me, you’re crazy, dive down this Wikipedia rabbit hole.) It’s common to begin your relationship with a new person using usted and then to transition to tú as you become more familiar. There are some cases where usted persists; for example, if you want to show respect or it is some kind of service or customer relationship. Colombian Spanish is traditionally more formal, so usted seems to stick around a little longer than other places. As a result of this delayed transition, the point where someone does switch becomes that more interesting.

Lorenzo eventually started asking us questions. What is dancing like in your country? How many people live there? What do you study? All in the “usted” form. As the days went by, Lorenzo would smile a bit more and give us brief glimpses of a very dry humor.

Then, a change. He asked a question using the “tú” form. This might seem wholly unremarkable. Maybe it is. Maybe there are equivalents in English. But to witness the transformation of a relationship - with the “you” form as the focal point - was absolutely fascinating. The decision to use “tú” says that there is some level of familiarity and comfort with the other person. It’s almost like an affirmation of a growing relationship.

On the way back from the Lost City, I started to run a bit on the downhills. The quickening pace was a welcomed change. Lorenzo told me that he likes to run sometimes, too, and we found ourselves lagging behind the others on the very last day. He looked at me and asked if I wanted to run up the massive hill before us. I grinned and nodded and we started the slog up the hill. We reached a plateau and almost as if in sync, immediately stopped, laughing at the difficulty.

Ultimately, our languages are just symbols: we are conveying meaning by making sounds with our mouth or moving our body in a certain way. The meanings we attach to words like “tú” and “usted” are completely arbitrary. Yet, there is real value there, created out of thin air. We can’t forget to pause and notice it.