Costa Rica Spanish: usted

Created: 2023.10.19

It's informal - really! Don't use the tu form, unless you are a young man flirting with a young girl


Spoiler alert:

Always use the usted form when talking to one person in Costa Rica.

Now the interesting details

As an English person learning Spanish, I have friends from many Spanish Countries, Spain, Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Cuba and Mexico (I think I'm missing one.)

I have run into 'problems' dealing with the usted, tu and vos forms.

Costa Rica is one of the easiest for me - as long as I remember who I'm talking to or what country I'm currently in!

For those that don't know … there are different ways of referring to a person and verb forms to use when talking to someone. In English, we tend to just simply use "you" as in "hey you….", indeed we also use "you" when talking to a group of people, unless you're from Texas, in which case you have a more rich way, saying "Hey Ya'll"

Now don't get too bent out of shape for the singular vs plural, some languages have a single, dual and plural. You (1 person), you (2 people) and you (3 or more people), and probably some languages have even more.

But in Spanish, there are formal forms for you, informal forms, family forms. But their use varies from country to country.

In my exhaustive study, here is what you need to know in Costa Rica:

Use the usted form all the time.

Yup that's it!

Now, if you are a native Tico, you will use the vos form when talking to very close family (wife and kids, and MAYBE uncles (tios), aunts (tias) and a few others.) But remember, this article is for English people talking to people in Costa Rica, and by that I am ignoring talking to your close family members.

And, I'm told on occasion, a young man may use the 'tu' WORD (not form) to talk to a girl he is interested in as a cute way of flirting, but if you are to the level of 'flirting' in Spanish, you are long past reading an article like this - unless you are coming to laugh at how naive I am! So I included this paragraph to try to minimize my naivety!

Basically, it turns out that, in Costa Rica, the 'usted' form is used for 'you' (when talking to one person) the same way English uses 'you' to talk to someone (again, when talking to only one person.)

So how do I talk to my wife and kids in Costa Rica? Well, most of the places and most of the time I work in countries and with people who use the 'tu' form for close family and friends, so even in Costa Rica, I use the 'tu' form with them. It works for me, and I realize that if a Tico overhears me he'll think I'm kind of weird, or more likely, he'll think "tourista" or "gringo", and I'm OK with that. It's my family and I like the 'tu' form with them.

Noting: I'm told in Costa Rica that "gringo" is a DESCRIPTIVE term not a derogatory term. Don't force your Canadian/USA cancel culture/woke (yes 'woke' is also bad English) on people in Costa Rica. You are a guest in their country, they are not servants or slaves to your America rules of behavior. Why would I say this? Because I've had people from the Estados Unidos tell me VERY strongly and rudely that I should NEVER use the term gringo to refer to myself or anyone else because it is derogatory, and that Ticos are rude when they use it because they should know that in the Estados Unidos it is rude. I laughed and suggested they should remember they aren't in the Estados Unidos.

What about when I'm traveling with close friends from Panama (yes I have some, and yes we do,) well, since they use the 'tu' form in their country, I admit, even when in Costa Rica, I use the 'tu' form because I think of them as Panamenos, I don't think of them as "being in Costa Rica".

It can get a little fun when I'm talking in a group of Panama AND Costa Rica friends, I switch back and forth between usted and tu depending on who I'm talking to, and just so that it doesn't get too weird, I explain the first time it happens that I am using the friend form based on the country of origin, not based on the country we are currently in. It gets a laugh and maybe a question about how I keep it straight.

But for most people, if you are in Costa Rica - you can keep it simple as I've said above, just always use the usted form. With strangers, with friends, and with family if you want.

In 2022 I was in a prolonged conversation about this with a group of Ticos from 3 areas of the country, a gentleman from the Estados Unidos, and myself. The Older America gentleman kept saying that when he used the "tu" form to address his quite young Spanish language teacher, and he expressed his frustration that she kept correcting him and telling him to use usted when talking to her. He had a problem understanding why she kept objecting his use of "tu" and kept asking why he couldn't just keep using "tu" when talking to her - after all, he considered her a friend. I think in the end he got it, but he definitely didn't like that he couldn't use the "tu" form in Costa Rica when talking to friends. Why? Because he was trying to be nice, trying to be friendly, not because he was trying to force his way on people - and since he had learned in school that the "tu" form was the form to use with friends, he kept feeling like he was rude when he used the usted form with friends. I used to have the same problem, but I think I'm over it now, I just change my mindset with each person - he and I both wanted to be respectful of people and especially of our friends.

I hope this helps you. In Costa Rica it is simple - always use the usted form. If you want to express that someone is a friend - let your actions, not your words, prove and show it.

If you ARE a Tico and you think I've made a mistake in my "exhaustive" study ... please email me, I'd love to understand anything I haven't yet understood, and correct any subtle - or big bold - mistakes I've made. I've only talked to about 20 Ticos about this, so it is entirely possible that I didn't clearly explain the questions, or didn't clearly understand the answers, or there may be areas of Costa Rica that don't follow the pattern of my friends in San Jose, Guanacaste and others I talked to that I don't know their point of origin in the Country.