Social Spanish

Social Spanish                   Back to Spanish-Go

Socializing and Other Indiscretions  

A Crash Course In 8 Steps



Latino hosts introduce guests to one another even at large gatherings with a simple:

Te presento a Brad, “let me introduce you to Brad.”

If introducing Brad to Ambassador Gonzalez, say:

Embajador, Brad.

Graciously offering a hand, Ambassador Gonzalez would reply:

Mucho gusto, “nice to meet you.”

Spanish-speakers draw a linguistic line by switching from the familiar you, , to the formal usted, which makes them less fastidious about personal space and touching. It’s okay to rest a hand on a forearm or shoulder while complimenting a blusa, “blouse,” or músculos, “muscles.”

A student asked:

“What do you touch when complimenting someone’s intelligence?”

Some questions are better left unanswered.


or Usted?

is the standard you for people under thirty, colleagues, family and lovers.

Usted is used to address older people, ranking individuals in professional and social hierarchies, political and religious dignitaries, business acquaintances and individuals whom you prefer to keep at bay.

To avoid an unwelcome familiarism, wait until you are invited to use . The verb tutear is used for such occasions, as in ¿nos tuteamos?

What About Vos?

Once vos denoted utmost formality. It was the “you” reserved for God, “thou.” Now vos is the equivalent of in Argentina, Uruguay, some areas of Colombia, the uplands of Ecuador and Central America. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges translated Julius Cesar’s exclamation of disbelief when he recognized Brutus among his assassins as ¡Ché, vos! [1] Che is an Argentine colloquialism for friend that doctor Ernesto Guevara popularized worldwide, making it a revolutionary symbol.

[1] Julius Cesar couldn’t have identified his assailants as assassins. The word didn’t arrive to Europe until the eleventh century. There was a murderous Ismaili sect in Syria, part of the Shiite branch of Islam, which fellow Syrians called 'hashish-takers.' From hashish or from the plural with the ending -in, Spanish got asesino and French assassin, which English borrowed in the fourteenth century. The term was applied to murderers irrespective of religious or Eastern connotations.

Vosotros and Ustedes

Using vostros, familiar plural first person, is restricted to Spain. Only pompous provincial politicians use it in Latin America. Ustedes is the universal plural you, equivalent to the southern American “you all.”



Most nouns ending in “a” are feminine, as violeta. Nouns ending in umbre, as muchedumbre, “crowd,” and incertidumbre, ”uncertainty”; and those ending in ión, as television and ocupación are also feminine.

Most nouns ending in “o” are masculine. For example: escritorio, "desk," carro, "car," and banco.

Occupations ending in "ista" are neutral. In such cases gender is determined by the articles el, la,“the”; un, una, “a, an.” For example: el taxista, la economista, una pianista, un periodista,“journalist,” el dentista, la accionista, “shareholder,” el contrabandista, “smuggler,” and la columinista.

Most adjectives ending in “e” are also neutral. For example: estudiante and cantante, "singer."

Sexist Plural

Many consider Spanish a sexist language, especially when the plural is concerned, as masculine forms predominate. A student pointed out that she attended a lecture on the contributions women made to linguistics. 90 percent of the participants were women, yet, she recalled angrily, when referring to the group, she had to use the masculine form los participantes.

No more. The language liberation has begun. Freedom fighters neutralized hombre, “man,” as representative of human beings. Sexist expressions such as Los derechos del hombre, “The Rights of Man,” and La historia del hombre, “History of Mankind,” have been transformed to Los derechos humanos and La historia de la humanidad. The masculine plural no longer would comprise men and women. When referring to the citizens of Rome, las romanas must accompanylos romanos. U.S. Latinos should translate to las latinas y los latinos de los Estados Unidos. For children of the world we must include las niñas to los niños del mundo or use la niñez.

My student also requested that I stop calling her señorita Smith, “Miss,” since I didn’t address male students as señoritos, “unmarried gentleman.” I checked with the Spanish Ministry of Social Affairs, the Women’s Institute, and, indeed, from now on señoras should encompass both married and unmarried women as señor, “mister,” does men.

Professional titles, traditionally used in the masculine form, have been feminized, as in doctora, alcaldeza, “mayor,” presidenta and embajadora. And occupations traditionally relegated to women as enfermeras, “nurses,” secretarias and prostitutas, when expressed in a general sense, should include masculine forms, as in las enfermeras and los efermeros; doctores and doctoras; los ejecutivos and las ejecutivas. I read an article recently about secretarios and secertarias no longer taking dictation, and another article about how the economic downturn in some countries has moreprostitutos and prostitutas walking the streets.


Adjectives and other qualifiers

Contrary to English, adjectives follow the object they qualify, except for emphatic or poetic use, as in criatura bella, “beautiful creature,” and bella criatura, “oh, what a beauty.”

Important qualifiers and cognates to know:

Generoso/a, “generous.”

Tacaño/a, “stingy,”

Agradable, “nice.”

Oodioso/a, “odious, obnoxious.”

Pesado/a, "heavy, tacky, rude.”

Confiable, “trustworthy.

Sospechoso/a, “suspicious.”

Limpio/a, “clean.

Maloliente (most important in odorless societies), “foul-smelling.”


Fauna nocturna, “Night Life”

Jonathan Edwards defined language in the eighteenth century as intelligent conversation. By conversation he meant people expressing their minds in words. Clubs are particularly adept for language novices with environments demanding concise exchanges (a word at a time between long intervals).

Hola, soy Brad, “hi, I’m Brad,” will suffice for an introduction.

Options for conversation thereafter are infinite, well, almost, casi.

Soy apolítico, ¿y tú?

Yo soy vegetariana

Soy divorciado.

Yo no soy soltera, “I’m not single.” Soy casada, “I am married,” pero, “but,” tengo un matrimonio abierto, “I have an open marriage.”

When one of those silent intervals arrives, bring forth your hand over other patrons, as if reaching for the foot of an escaping angel, and grasp the camarero/a, “waiter,” and ask:

Una cerveza, por favor.

Turning to the person you just met, say:

¿Y tú? ¿Un vino?

Nothing like a captive audience to bring out the linguist and exteriorize self-objectivity.

Soy inteligente, educado, talentoso, honesto, interesante, sensible and rico. Underline rico, a linguistic jewel conveying at once wealth, deliciousness, sex appeal and a huggable innocence:Qué rico es el señor Rockefeller; qué rica es la paella; qué rica está Jennifer Lopez and qué rico Pedrito, “how cute little Peter, how sweat, oh, I want to hug him.”

And here comes the waiter again.

Brad takes advantage of the new medical license to imbibe, beber, (both derive from the Latinbibere, “to drink,” as does beer, cerveza.)

Otra cerveza, por favor.

Imbibing lowers Brad’s inhibitions, and he improvises:

¿Y tú, mi amor? "And you, my love?"

Rosa, taken aback by his familiarity, changes from to usted, raising an eyebrow.

Brad gets offended.

No estoy borracho, “I am not drunk.” Estoy feliz, “I am happy”


Permanent vs. Transient

Spanish has the permanent soy and the transient estoy as equivalents of “I am.” Happiness and drunkenness are temporary states unlike ugliness and tackiness, feo/a and pesado/a. To illustrate the difference between soy and estoy, a schoolteacher used to tell the story of a young man who came drunk every night. The typical neighborhood's old spinster stayed up to chastise the young man, calling him ¡Borracho! ¡Degenerado! One night the young man spat back: Sí, señorita Velasco, he said, I might be drunk, but tomorrow I will be sober, pero usted todavía será fea, ‘but you will continue to be not pretty.’”


Language Recycling

Hemmingway got away with three phrases:

Una cerveza.

Dame un beso, “give me a kiss.”

Llama a mi abogado, por favor, “call my lawyer, please.”

But, is that enough to move comfortably in the United States, a country Spain’s King Juan Carlos proclaimed one of the world’s most important Hispanic Centers? Enough to capture an international market of more than 400 million Spanish-speakers? I don’t think so.

Hence the importance of recycling! Recycling increases language skills exponentially. Substitutecafé for kiss in the command dame un beso and you can ask for coffee everywhere, and dame el mensaje, “message,” el masaje, “massage,” dame el memo, el teléfono, el fax, and la banana (not to be confused with el banano, “the banana industry.”)

If you do ask for a kiss, and sense reluctance, add please: dame un beso, por favor. If reluctance escalates to a reprimand, say: Por favor, llama a mi abogado/a (not to be confused with avocado,aguacate, a word Aztecs used for both the butter fruit and testicles.)



Communicating in a foreign language, like acting, is an art of studied improvisation.

Another student asked:

If the drink you want to order is not available, and your vocabulary is limited to that particular drink, and the house only has, say, sangria[2], what do you do?

Smile and paraphrase Faulkner: Entre sangria y nada más, yo siempre escogeré sangria, “between sangría and nothing else, I will always choose sangría.”

Brad took improvisation to a new level:

Dame un beso, he asked Rosa, insisting that he has not had one too many. No estoy borracho. Rosita, por favor, dame un beso, mi amor.

Translations for mi amor: Dear, baby, honey pie, my love.

Which brings la lección to a closure. Before we do, sin embargo, “however,” we must learn to get la cuenta, “the check.”

Brad asks:

Dame la cuenta, por favor. 

The waiter brings him the check.

¡Qué! ¡Diez dólares por una cerveza local! "What! Ten dollars for a domestic beer!" ¿Estás loco?‘Are you crazy?’ ¡Llama al gerente! ‘Call the manager!’”

El gerente comes, with a bouncer.

Brad smiles. He says:

I reiterate, señor gerente, de verdad, "really," no estoy borracho, "drunk.”

[2] Sangria is a refreshing wine drink with lime and other fruits, and some rum and cognac. Sangria also means bleeding, as in the cure-it all medical practice of yesteryear. La sangre is blood, which can be roja, “red,” or azul, “blue.”