Learning Spanish is about more than memorizing enough grammar and vocabulary to communicate. Understanding the culture is just as important, and it can actually help you communicate more effectively.
Being able to speak any Spanish in the first place is an accomplishment, but if you want to take it a step further and speak like a native, knowing some cultural aspects of the language is a must.
From ordering in a restaurant to writing dates and emails, these cultural tips will take your Spanish to the next level.
Formal vs Informal Spanish
In English, we just say “you” when we’re talking to someone. When you start learning Spanish, your instinct will probably be to always use tú in the same way. There are actually three different ways to say “you” in Spanish though, and sometimes things can get a little awkward if you use the wrong one.
That’s because there are formal and informal versions of “you” in Spanish. Depending on the situation, one is usually more appropriate than the other. Let’s start with the informal versions: tú and vos.
Tú and Vos
You can pretty much use these two interchangeably, and you’ll use them when you’re talking to friends and family or anyone else that can be seen as your “equal.”
Vos isn’t really that common in some Spanish-speaking countries though, so knowing where to use it is also important. For example, you’ll never hear it in Spain or Mexico, but it’s pretty common in countries like Argentina and Uruguay.
Usted is the more formal way to address someone, like your doctor, your boss at work, or police officers. If you’re ever in doubt about whether or not to address someone formally, use usted. It’s your safest bet.
There are some countries that use usted for everyone, like Mexico, and other countries where usted isn’t that common at all, like Spain. Listening to the conversations around you and understanding the culture you’re in can go a long way in helping you decide which form of “you” to use.
Saying You’re Welcome in Spanish
A lot of people who have never learned Spanish before know how to say “thank you”: gracias. Some may even know the most common way to say “you’re welcome”: de nada. There are a few other ways that can add a nice touch to your conversations though.
Whether you’re in an informal or formal situation or someone is thanking you for a gift or for providing a service, using an alternative to de nada can help you express yourself more effectively.
Family, Friends, and Acquaintances
If someone close to you thanks you for something, there are a few different ways to respond. This can be for favors, gifts, or for helping them in general. Here are some examples:
- Con gusto. (My pleasure.)
- No te preocupes. (Don’t worry about it.)
- No hay problema. (No problem.)
- No me cuesta nada. (It didn’t cost me anything.)
If you work in customer service or with people in general, they probably thank you for your help or the services you provide. There are a few useful ways to say “you’re welcome” that are especially appropriate for these more professional contexts. Here are some examples:
- Gracias por tu ayuda. (Thank you for your help.)
- Gracias a ti/usted. (No, thank you!)
- Gracias por arreglar el problema. (Thank you for fixing the problem.)
- Para eso estamos. (That’s what we’re here for.)
- Gracias por conducir. (Thank you for driving.)
- A la orden. (At your service.)
Being more aware of the different ways to have these conversations can help you build deeper relationships. You can also add a more personal touch by using these phrases because a simple de nada can come off a bit impersonal and generic.
Eating in a Restaurant
Directly translated, some of the phrases you hear in restaurants may seem a little harsh or cold to English speakers, but they’re completely normal and acceptable to hispanohablantes (Spanish speakers). Here are a few examples:
- ¿Qué va a comer? (What are you going to eat?)
- ¿Con qué lo quiere? (What do you want with it?)
- Tráeme un vaso de agua. (Bring me a glass of water.)
- Dame una hamburguesa. (Give me a hamburger.)
- ¿Me traería una servilleta? (Could you bring me a napkin?)
See what I mean? If you’re ever in doubt and want to make sure you don’t come off as rude, you can always add por favor to anything you say. Spanish can seem a bit direct when you hear it, but culturally, Spanish speakers tend to be very gracious and friendly. They just have a different way of speaking sometimes.
Writing Dates in Spanish
Another aspect of Spanish you need to be aware of is dates. Writing days and months may seem like a simple thing to do. You just need to learn the vocabulary, right?
That’s really only part of it though. In Spanish, you may need to write dates a little differently than you’re used to.
The main difference between English and Spanish is that you only capitalize months and days in Spanish if they’re at the beginning of the sentence. In English, they’re always capitalized. Another difference is that all days of the week and months are masculine in Spanish. Let’s take a look at some examples.
- Tengo una cita este viernes. (I have an appointment this Friday.)
- Martes 6 de mayo (Tuesday, May 6th)
It’s also important to know that you don’t use cardinal numbers for dates in Spanish (unless it’s the first of the month). So the example above, Martes, 6 de mayo, would be like saying “Tuesday, six of May” in English. It’s a subtle difference, but saying the “sixth of May” in Spanish sounds really strange to Spanish speakers.
Writing Formal Emails in Spanish
Writing formal emails can be difficult in your native language, and even more difficult in a foreign language. To make sure you write your emails correctly, it’s important to learn some useful phrases and vocabulary.
Before you write the email, make sure you understand the situation and to whom you’re writing it. Remember how important it is to use formal and informal Spanish in the right contexts!
You don’t want to say “Hey, dude!” to your university professor and you probably don’t want to send your boss kisses and hugs in an email either. As a general rule of thumb, use the usted conjugation for the verbs.
Here are some phrases you’ll commonly see in more formal emails:
- A quien corresponda (To whom it may concern)
- Estimado Señor/Señora (Dear Sir/Madam)
- Reciba un cordial saludo (I send my best regards)
- Por favor avíseme si necesita más ayuda. (Please let me know if you require any further assistance)
- Atentamente (Sincerely)
Being able to express yourself in formal writing is a difficult skill to master, but using key phrases and words can go a long way. Formal writing in emails is a sign of respect, and doing it correctly (or at least making your best effort) could mean a lot to the person on the receiving end.
Learn About Another Culture Through Language
Learning a language is certainly an accomplishment, but the learning doesn’t stop at vocabulary and grammar. Embracing the cultures that speak your target language can make your language learning journey a positive and satisfying experience.
Language connects people around the world, and learning how to communicate effectively with others can bring everyone closer together. Keep these cultural tips in mind next time you need to use your Spanish, whether it’s Latin American Spanish or Castilian Spanish.