There are a bunch of ways to say “you” in Spanish.
You’ve probably heard that tú is informal and usted is formal, but you still may be having trouble understanding WHEN and HOW to use them.
Even if you ask a native speaker, what out for their answer! The use of all of these “you” pronouns varies from country to country, even by region inside some countries.
In general, to speak to one person who you are familiar with, you can use “tú” with no problem. You should also be sure that this person is around your same age to avoid accidentally offending anyone.
Also in general, you should use “usted” to address people who you are not so familiar with, who are older than you, or who hold a position of education/authority (doctor, police officer, religious authority, etc.)
In Latin America, you can use “ustedes” to talk to any group of people (even children), and in Spain, you can use vosotros/vosotras to speak to almost any group of people, besides a group who is older than you or who holds a position of education/authority (a group of doctors, police officers, religious authorities, etc.)
Now let’s look at “vos”. Many Spanish learners haven’t even heard of it before. “Vos” is used in largely the same way as “tú” in countries such as Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. In parts of Central America, it’s also used (I say parts because regions inside whole countries will vary on the use of “vos” in Central America.) Using it shows that you are very familiar with this person. You have ‘confianza’ in them!
On the other hand in some areas of Central America, some people use “usted” for everyone, including their own children! The can happen in Northern South America as well (Colombia, for example).
So, what’s the bottom line to all this craziness?
If you know that you will be using Spanish in one specific region or country, then I would highly suggest talking to people from that region to become familiar with the way they use the “you” pronouns.
If you are just looking to speak Spanish in general, I would say that you are probably safe with “tú” unless your conversation partner is older than you or in a “high” social position. You could always just start the conversation with “usted” to be safe, and don’t be alarmed if someone starts insisting with “tú, tú” or “¡Tutéame!”. It just means they would prefer if you said “tú”!
Overall, don’t stress out, check out the nifty map on this post & leave any comments with questions or funny stories!