If you want to create a friendly atmosphere, cordial words are the best way to convey your thoughts. Learning other languages is always linked to immersing yourself in other cultures – you always learn new things that will help open your mind and encounter new points of view. And learning Spanish is no different. Cordiality is a part of everyday life around the world and determines how you are perceived by the people in a certain region.
Rest assured that you can communicate with people and be confident in the words you use in a language other than your own. Over time, you’ll learn the same basic concepts as if you were speaking the language you know best. Today, we’ll cover everything you need to know to communicate physically and verbally like a native, or at least not to offend anyone in the attempt.
Fun facts about polite greetings in different cultures
Older people in Beijing ask “吃了吗” (“Have you eaten yet?”) the way we’d ask “How are you?” It’s a common casual greeting between friends and neighbors. Food is one of the main themes in Chinese small talk, regardless of social status.
The most common greeting in Arabic, which also has a religious connotation, is السلام عليكم (as-salāmu ʿalaykum), which is commonly translated as “Peace be upon you” or “Peace unto you” (“Peace be with you” is acceptable, but “Peace be upon you” is a more literal translation, because “على” (Ala) is “on”).
In southern Germany and Austria, people say “grüß Gott” (literally “Greet God”).
Italians also make reference to the next time they will see each other, one example being “alla prossima” (until next time).
Key differences between Spanish and English politeness
The natural question to begin this article with is whether there is any difference between English and Spanish politeness? The answer to this question is yes, and the reason is that politeness is linked to culture.
Therefore, depending on the social norms and behavior, we can determine how to be polite in the language, but most importantly, in every specific culture. This is why it is important to understand the differences if you want to be perceived positively.
The main difference between English and Spanish politeness is that one is positive and the other is negative.
Positive and negative politeness strategy theory
Commonly, in order for interactions to go smoothly, people will try to be polite and maintain their face or public self-image when they deliver refusals. Yule (1996:61-62) divides the public self-image into two: negative face and positive face. Positive politeness indicates closeness, solidarity, and intimacy between participants, whereas negative politeness indicates social distance and non-encroachment.
In the Spanish-speaking world, expressions of courtesy are very important. Being courteous refers to performing an act of kindness, giving attention, or showing good manners toward another person. As synonyms of courtesy, we can find the following words: kindness, cordiality, education, compliment, finesse, consideration, or protocol.
In a culture oriented toward establishing and maintaining solidarity between interlocutors, such as the Peninsular Spanish culture, “A piece of advice could be seen as [a] friendly comment that shows like or concern for the well-being of the receiver, thus being a kind of face-enhancing act” (Bordería García, 2006, p. 23).
This behavior represents, in any corner of the world, a demonstration of respect and education, which is expressed through good customs. However, many of the actions that are considered courteous in one culture may be totally disliked in another and even alien to their traditions. From the greeting to the farewell, Spanish has a wide variety of expressions and manners that can be adapted to suit the different cultural traditions.
How to be polite in Spanish
The importance of greetings in daily life cannot be overemphasized. Learning to greet is a crucial part of life, because it helps us establish and maintain personal relationships. When you greet someone, you massage their ego, show them respect, and give them a sense of belonging and an air of importance. When greeting someone on the street or when arriving at an establishment, use the following expressions:
- “Buenos días” (good morning), “Buenas tardes” (good afternoon), “Buenas noches” (good evening).
- “Adiós” (goodbye), “Hasta luego” (Translates to “until later” but means “see you later”).
Differences between the cultures of Spanish-speaking countries:
When greeting strangers on the street, in Spain the expression “¡Hola!” (Hello!) is used. In contrast, Latin American people tend to be more formal when interacting with strangers and only use this expression to greet people they already know.
When we meet a new person, it’s polite to say:
- “Es un gusto conocerte” (It’s nice to meet you).
- “Encantado/a” (enchanted (to meet you)), “Es un placer” (It’s a pleasure (to meet you)). In this case, the fact that it is a pleasure to meet the new person is not stated explicitly but implied in the expression.
Asking for a favor and expressing gratitude
We must start with “Por favor” (please) and “Gracias” (thank you). These are courtesy keywords in any language and denote kindness. For example, to soften an order or a command, we can use “por favor” before or after the imperative.
Example: “¿Me indicas dónde está el baño, por favor?” – Could you tell me where the toilet is, please?
Those are basic words that will always be useful while communicating in Spanish. However, you can use other expressions, such as:
- “Serías tan amable de…” – Would you be so kind…
- “Cuando tengas un momento, podrías…“ – When you have a moment, could you…
Transactional / Paid Hospitality
When you go to a restaurant and are about to pay the bill, one way to get the waiter’s attention could be:
- “Disculpa…” – which translates to “I’m sorry” but means something more like “Excuse me.”
When you want them to clean the table, you could use this expression:
- “¿Te importaría…?” – Would you mind…?
Tip: Always finish every expression with “por favor” and “gracias” when you are asking for a favor. You can even say “por favor y muchas gracias,” showing gratitude upfront.
When you need to apologize or excuse yourself, depending on the situation, you can use the following expressions:
- “Lo siento” (I’m sorry) – this is more apologetic; you can use it if you spill a drink on someone.
- “Disculpa” (Excuse me) – you can use this word if you need to leave a meeting or burped in front of others.
- “Perdón” (I’m sorry) – this is the apology that carries more weight, and it is used in situations where the person feels bad for a personal action.
How to talk to an elderly person or a superior in business
“Usted” (formal) is the second person singular, and it is often used to refer respectfully to strangers, older people, teachers, or clients. Using “usted” expresses politeness.
Extra tip: When using the word “usted,” you need to use the conditional.
The conditional expresses a higher level of politeness, and in Spain it is used only in very formal situations.
Example: “¿Podría (without the ‘s’) decirme la hora, por favor?” – Could you tell me the time, please?
Non-verbal forms of politeness
In Spanish-speaking cultures, physical touch is very important in daily interactions. It is therefore important to incorporate this form of communication into your practice if you are planning to visit or live in Spain or Latin America.
To greet someone or to say goodbye, depending on where you are, hug or give one or two kisses on the cheek. It is perceived as rude not to touch the person you are greeting.
If you don’t feel comfortable enough doing so, the solution is to go for a handshake, instead of avoiding physical contact. This will be perceived as too formal and a little bit cold, but not as rude.
BONUS: How to be polite when writing an email
Emails are very important for our business relationships, and politeness is a key aspect of maintaining a good image with our colleagues and making a memorable impression on our future employers. Formal emails and letters should be written using the “Usted” form and with the following salutations:
Finally, the following farewell expressions can be used:
Un cordial saludo
Learn how to be polite in Spanish with Lingvist
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