Question: I've noticed that in many of your lessons you've written to your readers using tú. Doesn't this imply that you know us better than you do, since nearly all of us are strangers?
Answer: It's definitely true that in traditional Spanish the familiar form of "you", tú, is reserved for speaking to people whom you know. Traditionally, the main strangers that would be addressed as tú would be children, and addressing someone as tú instead of usted — the verb for that practice is tutear — was often seen as a sign of friendship. In fact, doing so prematurely could be seen as presumptuous. In some English-speaking cultures, a similar tone has been accomplished by addressing someone by his or her first name rather than something more formal such as Mr. Smith.
However, in recent decades, at least in the Western world, the language used in speaking to other people has tended to become more relaxed and informal — and this is true in both many English-speaking and Spanish-speaking areas. Spanish-speaking young adults are likely to begin engaging in tutear from the time they meet — just as in the United States it is not the big deal it once was to be on a first-name basis with someone.
As a result, tutear is more common in general, and this has extended to the mass means of communication. To some extent, using tú has become a way of sounding more friendly, less stuffy. Where a generation or two ago a writer might have communicated to readers using usted, tú is no longer unusual.
To see how common tutear is in mass communications, I conducted an unscientific survey of the Spanish-language Web, seeing how Spanish-speaking writers communicated with readers, and I also looked at advertisements. Here are some of the first examples I found as I clicked around the Net:
- Facebook home page: Facebook te ayuda a comunicarte y compartir con las personas que forman parte de tu vida. (Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.) That's definitely informal — yet on the same page, Facebook uses the impersonal infinitive type of command: Crear una página para una celebridad, un grupo de música o un negocio. (Create a page for a celebrity, a musical group or a business.) Why the mixture I'm not certain, but this use of the infinitive is common when giving instructions (such as for a recipe).
- Netflix ad: ¡Disfruta todas las películas y series de TV que quieras via Internet! (Enjoy all the movies and TV series you want via the Internet!) Definitely informal.
- Clarín (Argentine news site): There's a mixture here. In teasing its articles, Clarín uses the informal. When speaking to readers to encourage them to read a story off the home page, it uses tú or even sometimes vos. But a recent promo for its coupon service used the formal: Empezá a disfrutar ya de estos beneficios. (You'll begin to enjoy these benefits right away.)
- Wikipedia in Spanish: This reader-written reference work seems to prefer the informal: Si quieres editar un artículo sobre un tema controvertido, es muy deseable que primero te leas todo el artículo por completo. (If you want to edit an article about a controversial subject, it is very desirable that you first read the entire article completely.)
- ABC.es (news site from Madrid): The site often addresses its readers informally. For example: Sigue el videoblog de Ángel Expósito. Follow Angel Esposito's video blog. But when it comes time to ask readers to subscribe, it mixes its styles.
- Hi5 (popular youth-oriented networking site): Tu avatar de hi5 es tu tú virtual. (Your Hi5 avatar is your virtual you.) It's hard to get more informal than that.
- Costa Rica's tax department: There's no informality at the Dirección General de Tributación: Para obtener información adicional puede ingresar a las siguientes páginas. (To get additional information you can visit the following pages.)
- Agroasemex (Mexican insurer): There's a mixture on its site. On the one hand, it gives a friendly invitation in the informal second person: Conoce más de nuestra institución. (Get to know our institution better.) But in other places, the formal is used: Agroasemex cuenta con una estructura diseñada para brindarle la atención que usted merece. (Agroasemex counts on a structure designed to provide you the attention you deserve.)
Although this is a tiny survey, it suggests that it is common in written Spanish to use the tú forms when being inviting. But the usted forms certainly have their place — and may suggest some seriousness on the part of the writer.