How to... Learning Spanish Spain

How to (sort of) have an argument with your penny-pinching landlady whilst maintaining a decent and proper gentlemanly manner…in Spanish.

February 6, 2013
usted, spain, spanish, learning spanish

Silly title isn’t it. Long, wordy and totally ignorant of that thing they call SEO. If I were a sensible blogger then I imagine I’d have probably gone for ‘How to use ‘usted’ in Spanish’, as this is in essence, the gristly meat and marrow of what I’m about to regale you with. But then that would be tantamount to false advertising, or just pure and simple deceptiveness – for I am no expert on the matter. I am but a mere specimen, raconteur and passer-on of my valuably learnt lessons. At least I am when I decide it’s high time I rambled on about how to do something in Spanish again.

Yes, this time I thought it necessary to enlighten anybody who cares enough to listen about my woes with the infinitely problematic (for me at any rate) formal tongue of Spanish: ‘Usted’. I very rarely have to use it. In fact, I’d never had to use it until I suddenly found myself facing the inevitability of having to contend with my brusque and blinkered landlady on the subject of unreturned deposits.

I didn’t have to use it, but I wanted to ­– it was an element of Spanish I had until then avoided, due by and large to an overall lack of opportunity. As a señora*, Conchi (her name) could reasonably expect to be addressed as one, which meant the shifting from regular Castellano to this, foreign, guiri-trying, genteel version. Essentially, any verb I conjugated which directly referenced her had to change from the regular second person form, for example ‘¿Como estás?’ to what would normally be the regular third person form, for example ‘¿Como está?’ Along with this omitted ‘s’ it is also necessary to insert ‘usted’ after the main verb and substitute ‘te’ for ‘se’ in a reflexive verb structure such as ‘¿porque se enoja?’ (why are you getting angry?) as opposed to ‘¿porque te enojas?’**.

After only having recently and properly got to grips with normal verb conjugation, I must admit that the task did seem rather daunting. I would, nonetheless, endeavour to do my best, not just because I wanted to practice using ‘usted’, but also in owing to the fact that I was a young English fellow eager to stamp certitude on the myth of impeccable British manners what what?

Before I disclose to you the rather sketchy dialogue of that haunting experience, perhaps illuming you with a word or two on the landlady who to her credit made this post possible wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Throughout my first year in Granada, I steered well clear of the woman, leaving the terrifying exchanges to my female Spanish housemates, who would spend half an hour mentally preparing for the ordeal pre-arrival, only to be rendered flattened, figuratively disemboweled and scared beyond their wits post-arrival. When we had wanted to change a light bulb, for instance, but were unable to find another that matched the busted and wire-exposed deathtrap sprouting from our corridor ceiling, we were shouted at and told to stop being so lazy; we weren’t looking hard enough.

We searched high and low, chino por chino, and nary a fitting light bulb was found. We doggedly explained the futility of the situation and that the electrician whom she had had wire the place up must surely have known one’s whereabouts. But still, nothing. Eventually, we gave up and lived without light. Then one day, untrue to form, I absent-mindedly wandered down the pitch-black corridor, assuming one foot was being placed directly in front of the other, when I met with a protruding section of wall in a most abrupt and untimely manner. Blood literally gushed from my eyebrow and I had to pay a visit to A&E. Next day, when I rang Conchi to give her a piece of my now dented mind, I was, rather than grovelingly apologised to, politely reminded that it had been my responsibility to find a replacement in the first place. I was shell-shocked and incensed. Yet words deserted me. Instead I hung up, and hoped that I would never have to deal with the vile scorpion woman again.

Fast-forward six months and I’m the only one left in the flat. The Spanish girls have gone, and so too have the Frenchman and Italian Erasmus student. The latter had been the second-to-last to leave, and he did so without paying his last month’s rent. This left me in a rather sticky situation, as I had already paid my last month’s rent and was owed my deposit. Naturally, I was furious with him for leaving me in the lurch and facing the prospect of losing €220. Conchi, rather predictably, didn’t take the news well either, as she had neither the bank details nor phone number to debit the money/contact him with – we had always paid cash in hand. She did, however, assure me that his not paying would not affect the safe and full return of my deposit. This was a highly dubious promise and one that I fully anticipated to be broken.

Fast-forward another three months and the missing rent had still not been paid. And unsurprisingly, neither had my deposit. I called her from my mobile. No reply. I called her again. Nothing. Again, this time from a friend’s phone:

Conchi: Dime.

Me: Hola señora Conchi soy Josh. ¿Como estás? Digo ‘está’, perdona.

Conchi: ¿Que?

Me: Nada, lo sien-

Conchi: -Dime. ¿Que quiere?

Me: Si. Erm… me gustaría saber porque no me ha devuelto la fianza del año pasado. Me dijiste – digo ‘dije’, perdona ‘dijo’ – usted que iba a hacerlo incluso si no pagaba Fabio su alquiler. Y no me ha contestado cuando he intentado llamarte – perdona ‘le’ – digo ‘la’.

Conchi: ¿Como?

Me: Perdone señora Conchi, quizas no he estado cla-

Conchi: ¡E’cuchame! ¡Dile a Fabio que tiene que pagarme el alquiler de Junio! ¡Si no lo paga no puedo devolverte nada!

Me: Si, Conchi le he dicho pero no puedo hacer más, y tu – perdona ‘usted’ – me dij-

Conchi: -¡E’cuchame! ¡Dile al Fabio que tiene que pagarme el alquiler de Junio!

Me: Señora Conchi como te – perdona ‘usted’, digo ‘le’ – he dicho ya, he hecho todo lo que puedo-

Conchi: -¡Dile al Fabio que tiene que pagarme el alquiler de Junio y ya está.

Me: Pero-

usted, spain, spanish, learning spanish

‘If you love a woman, leave her to drink by herself. If she calls you when drunk she’s all yours – if she turns off her phone, she never was yours’ Source


Conchi: Tell me.

Me: Hello Mrs. Conchi it’s Josh, how are you? I mean ‘how are you?’ (formal) Sorry.

Conchi: What?

Me: Nothing, I’m sor-

Conchi: -Tell me. What do you want?

Me: Yes. I’d like to know why you haven’t paid back my deposit from last year. You told me – I mean ‘I told me’, sorry ‘you told me’ (formal) – that you were going to do it even if Fabio didn’t pay his rent. And you haven’t answered me when I’ve tried to call you – sorry ‘you’ (formal).

Conchi: What?

Me: Sorry Mrs. Conchi, maybe I haven’t been cle-

Conchi: -Listen to me! Tell Fabio that he has to pay June’s rent! If he doesn’t pay it I can’t give you anything back!

Me: Yes Conchi I’ve told him but I can’t do any more, and you – sorry ‘you’ (formal) – told me th-

Conchi: -Listen to me! Tell Fabio that he has to pay June’s rent!

Me: Mrs. Conchi as I have told you– sorry ‘you’ (formal) – already, I’ve done everything that I can-

Conchi: -Listen to me! Tell Fabio that he has to pay June’s rent and that’s the end of it.

Me: But-

She hung up. Just as well really– my (almost) impeccable British manners were wearing pretty thin after a mere two-minute exchange, though I could see her point, even if she had lied to me. All things said and done it was probably time to cut my losses, but not before one last dashed attempt at convincing Fabio to pay up. I did so via Facebook and heard nothing for weeks. Then, miraculously, a message appeared in my inbox that read:

‘Hola Josh, I paid Conchi the deposit two weeks ago and asked her to let you know. I hope she has done it. Fabio.’

She bloody well hadn’t done it. Enraged, I grabbed my mobile and called her. No reply, obviously. Again from a friend’s phone:

Conchi: Dime.

Me: Hola Conchi soy Josh. Acabo de hablar con Fabio y- (I’ve just spoken to Fabio and-)

She hung up. And that was the last time we ever spoke – I was past caring after trying to contact her for several weeks following that. It was over, and while she may have robbed me of my money, I could take solace in the fact that my manners had stayed well intact. And in some ways that’s a victory. In some ways.

*the actual crossover point from señorita to señora is a blurry one and can often lead to impromptu looks of horror and outrage/bumbling awkward apologies, but more on that another time

**there is no doubt, a whole lot more to it than that but as I said – I am no expert. I only know and use that much!

When do you use ‘usted’ if you speak Spanish? Do you find it easy to shift into it? Have you ever encountered a similarly horrid landlady or had trouble with claiming back deposits?

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  • elizabethcarlson272905746 February 6, 2013 at 11:48 am

    Jesus, that sucks. Try and get one of your teachers to deal with her or something. I can’t believe she nicked your fianza!!!

    Otherwise, I would not worry too much about the tu/usted thing, you probably pissed her off by not being clearing and sticking to one or the other and she probably was confused, though ultimately she knew what was going on. Spanish women can be so brusque sometimes. Just stick with tu, she deserves it for being a cow.

    Buena suerte!

    • Josh February 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm

      Yeah it did suck. And I know she wasn’t at all deserving of the usted treatment but I just wanted to give it a go. I’ve since found out where she lives but haven’t had the backbone to pay her a visit yet! I’m planning what I want to say very carefully…

  • Sue Sharpe February 6, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Great post, Josh. Thankfully I have never been in a predicament such as yours. I do, however, use ‘usted’ on a regular basis as I always address the elders of village in this manner.

    • Josh February 6, 2013 at 2:58 pm

      Yeah these days I use it to address my friend’s elderly mother and she always comments on what a polite young man I am AND plies me with fresh pastries before I leave. It’s a good incentive!

  • tobyo February 6, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    actually it was your title that drew me in and I’m so glad I read this. It provided a great read to eat my lunch to 😉 Seriously tho….I’m sorry you had to deal with such an imbecile of a landlady. if it makes you feel any better, I too never got my deposit back from another unsavory landlady. she claimed we used “dutch cleanser” in the bathtub which ruined the finish? Even though we never used such a cleanser as she had warned us from the beginning not to use, it didn’t matter. she refused to give me back the $575 I was rightly due. she then came up with other reasons why we didn’t deserve our deposit back. and we had left the state so there wasn’t much else we could do. I felt sorry for her very nice, quiet husband. she obviously wore the pants in that family!

    oh yea, I found your exchange quite amusing with your self corrections. you did well!! hopefully you don’t encounter another witch like that again!

    • Josh February 7, 2013 at 11:37 am

      It’s never a smooth transaction is it. They’ll fleece you for anything! Fortunately this year I have a much nicer landlord. Or so I’m told– I haven’t actually met him yet!

      • tobyo February 8, 2013 at 2:28 pm

        that’s good news!! this post made me wonder about when we move to Spain. how does one know how to find a good landlord? hmmmm…..more stuff to contemplate!

        actually, my experience above was the one and only time I had an issue with a landlady. too bad it was the largest deposit I ever gave…

  • MeghannG@HolaMatrimony February 21, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Ugh, no matter where you are there is nothing worse than a terrible landlord. At our first house here our landlady was…hmmm…let’s say “shrewd”. By which I mean, she was only interested in separating the Americanos from their money quickly and effectively. Delightful.

    As for usted, I was actually taught it in school (vosotros is a total mystery though), but generally avoid it here in Puerto, since it does not seem to be used as much. I guess I could give it a whirl with our new (and vastly improved) landlord, but he’s more interested in practicing his English with us. And sampling our “exotic” beers.

    • Josh February 21, 2013 at 11:51 pm

      I lived in El Puerto my first year in Spain! I worked for TECS provate language academy. And yes, usted, despite my inability to actually understand and use it, didn’t seem to feature much. Though I did make a half-dashed attempt at it for parents evenings during the latter stages of my time there!

      I miss El Puerto! The beaches rock! Especially Puerto Sherry. Man that was a great place to unwind 🙂

      • MeghannG@HolaMatrimony February 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm

        Ahh, love the beaches here in El Puerto, so ready for summer! I used to live in Fuentebravia, just a quick stumble downhill to the beach. Now, I actually have to cross a major road to get to Las Redes. Rough life, I know.

  • Joe Seamus TerZino May 16, 2013 at 10:31 am

    I lived in Zaragoza back in the 80s, stationed at the air base nearby. It was a fantastic time of my life…every day was an odyssey, and every night a freak show. Never had any landlady issues, but there was a portero (the doorman/ maintenance/ security/ building sup) at one place who was a real PITA. No real confrontations, just a surly, unpleasant bastard.
    As far as the use of usted, I was apparently the only gringo to have taken Spanish in high school before going to Spain. Not that it actually helped those first few months….! My job had me working directly with Spaniards, and they sorted me out quickly enough. It is a not a small thing, and it’s use shows respect, and a deeper understanding of the language.
    I truly miss Spain. I’m planning to return next spring, walk the Camino, and return to Zaragoza, San Sabastian, Madrid, and the rest of my old stomping grounds. Who knows….might even reconnect with old friends.
    Suerte, amigo!

    • Josh May 16, 2013 at 11:12 am

      Hey thanks for your comment! Yeah porteros tend to be just as difficult, though from my experience that is generally how are they are anywhere in the world. Where I used to live in Sheffield, UK, there seemed to be a particularly nasty breed. There’s a song called ‘Ritz to Rubble’ by the Arctic Monkeys that’s actually written about them – and brilliantly written as well!

      Assuming you’re American, I suppose that when you learnt Spanish in high school, ‘usted’ was taught as the normal way of speaking the language, in which case i’m guessing everybody just thought you were very polite when you moved to Zaragoza?

      • Joe Seamus TerZino May 16, 2013 at 6:56 pm

        Thanks for the reply! I’ll have to check out that song….gotta be on YouTube. Yes, usted was taught as part of conjugation drills. They’re like dental drills, but not as fun… There was still a learning curve in practical, conversational Spanish that one just can’t get in a classroom. So I made a lot of mistakes, but just wasn’t as godawful clueless as the next guy. Even people coming out of several years of college level classes were frustrated at first. Without a real immersion experience and a real world goal (Spanish girls!) you’re just lost. And yes, I made it a point to be polite, and act like I was a guest.

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