Being Polite in Spanish Matters

Do you know your manners? Are you being polite in Spanish?

It is often difficult to know how to be polite in one's own language, how much more when you're learning a new language? Being polite in Spanish makes a big difference in how you are received by native speakers.

Yet, have you noticed how little politeness is taught in Spanish classes? Do you know the phrases for "excuse me" in Spanish? I'm dedicating this page to teaching cultural niceties, etiquette,or social protocols as I have seen and learned while living in Mexico for over 15 years. (If you'd like to know how to be polite on the phone you can click here for Being Polite on the Phone.) To begin with, to say a person is polite in Spanish, the word used is "educado".

He is a polite man. El es un hombre educado.

The expression to have good manners in Spanish is buena educación or buenos modales.

The expression to have good manners in Spanish is buena educación orbuenos modales.

That girl has good manners. Esa niña tiene buena educación. or Esa niña tiene buenos modales.

Isn't it interesting that education in Spanish means knowing how to act correctly in society? When it comes to book learning you will often hear "preparación" instead.

He is an educated man. El tiene una buena preparación. o Es un hombre bien preparado.

Other words used for describing having good manners in Spanish, such as courteous and courtesy are cortes and cortesia respectively.

Introductions

Early on in Spanish you have learned that when you are introduced to people you say,

Mucho gusto for nice to meet you.

When you shake hands,if the other person says "mucho gusto" (nice to meet you)first, it is acceptable to reply: "igualmente" (likewise) or "el gusto es mío" (the pleasure is mine). You are showing good manners in Spanish with these phrases. You can also use the response:

"encantado" (enchanted), if you're a man. "encantada" if you're a woman.

Often when a native speaker in Mexico extends his hand to greet you, other than just saying his name you may hear:

"Carlos Garcia Lorca, a sus ordenes."

or

"Jose Luis Santos Ruiz para servirle."

This is often said very quickly, especially when children introduce themselves. It can sound like a string of words until the end when you can just barely make out something about " ordenes" or "servirle". Those two phrases basically mean "at your service". Again these normal protocol phrases show that they are being polite in Spanish.

When the person says their two last names, the first is the father's last name, the second is the mother's. So Señor Garcia, and Señor Santos, is how you would address these men (from the previous examples) in a formal situation.

In an informal situation (and if they are older men) you might address them as Don Carlos or Don Jose Luis.

"Don" is a friendly term of respect used with older men. It is combined with the first name only, not the last name. "Doña" is used with women.

Coming from an informal culture such as the one of the United States, some of these phrases may see a little extravagant or too elegant. However, they are phrases that are typically accepted or expected in normal conversation. You will be considered polite in Spanish, not exaggerated.

While being introduced to people whether man or a woman, it is normal to extend your hand and shake theirs. Among those who are middle class and richer, it is also common to shake hands and to greet women with a quick kiss on the cheek. (just one cheek, one time). Just to be clear: it is women greeting each other with a kiss, and a woman and a man greeting with a kiss. Man to man is just shaking hands. 

Among the poor, as in a missionary working with the poor, just a handshake and not kissing on the cheek is the most common and least offensive.

Asking "What did you say?"

If Spanish is a foreign language for you, it is most likely you will be needing some kind of phrase to ask people to repeat what they say, whether you didn't hear or didn't understand. The polite in Spanish in Mexico is to ask with a simple word,

"¿Mande?" (almost sounds like Monday)

That's it. This word encapsulates, "What did you just say?" in a very polite Spanish way. Children who are native speakers of Spanish are consistently remineded to say: ¿Mande? and not ¿Qué? when they didn't hear something. Just saying ¿Qué? is not good manners in Spanish.

------------side note----------------

"Mande" comes from the Spanish verb mandar--to command or order. When a servant or soldier is called by a superior, he will answer: ¿Mande Usted? meaning: command me, order me.

"¿Mande?" is the polite way in Spanish to answer when anybody in authority calls. This can be a boss to a worker or parents to children.

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"¿Mande?" has come through the years now as asking to repeat what was said and reflects well that you know how to be polite in Spanish.

Politeness phrases that require a response

Sneezing

The first example in this group of polite phrases in Spanish is saying"¡salud!" This is said when somebody sneezes. The person who sneezed should politely respond with, "Gracias".

This little social exchange can be taken very seriously. One can be on a crowded bus and if you sneeze, several people may say "¡Salud!", not just the person next to you. It is correct for you to respond, with a "¡Gracias!" that is loud enough to be heard so that they know you acknowledged their "¡Salud!" Likewise, you will then be acknowledged in their minds a person who knows how to be polite in Spanish, since they were expecting to hear the "¡Gracias!"

On a lighter note, if a person is sneezing in succession, for the first sneeze, one will hear "¡Salud!" for the second, one might hear: "¡Dinero!", and for the third sneeze, one will hear "¡Amor!"

You can acknowledge again with, "gracias, gracias, gracias" too. With those three wishes of health, money and love, sometimes you will hear the person who sneezed comment about hoping to be lucky with love.

The terms above salud, dinero, amor though written with exclamation points, aren't necessarily shouted. Depending on the situation and the personality of the person saying it, the words may be spoken quietly or with much exuberance.

-----side note------

"¡Salud!" also means "Cheers! as when toasting before a drink. When you'd like a toast to be done, you say, ¡Un brindis!

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Entering a home, classroom, meeting room, or needing to pass through where people are gathered, but blocking your path.

To be polite in Spanish here, you would ask,"¿Con permiso?" "With your permission?"

You can expect to hear in response, one of these phrases (or close to it),"Propio" "Es propio" or "Pásele" Which translates as, "yours" "it's yours" or "come in" or "pass through".

The situations where this can be used is when you are at somebody's door or gate and you want to come in. Possibly you don't see anyone around and you want to let them know you are there. You say a loud "¿Con permiso?"and wait for a response. If they are expecting you, you should hear the usual response. If not, you may hear

¿Quien es? (Who is it?) or ¡Voy!(I'm coming.)

Again, this conveys that you are being polite in Spanish, and not being forward by just coming in.

If in a school or business situation and you are running late for the class or the meeting, it shows good manners in Spanish, if you don't just rush in to take your seat, but stop at the doorway and ask,

"¿Con permiso?" and wait for someone to say one of the above responses.

If you are walking down a narrow street, and some people have stopped to chat and you need to get by, saying "¿Con permiso?" will alert them and they will pause to stand aside, and let you by. Basically, any situation where you would say, "coming through" or "Excuse me, I need to get by" is where "¿Con permiso?" will be used.

Now if you accidentally bump someone or step on someone's toe as you are passing through, the word,

"Perdón" or "Disculpe" is what you would say.

This is the English equivalent of saying,"Excuse me," or "Sorry, about that." You may have heard, "Lo siento" for I'm sorry, but that would be if you knew you badly hurt the person in your accidental bump. Then the forgiving response you may hear is, "No se preocupe", for "Don't worry about it". or "no tenga pena." (literally, don't be ashamed).

Table Manners

Before digging into a meal

One can say or hear said, "¡Buen provecho!" or just "¡Provecho!" when you're about to start to eat a meal.

If a prayer is said before the meal, this is said after the "amen". If you are in a group gathering, several may say it at the same time.

If you're in a smaller setting, you can say it, and the other person will say it back or just respond with, "Gracias". The equivalent in English is the borrowed French phrase "Bon Appetit". It is used daily at any meal. If examined precisely, "provecho" is saying,

"may the food go down well or be of benefit (provecho) to you."

If you happen to be in a small cafe or eatery, you may hear people say this as they enter or leave addressing everybody. A very polite gesture.

When you want to say something is delicious, ¡Que sabrosa! or "Que rica!"can be used. By saying "¡Que rica!" is does not mean the food is "rich" the way it's used in English. It just means the food is "delicious".

Having your elbows on the table is not considered polite in Mexico. It is important to have your hands where they can be seen. Also burping is impolite. If a burp happens to escape you, saying "Perdón" is the proper "excuse me" of English.

For those of you who are very exact and nitpicky about why and what it is you are saying in Spanish, don't sweat these phrases. They are just common niceties that come naturally to the Mexican native speaker. Mexicans who are used to being around foreigners don't expect you to know every single thing, but when you do use these phrases, it will probably bring you up a notch, and impress them that your mother raised you right.

Saying Good-bye

When you've been introduced to someone, or run into someone you know out on the street, when it's time to say good bye, it's time to extend your hand and shake once more as you take leave. All this handshaking, at greeting and leaving, is the normal way to do things in Mexican culture. To a North American mind, it mind seem redundant and overkill, but it is not seen that way at all in this culture. It is correct manners.

At a party, meeting,gathering (convivio),fellowship time,

It is correct to go to the hosts of the party and shake their hands good bye, and to also shake the hands of everyone else at the gathering, even when there are a lot of people there. Seriously, the typical casual shout of "Good-bye everybody!" and a big wave to the whole group, is not considered the usual polite way to leave a party.

Phrases such as:

Me despido, gracias por todo.

Tengo que retirarme, gracias por todo.

Are polite ways of saying, "I must leave now, thank you for everything."

An extremely common phrase said by those left at the house or gathering to bid you farewell is "Que te vaya bien" or "Que les vaya bien"(may it go well with you, singular or plural). Though you may not have heard this phrase in book learning, it is a real life frequently used farewell phrase.


page last updated Jan. 30, 2016