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Artículo 01

Volumen 16

The influence of relationship in formality address systems in Cuernavaca, Mexico.


Dustin De Felice, Ph.D., Assistant Professor,

Michigan State University,

East Lansing, Michigan.


            Amy Fioramonte, Doctoral Candidate,

Second Language Acquisition and

Instructional Technology (SLA/IT),

University of South Florida, Tampa.




This study investigates the formal/informal voice used by native speakers in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Though listed as a very simple and obvious choice in many textbooks, usage is very subtle and complex. Social status, age, gender, and relationship are just some of the variables that dictate whether the speaker will be formal or informal in their discourse. Using William Labov’s sociolinguistic study of New York City as a model, the researchers observed and recorded unobtrusively the age, gender, and relationship of participants engaged in two person interactions in natural settings. After recording nearly 300 interactions, the researchers tallied the results and compared them to the preceding variables. The intent of this study was to discern a pattern for using either address choice. This study demonstrates the complexity of this grammatical feature, as well as provides valuable guidelines on when to use either voice.

Keywords: voice, formality, Spanish, relationship, sociolinguistics

For English speaking students acquiring the Spanish language, certain elements seem to be more difficult to acquire than others. Some of these elements come from grammar, while others are found in pronunciation differences.  However, many times the most difficult elements come from the culture surrounding a particular dialect of Spanish and its connection with the grammar. The concept of an informal vs. formal address system does not seem too difficult and Spanish textbooks for second language learners echo this sentiment. According to Jarvis, Lebredo and Mena-Ayllón (1997), “Use the tú form when addressing a close friend, a relative, or a child. Use the usted form in [all] other instances” (p.22). Textbooks are not the only source of information for language learners.  Websites offering lessons in Spanish acquisition paint the same picture as seen in the following example taken from a website for children, Tú y usted, (n.d.), which solves the dilemma in one sentence: when you speak with friends use the informal (tú), but when you speak with adults or authorities use the formal (usted).


In other websites, the message is to use the formal (usted) until the native speaker asks the non-native speaker to begin using the informal (tú). Seco (1996) qualifies the choice by tying it to terms such as, camaraderie and distance. “Use the informal (tú) when there is trust or camaraderie between speakers. Use the formal (usted) when there is a certain amount of distance between speakers” (p. 22). Finally, some textbook authors do not offer a distinction between the two grammatical forms as seen in Directo al grano (Gac-Artigas, 1994) and Spanish Verbs (Kendris, 2001); the various usages are presented in grammar charts and tables as options, but with no indication of how or when to use either address choice.


Often many factors come together until a second language learner is unable to discern patterns of usage or receives mixed signals and/or interpretations. Odlin (1989) states “much of the difficulty in becoming a competent speaker (and listener) is likely to come from the simultaneous existence of universal and specific elements in spoken interactions” (p. 57). In order for a learner to make use of these grammatical distinctions and to fully understand the context, the learner must experience the language in context and discover a pattern for why the language is used in a certain way.


Many times, the factor that most influences a particular grammar choice comes from the social relationship between speaker and hearer, though time, age and place can also play a role in what conversational style is used (Stewart & Vaillette, 2001). Conversational styles vary along many dimensions and not only in regards to politeness. Odlin (1989) states that “the acquisition of pronouns in languages such as French is thus a special challenge for speakers of a language such as English” (p.57). The dimensions of formality are often linked to the idea that a speaker will sometimes be careful when speaking, while other times his or her speech is relaxed.


Every language has some type of system for indicating the level of formality of a particular speaker. Many languages will have these indicators embedded or coded into their grammatical or morphological systems, which mark the conversational style. Many times paralinguistic elements (loudness, speech rate, gestures, physical posture) can also serve the very same marking functions in social situations (Spolsky, 1998). “If, with incomplete knowledge of the L2 marking systems, the L2 learner is to speak at all in the early stages of his acquaintance with the new culture, he must clearly risk making social self-identifications that he would not intend” (Leather & James, 1996, p. 271). The combination of the coded indicators and the para-linguistics elements can also lead a learner to use the wrong level of formality, which marks the learner as an outsider.


Many times the learner is unable to see the complexity of a particular domain in his or her new language/culture environment. The domain of a social situation is comprised of three components: place, role-relationship, and topic (Spolsky, 1998). This study attempts to identify the appropriate level of formality by focusing on the role-relationship between native Spanish speakers in Cuernavaca, Mexico in social situations in an effort to define the cultural rules behind the grammatical distinctions. Our study was guided by the following research question: 1) Does social relationship (i.e., family, friend) have an effect on the use of the formal/informal voice for speakers in the city of Cuernavaca, Mexico?





We completed our study using Labov (1966) as inspiration for unobtrusively recording native-speaker interactions through observation. The observation period lasted four weeks and involved the recording of formal and informal voice usages between two participants in conversations. We observed these participants within the city confines of Cuernavaca and they occurred in a number of different scenarios/locations (e.g. retail stores, park, etc.). During the interactions, we recorded the following demographic information for the participants: age range, gender, and relationship of the participants. In addition to these demographic data, we also recorded the flow of conversation (e.g., what language form was used (formal or informal voice) in their discourse).


We recorded the time and date for each interaction as a means of minimizing repeat entries. The initial form, as seen in appendix A, proved to be very complicated and allowed only the recording of one person’s voice usage with seven observations. In addition, a major problem was found in the flow of conversation section. In this initial version, we only considered five types of conversations (formal/formal, informal/informal, informal/formal, formal/informal and neither). After observing interactions in the field, we noted that more varieties of interactions were possible. Finally, this form proved difficult to use because the recording of multiple informants involved carrying multiple forms. After a week of observing, a total of seventy interactions were recorded on this form and we revised the form to better reflect the reality of the conversations we observed.


In appendix B, the modified form shows how it allowed for more choices in the way the conversation flowed as well as in the flexibility of choosing informants. The flow of conversation section now contained a total of ten possible dyadic conversations, which accounted for virtually all of the possibilities. This final version was also written in Spanish, which gave the participants (oftentimes monolingual speakers of Spanish) the ability to understand the results form.



Participants were observed and the data were collected on the flow of conversation form. Either during or at the end of the interaction, we questioned one or both participants in the dyad in order to confirm that the appropriate formality level, age, and relationship were recorded. For the purpose of this study, we considered the relationship between the informants a critical factor in determining why a native Spanish speaker chose one form over another. There were three categories or levels of relationships. The first category, friend/family, we defined as a long-standing relationship based on the informants’ self-reported responses. The second category, acquaintance, we defined as a known person who did not have a strong enough relationship to be defined as friend or family. Finally, we defined the stranger category as an interaction between two individual who had not met before.



In an effort to document how an inhabitant in Cuernavaca would use either address form, we used an unobtrusive method of recording the city inhabitants’ interactions during the course of their day. We aimed to collect these dyadic conversations in a natural and discrete manner. Labov (1966) provided a method for doing a discrete recording of data in which he examined the differential use of /r/ in New York City (as cited in Wardhaugh, 2002).  We collected data over a four-week time period and recorded 292 interactions. We dismissed five responses for having incomplete demographic data and we dismissed two responses because the participants changed voice within the conversation. In both of these cases the participants began with the formal voice, but quickly changed to the informal voice.


For our research question, the null hypothesis states that for each of the different voice categories the values will be equally distributed and proportional across the different social relationship categories. The observed chi-square statistic is 70.4325. The critical chi-square value (df=10) at alpha = .05 is 18.31. Therefore, since the observed value of 70.4325 is greater than the critical value the null hypothesis is rejected. Next, we reviewed Cramer’s V as a measure of association to tell us something about the degree to which our two variables – voice and social relationship – are related. For our research question, Cramer’s V is 0.3509; this value may be interpreted as a medium relationship. In other words, there may be a relationship between voice used and social relationship.


Figure 1. Total occurrences

Figure 1 depicts the total occurrences in the observed interactions and shows that more participants used the informal (tú) than the formal (usted) (120 41.6% vs. 78 27.27%). The overwhelming number of occurrences of tú and usted demonstrate that even though a sizable amount of variety exists, the unmarked variety lie in choosing a relationship model that is of equal footing.


In figure 2, we focus on the category of friend/family. According to the findings in figure 2, the preferred address form for the interactions in the friend/family category was the informal (tú). In fact, the formal form (usted) was the marked form; it only occurred four times. The overwhelming use of tú followed by a lack of occurrences of the other address forms demonstrates the strong informal preference among these language users.

Figure 2: Total occurrences for friends/family.


The second category, acquaintances, showed a slight increase in the use of the formal form (usted), but the informal (tú) continued to be the preferred address form. These results are displayed in figure 3.

Figure 3. Total occurrences for acquaintances.


Though the use of tú→ tú, or the informal usage, once again showed it was clearly the unmarked form, movement in the other variations appeared, including a rise in the unequal usage as shown by the 10 (3.5%) entries in (tú→usted) informal→formal column and its reverse. The use of the formal voice also increased, but was still significantly less than the informal voice (18 6.29% to 44 15.38% respectively).


The third category, stranger, showed movement in each type of conversation flow with the formal (usted) becoming the preferred usage by more than twenty interactions. The number of unequal conversation flows also increased by as many as twenty or thirty interactions. The use of neither form or a neutral stance jumped to 26 9.09%. These results are shown in figure 4.

Figure 4. Total occurrences for strangers.

The sizable increase in the use of usted→usted, or the formal usage, is a reverse of the other two relationships.  However, it is important to note significant movement occurred in all of the interaction varieties, especially in the dyads involving unequal footing.

Figure 5. Total number of each voice used.


Finally, in reviewing all occurrences of informal and formal address form usages, the results become an indication of what is the appropriate choice within each relationship type. Figure 5 demonstrates that overall the informal address form is used on more occasions than the formal address form (166 48.4% to 131 38.19%). These results also show that the informal voice is the preferred address form within the confines of both the family/friend and the acquaintance relationship. Though the formal voice overtakes the informal in interactions involving strangers, or the first time meeting scenario, the informal voice is still substantially used.



Addressing our research question on whether the social relationship (family, acquaintance, and stranger) affects the use of voice (formal and informal), the Chi-square test of independence/homogeneity revealed that the different voice categories are not equally used in interactions between the participants with different social relationships. Cramer’s V also revealed that the degree of relationship between these two variables is medium. These findings suggest that native Spanish speakers’ choice of formal and informal voice is affected by the social relationship. Since social relationship can be a variable in determining the choice of voice, learners of this language should be aware of this factor when choosing between the different address forms.


The results of this study are a solid step forward in documenting the use of the (in)formality address system in Spanish and should be considered useful for second language learner for two reasons. The first reason is that a pattern can be found in the results, which can be used in linking relationships to appropriate voice choice. The second reason shows a language learner the variables that exist within this community and further underscores the subjectivity involved with this type of language acquisition.


In the end, no absolute rule was found, but a clear pattern emerged in how native speakers from this region used the address system. It is clear that family members, close friends, and even acquaintances will expect the informal voice, while strangers will not. It is also clear that the correct usage is important in establishing new relationships as the results showed a movement in all types of interactions is possible, including the neutral voice, in which participants use neither the formal nor informal voice.

Though this study shows the link between a relationship and voice, other variables likely influence the choice as well. Age is most likely the next consideration a native speaker uses in determining what voice to use. The original intent of this study was to find the intersection of age with relationship and gender, but by not controlling for age, the participants were mostly from within 26-35 year-olds. Clearly our data do not reflect each age group equally; thereby the results of this study give unfair weight to 26-35 year-olds. In fact, this study may only be a reflection of that particular age group and how they use this formal address system. A future study would need to control the interactions to account for age, gender, and social status. However, this study does provide non-native speakers, principally English language speakers, with a clearer picture of the usage of a peculiar grammatical distinction that is not available in their language.



Gac-Artigas, P. & G. (1994) Directo al grano. USA. To the Point Books.

Jarvis, A, Lebredo, R. & Mena-Ayllón, F. (1997). ¡Hola amigos! (4th ed.). Boston, MA.

Houghton Mifflin Company.

Kendris, C. (2001). Spanish Verbs (2nd ed.). New York: Barron’s

Labov, W. (1966). The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington:

Center for Applied Linguistics.

Leather, J. & James, A. (1996). Second language speech. In W.C. Ritchie & T.K. Bahtia

(Eds.), Handbook of second language acquisition. (pp. 269-316). New York: Academic Press.

Odlin, T. (1989). Language transfer. Cross-linguistic influence in language learning.

New York: Cambridge University Press.

Seco, M. (1996). Gramática esencial del español. Madrid, Spain: Biblioteca Esencial

Spolsky, B. (1998). Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stewart, T.W. & Vaillette, N. (Eds.) (2001). Language files (8th ed.). Columbus, OH:

Ohio State University.

Tú y usted. (n.d.). Retrieved fromú_Usted.htm

Wardhaugh, R. (2002). An introduction to sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Appendix 1


INFORMANT: AGE RANGE: 5-15 16-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+ SEX: M F


CLIENT: AGE RANGE: 5-15 16-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+ SEX: M F

FLOW OF CONVERSATION: Tú ↔ Tú           Ud. ↔ Ud.        Tú ↔ Ud.         Ud. ↔ Tú         Ø

DATE: ____ TIME: ______       Friend/Family  Acquaintance  Stranger  NOTES:                       




CLIENT: AGE RANGE: 5-15 16-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+ SEX: M F

FLOW OF CONVERSATION: Tú ↔ Tú           Ud. ↔ Ud.        Tú ↔ Ud.         Ud. ↔ Tú         Ø

DATE: ____ TIME: ______       Friend/Family  Acquaintance  Stranger  NOTES:                                                                                             



CLIENT: AGE RANGE: 5-15 16-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+ SEX: M F

FLOW OF CONVERSATION: Tú ↔ Tú           Ud. ↔ Ud.        Tú ↔ Ud.         Ud. ↔ Tú         Ø

DATE: ____ TIME: ______       Friend/Family  Acquaintance  Stranger  NOTES:                                                                                 


CLIENT: AGE RANGE: 5-15 16-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+ SEX: M F

FLOW OF CONVERSATION: Tú ↔ Tú           Ud. ↔ Ud.        Tú ↔ Ud.         Ud. ↔ Tú         Ø

DATE: ____ TIME: ______       Friend/Family  Acquaintance  Stranger  NOTES:                                                                                             



CLIENT: AGE RANGE: 5-15 16-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+ SEX: M F

FLOW OF CONVERSATION: Tú ↔ Tú           Ud. ↔ Ud.        Tú ↔ Ud.         Ud. ↔ Tú         Ø

DATE: ____ TIME: ______       Friend/Family  Acquaintance  Stranger  NOTES:                                                                                                        


Flow of conversation goes from client/informant—client represented on the left/informant represented on the right