No, My First Name Ain’t “Baby…”

You know what I’m sick of?  I’m sick of my students calling me all the time, that’s what I’m sick of.  Students should address their teachers as usted.

It’s wild; in any language I’ve ever studied that has a register distinction between formal and familiar, this distinction is always taught first, if not in the first chapter, then in the pre-lesson chapter before the chapters start.  Native speakers find this so important that they make it among the first things that is taught.

Native speakers of a language with a register distinction, of course, make the distinction seamlessly and effortlessly.  On the rare occasions that they misspeak; they apologize, correct themselves, and move on in a very easy manner; blink and you’ll miss it.

Americans tend to not have a feel for this distinction, as the grammatical register distinction (i.e., the familiar thou versus the formal you)  is now archaic… everybody is addressed as you now, and thou thee, thy, and thine sound like the past.  If you addressed someone alive today with thou, they would not feel any sense of familiarity.

For many years it was easy to go along with the American way of letting the students address me as the familiar tú, but the more I become a Spanish speaker, the more it grosses me out.  My students are not my friends, we’re not on a first-name basis, I would deny their Facebook friend requests–that is, if anyone dared to friend me–, and to say that our relationship is familiar, rather than professional would be a lie.

So when they address me as tú, it’s gross; overly familiar.  I don’t let them address me as “baby” either.  ‘

What’s more, it’s culturally inappropriate; Spanish speakers don’t address their teachers that way as a rule.  It’s slightly horrifying.

I’m pretty sure grammatical register is taught incorrectly across the board to Americans.  I gave my class a worksheet once; there was a list of people, and the students had to decide whether to address the people with familiar  or formal usted.  They did fine with “teacher, elderly neighbor lady, priest, POTUS,” (all formal) and “friend, pet, parent, little kid, new kid in school” (all familiar), but then they failed miserably when it came to situations not mentioned in the pre-chapter.

For “your friend’s mom” they wanted to say familiar , which is not a great idea.  Even if she’s trying to be the cool mom, and insists that you call her tú, I would never never do it.

For “your family priest that you’ve known all your life” they wanted to use the familiar tú, which is just trashy; the man dedicated his life to serve the Lord.  Even if you don’t agree with his beliefs, give him a break.

For “the heinous war criminal you recognize on the bus” or  “the registered sex offender who lives in your neighborhood and hangs out at  the playground,” they also wanted to use the familiar tú, which is just alarming.  They didn’t want to use the formal usted because they didn’t want to show respect…. what they didn’t realize was that the alternative is to show familiarity, which they later conceded was not the message they wanted to send.

It’s not just the students, either.  The old Washington Mutual cash machines used to have this “we’re just talking” motif, and they addressed the user as tú.  Gross.  Pero ni modo.

Here’s where my thousands chilango readers write in and say “we don’t use usted anymore!”  That’s great for them, and all the other linguistic minorities where register situation is different.  But the socio-grammatical register distinction remains a reality in the vast majority of the Spanish-speaking world, and it can’t be avoided, not even the DF. So I’m still going to teach it.

In the past, I’ve just tolerated students calling me , accepting that American kids are just too unaccustomed to grammatical register.  Last year, I would remind them occasionally, and some students were present enough to get it or correct themselves, but never in a normal way; they always made it awkward and overly obvious.

This year, I’m putting my foot down.  Last night I went to Goodwill and bought a second-hand ping pong paddle that will always be within reach in my new classroom.

For those of you poor souls who don’t have teachers in their lives, here’s the deal:  I’m currently in the academic season we call “dread.”  School’s about to start again in a couple of weeks.  It’s too early to go in and write a syllabus, but it’s not too early to start losing sleep over anticipated frustration.

Teachers deal with “dread” in different ways.  I, personally, deal with it by purchasing second hand items and making them into classroom gimmicks.

So this is my “register paddle.”  If a student addresses me in an overly familiar manner, instead of gritting my teeth and thinking that student was born in a barn, I will hold up my paddle.  If they manage to correct themselves, I’ll put the paddle down.  If they manage to correct themselves in a non-awkward way, e.g., without stuttering or raising their voice or using gringo-style emphasis, I’ll turn the paddle to “magnífico” and offer a fist bump.  The fist bump is socio-kinetic reward for the students.  Trust me.

It’s brilliant of course…. the students will try to make me feel dorky about using a gimmick, but what the hell do they know; they tend to have volumes of  habits designed to prevent language-learning.  I can be allowed a gimmick or two.

Let me talk about the “magnífico” side of the panel for a second.

Back in 2005, students from Louisiana were scattered all over the country, fleeing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.  Apparently we welcomed one such student; I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but the faculty lounge was all a-buzz about this kid; this new kid from the South.  It seems he addressed his teachers as “Sir” or “Ma’am.”  And it wasn’t a military thing or a mark of subservience; it was a form of charm.  If you asked him a yes-no question, he looked you in the eye and answered with an easy  “yes, sir,” or “no, sir,” with a smile on his face.

A little old-fashioned?  Maybe.  But my colleagues ate it up.  So don’t tell me that Americans are totally tone deaf to social register.

Think about it; who do you want to be… the kid who is overly familiar, or the kid who commands instant respect by following a (relatively easy) tradition of respect?

As Americans we tend to perceive register as a special, unnecessary formality reserved for people with fancy titles.  But remember, in Spanish (and in many other languages) everyone has a fancy title.  When I was in Mexico, Leo used to call the waiters “licenciado,” a title that translates awkwardly to “college graduate.”  I wondered if it was patronizing, but in the end, no; it was a very easy way to earn charm points.

You want to be charming, don’t you?

4 thoughts on “No, My First Name Ain’t “Baby…”

  1. I applaud your ping-pong paddle.
    It took me a little while to really get a feel for just how to use tú and Ud. in Mexico, but for teenagers addressing a teacher…for ANYONE addressing a teacher in Spanish, really, it should be pretty clear cut. It’s an important distinction to make, lest students go around thinking they don’t have to worry about conjugating for the second person formal and can always get by using the familiar form.
    Funny story about titles in Mexico…I spent a fruitless *five months* making multiple trips to the Immigration office trying to satisfy their red-tape requests to give me a work permit. During this time, whenever someone bothered to actually speak to me, they addressed my by my first or middle name, which they read off the file folder in the most officious, bored tone imaginable.. Eventually, a middle-aged woman in a back office bothered to explain what an apostille is. I obtained the proper paperwork and I kid you not, the SECOND she saw that fancy gold seal, her tone of voice changed and from then on out I was La Maestra Jennifer. As in, “córrale, vé sella esto para La Maestra Jennifer.” And, “maestra, can I offer you a little glass of water?” That really taught me about the power of the title in Latin America.


    • hey jennotjenny,
      I’m glad you like the paddle. I also made a gender and a vocab paddle.

      I was also thinking about making a giant bat that says “USTEDES” DOES NOT MEAN “THEY.” I know it’s not pedagogically correct, but after 3 years of Spanish if they still think that ustedes means “they,” it’s not pedagogy anymore, it’s flojera.

      That’s a great story about the sello; you should write about that in your blog!


  2. I love the paddle. That’ll get ’em thinking. I was both amazed and terribly confused by the use of usted and tu in Colombia when I visited. It’s almost reversed: usted is used mostly for familiar, especially between male friends. To tutear a male friend is almost rude. Go figure! =)


    • Tristan,
      Something tells me you were amazed and terribly confused for about 10 minutes, and then decided to go with the flow and within a few days had it mastered.

      I remember when I learned the dreaded “voseo.” I was like… “that’s it?” haha


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