How to Address People Formally vs. Informally

How to Address People Formally vs. Informally

Grammatically, it doesn’t take too long to learn about the basics of how to address someone formally or informally. But the most challenging aspects for estrangeiros foreigners have to do with some of the decisions you’ll need to make on a social level – not only of when it’s best to speak to someone formally, but choosing between the subtle variations of how formal grammar is used.
Even the natives (like Rui! 🇵🇹) have a hard time dissecting some of these unspoken social rules, so our aim is to make this the definitive resource of how to speak formally vs. informally in European Portuguese, and all the subtleties in between.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, we’ll start with the easy pronouns first, that don’t have formal or informal variations.

First person

There is no distinction between formal and informal for the first person pronouns.
When talking about yourself, you’ll always use Eu I first person. Piece of cake!
When talking about yourself and others, you’ll use: Nós Us

Third person

When talking about a person other than yourself or the listener, regardless of the level of formality, you’ll use: ele, ela he, she
Ela corre She runs
Ele gosta de bolo He likes cake

Second person

The two main pronouns used for speaking to someone directly are: tu you informal and você you formal

Informal

When speaking to someone informally, we use this pronoun: tu you inf.:
.
Tu trabalhas muito. You inf. work a lot.
This is mostly used with friends, colleagues and family. The flowchart at the end of this article will give you a better understanding of when using “tu” is appropriate!

Formal

To speak to someone formally, we use: você you formal
.
Você trabalha muito. You formal work a lot.
When you use você, the verbs are conjugated the same as the third person pronouns (above). It’s almost as if you’re referring to another person far away, even though you’re talking directly to them person!
Tip: Brazilian Portuguese is different from European Portuguese in this case, because você is used informally as well as formally. When Brazilians want to speak more formally, they use o senhor sir or a senhora madam. As discussed later, using senhor/senhora is also an option in European Portuguese, when you want to be very formal.

Plural: Speaking to Multiple People

The pronoun used is: vocês you plural
.
Vocês trabalham muito. You pl. work a lot.
Don’t be tricked – Even though it looks very similar to the singular pronoun você, vocês doesn’t carry the same formality. There is less of a clear distinction between formal and informal when talking to a group, but if you want to make sure you’re being formal, you can use as senhoras the ladies or os senhores the sirs
.
Os senhores trabalham muito. You pl. work a lot.
Just like with the other pronouns, when the context is clear, it’s common to drop “vocês” or “os senhores/as” and just start with the conjugated verb:
Trabalham muito. You pl. work a lot.

Expressing Different Levels of Formality: Você

Now that we’ve reviewed the basics, it’s time to explore some of the hidden complexity behind você.
Treating someone formally in Portugal isn’t as easy as just swapping out tu and você. In fact, it can take years to fully understand some of the social nuances.
Grammatically, the verbs will always be conjugated as if the pronoun você were present in the sentence, so that aspect is consistent in all formal situations.
The tricky part is that Portuguese natives usually avoid using the actual pronoun você whenever possible. Calling someone você to their face can come across as a bit aggressive or direct, kind of like pointing at someone for emphasis while saying “you” – that would be a bit intense, right?
Don’t be intimidated – as foreigners doing our best to learn the language, we have quite a bit of leeway; most Portuguese natives will be very understanding. They will have already had exposure to Brazilian immigrants and soap opera stars using você frequently, and likely won’t be offended, compared to if they were speaking to a native.
But we know you don’t need any estrangeiro handicap!  In the spirit of learning as much as we can about the language and Portuguese culture, let’s explore how Portuguese use você… without saying você!

Variations of Formal Treatment in European Portuguese:

Once again, when speaking to someone formally, we want to conjugate the verbs as if você were present, while avoiding the use of the actual pronoun.
If you’re not already pulling your hair out, then you may be wondering, “If we take away você, how do will they know who we’re talking to?”
For example, if you say Gosta de ler? Do you formal like to read? then you could technically be referring to another person, especially if one of you have mentioned someone else. However, if they are talking directly to you and the context makes sense, they are likely asking about you, but in a more formal way.
Before we break down the different variations of treating someone formally, it’s time to break up this text with some eye candy! The following infographic is a review of what we just explained, and also introduces the multiple variations we use você (without saying você!):

Now let’s go over the 3 main variations you can use choose from when speaking to someone formally, ordered from least to most formal.

1) Replace você with the person’s first name

O Paulo gosta de viajar? Do you formal, Paulo like to travel?
When to use:

  • When the informal “tu” would be inappropriate, but you also don’t want to be too formal. Obviously, you can only use this once already know the person (because you’ll need to know their first name).
  • You probably could speak to them informally, but aren’t 100% sure and don’t want to catch them off guard. (If they’re friendly, they may later invite you to treat them as tu):

Podes tratar-me por tu You inf. can treat me as you informal

Vamos tratar-nos por tu Let's treat each other as you informal

  • This form can be used with a work colleague who is either of a higher ranking than you, or of the same ranking but much older.
  • This is also a good way to treat the adult family members of your friends, as it shows respect but also some warmth at the same time, as you’re making the effort to use their name.
  • Although most families use tu with each other, more traditional or formal families may use this version of você for every situation: between friends, relatives, children – sometimes even the family dog! If this is the case, the relation would be used in place of você rather than the person’s first name. Eg., a Avó / o Avô / o Filho / a Mãe + verb

Note: Housewives are often addressed as Dona + their first name, but never use Dona + their surname. (This is an important distinction from English, where we would usually use Mrs. + surname). While you may hear this used, it may be best to steer clear of using it as it’s too easy to go wrong compared to the other options.
Como vai, Dona Fernanda? How is it going, Mrs. Fernanda?

2) Replace “você” with… nothing!

Gosta de ler? Do you formal like to read?
When to use:

  • In cases when you could use variation #1 but don’t yet know the person’s name
  • If you’re speaking to a stranger and don’t want to be too formal or distance yourself too much. Example: When asking a stranger for directions who isn’t significantly older than you, you’d probably use this variation.
  • When speaking to any kind of attendant, such as at a cafe or supermarket

3) Replace “você” with “o senhor” / “a senhora”

A senhora gosta de ler? Do you like to read, ma'am?
When to use:

  • When you want to maintain a social distance from the person
  • When you want to recognize their higher seniority compared to yourself, either in age or status
  • If you are talking to a stranger and the situation is more intense (eg. a confrontation, car accident etc.), this lets you be firm and respectful at the same time.
  • In general, any time you want to be absolutely sure that you’re showing respect, you can’t go wrong with using o senhor/a senhora. 

4) Replace você with their professional title

We didn’t include this one in the chart since the circumstances for this level of formality are rare.
Obrigado, Doutora Ana Thank you, Dr. Ana
 
When to use:

  • Colleagues of certain high-level professions may also be required to treat each other this way on the job.
  • Speaking to professors in any academic situation. University teachers can be addressed as Professor Doutor for additional formality
  • Used in very formal circumstances, outside a classroom environment, if the person has an academic title

Note: The title doutor/doutora is often abused in European Portuguese. Rather than being reserved for people with PhDs, it is sometimes used to refer to anyone whose is assumed to have any kind of post-secondary education.
Adding senhor/senhora before the title will makes this treatment even more formal:
É uma honra conhecê-la, Senhora Professora Ana It's an honour to meet you, Mrs. Professor Ana.

The Ultimate Tu vs. Você Flowchart!

Tu vs. Você in European Portuguese (Cover)

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It goes without saying that it will take many months or even years of experience to get comfortable with some of these social subtleties.
As you know, everything in life can be made more more exciting when it’s been tediously distilled into a flowchart. That’s why we’ve created the ultimate cheat sheet for you to print or save to your mobile device, to refer back to throughout your Portuguese adventures! You can view graphic below, or use the form above to download everything on this page in a high-quality, printable PDF.
We hope that regardless of your current level, you’ve found some interesting nuggets of information. Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments at the bottom of this article!

10 Responses to How to Address People Formally vs. Informally

  1. Interesting!! Somewhat like the Germans. German was my original foreign language and I worked there for some time and struggled with Du and Sie, which are the Tu and Voce equivalent. I particularly recall meeting a young German on a family holiday and using Sie, as I did not know how old he was (things change around 14/15 if they are strangers; different if children of family friends). I was firmly told by said child that I might use Du with him! The other occasion was being invited to visit a work friend and meeting his parents, several times, including when I stayed overnight. The Mother used Du to me – as friend of her son/family I guess – but my friend said that that did NOT allow me to call her or the father Du. I had to stick to Sie, as more correct.

    None of it easy, but I do understand the Portuguese system a little for that reason. Go for the more respectful/formal until you can see it is safe to do otherwise or are invited so to do. I had to invite our German agent to use DU, even though he was older than me, as I was effectively his employer.

    Lots of fun

    Keep up the good work!!

    Martin

    • Martin’s comment about German usage is interesting.

      It is similar in my native Norwegian, though in the modern time it is being blurred a little.

      DE is/was used in formal situations “Tror de det?” Do you think so?

      DU is/was used in intimate situations (family, friends, etc.) Hvad synes du? What do you think?

      Harald

  2. Thank you. That is really helpful. Many years later I am still often confused. For us english speakers this is a minefield!
    My question is about when you say ”Vamos tratar-nos por tu?”. Does the initiative have to be taken by the person with seniority in term of age or status? Can you give me some guidelines on how long before you can go to tu in a new friendship between equals.
    Great site!

    • Thanks for the kind words, glad you’re liking the site! Great question – it’s a good idea to play it safe and wait for the other person to suggest (or initiate) the informal treatment, especially if they have seniority. But in some situations, you might sense that the conversation is quite casual, with occasional slang or a frank tone… or perhaps there is no clear sense of, or need for seniority. You might even start feeling awkward treating a person formally with the direction the conversation is going. These may be the right moments to suggest the informal treatment.

      Here’s an example: You’re in a classroom with someone a generation older than you, so you carefully default to interacting with them formally. After a few minutes, you start talking a bit about challenges of the lesson and build a friendly rapport, which diminishes the importance of the age gap – it becomes simply a conversation between two colleagues at the same level, with similar challenges. Your classmate may appreciate the suggestion that you treat each other as “tu”, since it shows you seem them as an equal rather than an older person. (Obviously, this could backfire if you read the situation wrong).

      Navigating these situations can be overwhelming for a foreigner, but try not to worry – it will always be clear to the other person that we’re doing our best as non-natives, and they will likely be gracious and forgiving at the odd misstep. The best we can do is watch other people’s examples and gain experience reading these situations over time.

  3. Obrigado! Muito útil!
    Só uma pergunta. Na frase “É uma honra conhecê-lo, Senhora Professora Ana”, ‘conhecê-lo’ não deveria ser ‘conhecê-la’?
    Continuem com o bom trabalho!
    David

    • Olá David, thanks for your support! Great job catching that typo – it’s now corrected. Thanks again 🙂

  4. I’ve been away from PP for about a month with a health issue. Your new “discuss” feature is terrific. I’m amazed as to how often your team adjusts to changes and requests. It’s like having a personal tutor. Well done!

    • Oh no, I hope you have a quick recovery and are back in full force soon! Thanks for your ongoing support, we’re glad to have you with us 🙂

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