This guide will cover how to address people formally vs. informally in Portugal, with a special focus on the difference between tu and você in European Portuguese.
Grammatically, it doesn’t take too long to learn the basics. The most challenging aspects for estrangeiros Play slow audio Play normal audio foreigners, however, tend to be those that have to be made on a social level. For example, you must determine not only when it’s best to speak to someone formally, but also choose between the subtle variations of which formal language to use.
Even the natives (like Rui! 🇵🇹) have a hard time dissecting some of these unspoken social rules, but our aim is to make this the definitive European Portuguese resource for informal vs. formal language, and all the grey areas in between!
It’s important to be aware of the difference between tu and você from the beginning, but don’t worry if you don’t have it perfected right away. It goes without saying that it will take many months or even years of experience to get comfortable with all these social subtleties.
The Different Forms of “You”
You don’t have to worry about formality in the 1st person or 3rd person (yay!). But it gets a little trickier in the 2nd person, which has formal and informal variations.
As we mentioned, the two main pronouns used for speaking directly to someone are: tu Play slow audio Play normal audio you (informal) and você Play slow audio Play normal audio you (formal)
You – Informal
When speaking to someone informally, we use the pronoun tu Play slow audio Play normal audio you (inf.)
Tu trabalhas muito. Play slow audio Play normal audio You (inf.) work a lot.
This is mostly used with friends, colleagues, children, and family.
You – Formal
To speak to someone formally, we use different forms of você Play slow audio Play normal audio you (formal)
Você trabalha muito. Play slow audio Play normal audio You (formal) work a lot.
When you use você, the verbs are conjugated exactly the same as with third person pronouns (ele and ela). It’s almost as if you’re referring to another person, even though you’re speaking directly to someone!
This seems pretty simple so far, but unfortunately, treating someone formally in Portugal isn’t as easy as just swapping out tu and você. We’ll discuss these complexities in more detail below.
Note: This highlights a big difference between Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese, as Brazilians use você in informal situations as well. When Brazilians want to speak more formally, they use o senhor Play slow audio Play normal audio sir or a senhora Play slow audio Play normal audio madam. As you’ll see below, this is also an option in European Portuguese, when you want to be very formal.
You – Plural (Speaking to Multiple People)
The pronoun used to speak to a group is vocês Play slow audio Play normal audio you (plural). Even though you are talking to other people, the verb is conjugated exactly the same as the 3rd person plural.
Vocês trabalham muito. Play slow audio Play normal audio You (pl.) work a lot.
Don’t be fooled – it looks very similar to the singular pronoun você, but the plural pronoun vocês does not carry the same formality. There’s not really a clear distinction between formal and informal when talking to a group, so it’s typically fine to use vocês in both contexts. That said, if you want to make sure you’re being very formal, you can use as senhoras Play slow audio Play normal audio the ladies or os senhores Play slow audio Play normal audio the sirs, the gentlemen.
Os senhores trabalham muito. Play slow audio Play normal audio You (pl.,masc.,formal) work a lot.
Just like we mentioned with the other pronouns, when the context is clear, it’s common to drop vocês or os senhores/as senhoras and just start with the conjugated verb:
Trabalham muito. Play normal audio You (pl.) work a lot.
The Many Forms of Você
Now that we’ve reviewed the basics of tu, você, and vocês in European Portuguese, it’s time to explore some of the hidden complexity behind você.
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? Instead, different “forms” of você are used. But don’t worry: the verbs are conjugated exactly the same as if você was present in the sentence, so the grammar will be consistent.
Keep in mind that most Portuguese natives will be very understanding that you are a foreigner doing your best to learn the language. They will have already had exposure to Brazilian immigrants and soap opera stars using você frequently, so they are less likely to 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 the following infographic to find out how the Portuguese use você… without saying você!
A Closer Look
Let’s take a closer look at those 3 main variations of você from the infographic, so you know which to choose when speaking to someone formally. We’ll go in order from least to most formal.
1) Replace você with the person’s first name
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 you 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):
- 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, and sometimes even the family dog! If this is the case, you would hear the relation (i.e. a Avó, o Avô, o Filho, a Mãe, etc. – Grandma, Grandpa, Son, Mother, etc.) in place of você or the person’s first name.
What about “Dona”?
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 will hear this sometimes, it may be best to steer clear of using it as a beginner, as you’re more likely to accidentally offend someone compared to the other options.
Como vai, Dona Fernanda? Play slow audio Play normal audio How is it going, Mrs. Fernanda?
2) Replace você with… nothing!
When to use:
- If you could use variation #1, but don’t yet know the person’s name
- If you’re speaking to a stranger, but don’t want to sound overly formal / distance yourself. 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
But wait? If we take away você, how will they know who I’m talking to?!
- The key is learning to rely on context. For example, if you say Gosta de ler? Play normal audio it could mean “Do you like to read?”, “Does he like to read?”, or “Does she like to read?”
- Had you just mentioned another person in the conversation? Yes? Then the listener will probably know you are referring to that other person.
- Are you speaking directly to someone you just met and have been asking them questions about themselves? Yes? Then the listener probably knows you are referring to them (the listener), but in a formal way.
3) Replace você with o senhor / a senhora
When to use:
- When you want to maintain a professional/social distance from the person
- If 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. When someone is a professor in an official institute (as well as having their doctorate), they are treated as Professora Doutora Play slow audio Play normal audio if they are female, or Professor Doutor Play slow audio Play normal audio if they are male.
Obrigado, Doutora Ana Play slow audio Play normal audio Thank you, Dr. Ana
Parabéns pelo doutoramento, Doutora Fernanda Play slow audio Play normal audio Congratulations on your doctorate, Doctor Fernanda
Adding Senhor Play slow audio Play normal audio Sir or Senhora Play slow audio Play normal audio Madam before the title will make this treatment even more formal:
É uma honra conhecê-la, Senhora Professora Ana Play slow audio Play normal audio It's an honour to meet you, Mrs. Professor 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.
- 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 who is assumed to have any kind of post-secondary education. However, if they do not have a PhD / doctorate, the term is usually abbreviated to “Dr.” or “Dra.”.
The Ultimate Tu vs. Você Flowchart!
As you know, everything in life is more exciting when it’s tediously distilled into a flowchart. 😉 We put together 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 the graphic below, or use the form above to download everything in a high-quality, printable PDF. When you’re ready, continue on to the next lesson in this unit to practice using tu and você in phrases.