I was sitting at a quiet bar in San Pedro, texting furiously on my phone, when I looked up and saw my friend Alejandra.
“¡Hola, Robert!” she said, leaning in for a cheek-kiss.
“¡Hola!” I exclaimed, stuffing my phone in my pocket.
We exchanged smiles. We hadn’t seen each other in months. The night was warm and tranquil, and we were eager to catch up – about Christmas, the New Year, her volunteer work, my travels, all of it. I slipped off the stool.
“¿Qué tal?” Alejandra asked.
“Muy bien, como siempre,” I said. “Como est…”
I stopped in mid-syllable. A glottal pause, as it’s known in linguistics. I looked as if I’d suddenly started choking on a fish bone. Then I grimaced, as if I’d spoken the second half of the word. In that split-second, Alejandra must have thought she’d simply not heard it, because of the music or the post-workday haze. Or maybe she did notice my incomplete sentence and decided to ignore it. Whatever the case, Alejandra simply shrugged and said, “Bien. Pero ocupaaaaada…”
Conversation continued, as we made our rounds of local bars. Alejandra lives in San Pedro and has spent years tethered to the University of Costa Rica as a master’s student. But every time I asked her a question, I struggled to complete the verbs. At last, as we ordered a fourth round of Pilsens, I said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Is it okay that I call you vos?”
Alejandra closed her eyes and laughed into the tabletop. She shook her head and winced, as if I’d asked where milk came from. Then she gawked, realizing I was serious.
“Whatever you want,” she said. “But you can always say usted. With anybody. If you have any doubt, usted is always appropriate.”
“Right,” I said. “I know. But I hate it.”
Alejandra was the perfect person to ask, because I have known her since my first weeks in Costa Rica, when I spoke almost no Spanish. She has heard my language evolve over the past year and a half. When we met, it was at a local gastropub. A mutual friend introduced us.
“We’ll never be friends,” she said matter-of-factly. “I don’t like Gringos.”
After some thought, I finally strung together my rebuttal: “Right now I don’t have a good response, because I don’t speak Spanish very well. But in a few weeks, I will speak Spanish well enough to explain why I’m not a typical Gringo.”
That’s what I meant to say, anyway. It probably came out, Now no talk sufficiently good of Spanish, however after some weeks I want explicate wherefore I are not normal Gringo.”
Anyway, she got the point. We ran into each other a few weeks later, and I offered a broken but coherent monologue about how important it was for me to learn Spanish, how I had mixed feelings about living in a country that already overflowed with expats, how I’d long been critical of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, how I was already married and wouldn’t be taking advantage of impressionable young Ticas, and so on. I just wanted to learn about Costa Rica and write about its arts and culture. I wasn’t here to mooch and gripe, as many visitors do.
After hearing a lot of poorly conjugated sentences, Alejandra seemed satisfied with this defense, and we have been good friends ever since. Indeed, Alejandra is among my favorite people in Costa Rica. We’re both cripplingly busy, and we go for months without talking. But then we meet up, and we gab for hours. It is a pattern I hope to continue for years to come.
Still, in all that time, I had never heard Alejandra refer to me as “vos,” the familiar form of “you.” I had always been “usted,” the formal version, the pronoun you use for you boss, your priest, your shrink, or a street vendor trying to sell you lollipops. It’s true that you can use usted with anyone, because it’s “respectful.” Usted is like the silk necktie of conversation. It distances people from each other. And for my first year in Costa Rica, I was surrounded by ustedes. Everywhere I went, I met another usted. But a vos? Almost never.
For an English-speaker, this distinction is very strange. English once had its own formal version of you, the antiquated “thou.” This pronoun was so special that it came with its own construction: “Thou hast,” “thou art,” “thou bringst,” “thy humor,” “thine ingots,” “I beseech thee,” and so on. A modern spellcheck does recognize “thou” as a legitimate word, but no one has used this form in casual conversation since the days of Shakespeare. Even George Washington would have balked at “thee.”
To make matters weirder, most U.S. high school students learn tú instead of vos. There isn’t a huge difference between vos and tú, but the divergent accent marks and irregular conjugations add up. It’s just easier to use usted in all circumstances, for everyone you meet, anywhere in the Hispanic diaspora.
But consider what this means: It’s easier to address everyone as a stranger. It’s safer to speak to all Costa Ricans with the same formal distance as police officers. When I call Tigo’s tech support to fix my internet problems, I use usted. But I’m also encouraged to use usted for coworkers, acquaintances, and service people I see every day. My many Tico friends don’t seem to care what form I use. But for me, usted is like talking to people through a cellophane wall.
Shortly after my conversation with Alejandra, I visited a bar in Escazú. It was a dull Monday evening, and I was restless. I like to visit this particular place on quiet evenings, because of its outdoor seating and noirish atmosphere.
A waiter approached and shook my hand warmly.
“¿Como está, Robert?” asked Victor.
“Muy bien,” I said. Then I burst, “¿Como estás?”
The world did not end. I had known Victor for months. We had enjoyed long conversations on slow nights like this one. So Victor simply said, “Muy bien” and asked for my order.
Finally I said, “Victor, I have a Spanish question. It’s also kind of a cultural question.”
“Okay, we speak only Spanish, right? We have never spoken English to each other. And I have a lot of relationships in Costa Rica that only exist in Spanish.”
“So sometimes I say vos instead of usted, because these are friends, right?”
“But when do you make that transition? Is there a special moment when you switch?”
Victor stuffed his hands into the pockets of his apron and considered this. “Well,” he said slowly, “you use usted in formal situations. So when you become friends with someone, you start saying vos. It’s just like tú…”
“Oh, I know that,” I said. “But how does it change? Do you actually say, ‘Hey, Victor, we’re friends. I’m going to start saying vos instead of usted. Is that okay with you?’ Or does it just happen?”
Victor looked flabbergasted. As far as I could tell, he had never really given this distinction much thought. Finally he said, “I don’t know. I really don’t know what happens. I don’t think anything, really.”
While I didn’t have the wherewithal to explain this problem in Spanish, I wanted to put it this way: In English, formality is expressed through “Mr.” and “Ms.” And when you stop using this honorific title and instead use the person’s first time, it often is a big deal. We have rituals. We have stock expressions. “No need to be so formal,” we say reassuringly, even though no need to be so formal is a formal expression, something we rehearse for just such a moment.
I remember, many years ago, the day I graduated high school in Vermont. The school organized a kind of slumber party at a local ski resort. The event was dry, but most of the students just ran into the woods to smoke pot and drop acid. I was a square at the time, so I spent the night wandering around the empty complex. I jumped in the Jacuzzi, signed yearbooks, and noshed at the buffet table our chaperones had prepared for us.
At last I found myself at the indoor swimming pool, sometime before dawn. At first the room looked empty, but then I saw a large man sitting in a deck chair, a tumbler in hand. I sat down near him. I’d seen him before, but I didn’t know him very well. He was one of the substitute teachers, a man I had known only as Mr. Walker.
“Having a good night?” he asked in a New England-y bass.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s been fun.”
The sky started to brighten beyond the pool’s plate-glass windows. I could see the silhouettes of fir trees along the mountainside. Soon, dawn would break, and high school would be over. All those dreary years would end, and I would be free.
“Well, should be breakfast soon,” said Mr. Walker, taking a sip of his watery Pepsi.
“I’ll probably sleep well tomorrow night,” I said. “Or – you know – tonight.”
“That sounds about right,” he chuckled.
“Nice seeing you, Mr. Walker.”
“Well,” he said. “I suppose now you can call me Jim.”
For nearly a year, I have started calling friends vos. It feels mischievous but also good. If vos requires no fanfare, then I use it as expediently as possible. I’m an oppressively friendly person, no matter what language I’m speaking, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise.
And I like rebelling against usted. Usted is a clunky and clinical pronoun. It stubbornly refuses to end in a vowel, like most Spanish words. Its two syllables sound like the thudding of a coin on a stripped mattress. Usted is such an impersonal word that it shares conjugation with él and ella, as if it couldn’t be bothered to distinguish itself from “him” and “her.” If usted is supposed to sound respectful, it strikes me as dismissive, disengaged, the word you use for people you’re pretending to listen to while secretly planning your grocery list.
In contrast, vos sounds sweet and easygoing. It’s the placid sound of breezes and brooks. I’ve come to prefer vos to tú, even if these pronouns are rarely actually said. I’ll use usted for strangers, of course, but as soon as I can make the switch, I do. It’s just my nature.
On the other hand, formality has its uses. When a stranger in the United States calls me “buddy” or “pal,” it makes my skin crawl. “Bro” and “chief” and “hoss” get thrown around all the time, and I have to remind myself that a premature vos can be just as off-putting.
It’s probably significant that all the names in this essay are pseudonyms. Because these people are friends of mine, I want to protect their privacy – to keep a respectful distance between reader and muse. My friend is not named “Alejandra.” The waiter in Escazú is not “Victor.” Even Jim Walker was neither “Jim” nor “Mr. Walker.” The way we address and reference each other is heavy with responsibility. Once don Robert turns into just Robert, I am exposing a more personal life to my Costa Rican compadres, and vice versa.
I recently met some people at Stiefel Pub, on a random weeknight. They absorbed me immediately into conversation, and we talked for hours. Finally, one of the women told me she was studying Japanese, because she wanted to spend some time in Japan.
“I couldn’t imagine studying Japanese,” I said. “It’s a really interesting language, but the formality sounds so difficult.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve heard that the grammar changes, depending on who you’re talking to. Sort of like usted and vos, except there’s a different way to speak to every different social class.”
“That’s right!” she exclaimed. “You use different words for different relationships. It’s very complicated.”
Compared to Japanese, deciding between two forms of “you” seemed like a breeze.
By the end of the night, we were all referring to each other as vos.
Once a week, I visit a particular cafeteria on Avenida Central. It’s not much of a place. Overweight women in hairnets ladle gallo pinto out of steaming basins. But because I come so frequently, they always recognize me and allow a curt smile.
I drag my plastic tray across the steel bars until I arrive at the cash register. Here I find the same woman every time. She has blotchy skin and enormous buck teeth. She’s out of shape and her hair is a mess. But her eyes are bright and she’s always beaming. She’s one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met in San José. In all this time, we’ve never learned each other’s names. We know nothing about each other. I don’t know where she lives or what she does for fun. I’ve never asked her favorite beach, whether she’s married or has children.
But that doesn’t matter to me. I love the familiarity of our routine. I’m always delighted to ask how her weekend was. Linguistically, this is the in-between space, when you both know and don’t know someone, when you have to decide between courtesy and warmth, a problem that has dogged all acquaintances since the dawn of time.
“¿Como está?” she asks.
“Muy bien, gracias,” I say. And then, as if adding a punctuation mark, I add: “¿Y vos?”
Robert Isenberg is a staff writer for The Tico Times. His new book, “The Green Season,” will be available soon. Visit him at robertisenberg.net.