Learning Spanish greetings can make you feel confused.
If you have just started learning Spanish, you probably have many questions in your head. For example take the obvious lesson 1 of every course: Spanish greetings. You know that there are two ways of addressing people in Spanish: formal (usted) and informal (tú). You use formal when you speak with young people, friends, and people you know. You use informal when talking to strangers, especially when they are older than you. This is quite simple.
Hola vs. Buenos días vs. Buen día and Adios vs. Hasta luego
But is it still polite when you greet a stranger Hola (it sounds so informal!), or should you rather use the obviously formal Buenos días, Buenas tardes etc. – in the street, in a shop…? (Answer: Hola is fine in most situations). To make things more complicated, maybe in the region where you are at the moment people are more used to saying Buen día rather than Buenos días and young people greet each other in other strange ways (ever heard Holis or Holanda? – it doesn’t always mean the Netherlands).
How are you? can also have many different forms in Spanish – cómo estás, cómo te va, qué pasa, qué haces, qué tal, and many other expressions often starting with cómo or qué. They all mean the same, but in a particular situation and region one may be more suitable than another.
And when you are leaving, is it better to say simply Adios, or the more-difficult-to-pronounce Hasta luego?
Regional differences in the Spanish language
In fact there are no universally valid rules for these things. Spanish is spoken natively by some 350 million people in many countries which are often culturally hugely different from each other (take for example the approx. 40 million native Spanish speakers in the US and compare their culture with that of the approx. 40 million in Spain or that of the 11 million in Cuba). There are big differences in culture, way of life, and also the little Spanish language nuances between and among individual Spanish speaking countries – and even between regions within every country.
How to learn which greetings to use where you are?
You won’t learn these regional nuances from books and courses. But there is a way.
When you were a child your parents have probably told you that listening to other people’s conversations is impolite, wrong, and you just shouldn’t do it. However, when you are learning Spanish, doing exactly this can help you grasp the local specifics of the language. Observe how people interact in the streets or in shops. Do they say Hola or Buen día? Adios or Hasta luego? Do you often hear Cómo estás or Cómo te va? You will not only see which greetings and phrases are the most common in your region, but you will also record them in your subconscious mind and suddenly you will realize that you are using them too.
Of course, an even better method than observing is participating in conversations yourself. Speak to the natives a lot and see how they are greeting you or asking how you’ve been.