This page explains when to use different Spanish greetings, mainly with repect to culture and how formal or informal the situation is.
Formal vs. informal Spanish greetings
There are two ways of addressing people in Spanish:
- formal (usted)
- informal (tú)
Use formal when you speak with young people, friends, and people you know.
Use informal when talking to strangers, especially when they are older than you.
Hola vs. Buenos días vs. Buen día
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.
Furthermore, some (mainly young) people greet each other in other strange ways. Have you ever heard Holis or Holanda? Apparently, the latter does not always mean the Netherlands.
How are you in Spanish
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.
Adios and Hasta luego
When you are leaving, the simple Adios is fine in most situations.
So is Hasta luego, although its pronunciation may be a bit harder to a non-native speaker.
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 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 different regions in the same 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.
An even better method than observing is participating in conversations yourself. Speak to the natives and see how they are greeting you and how they are asking how you've been.