Choosing words to express politeness is an interesting aspect of the Costa Rican persona.

The most surprising — and at times, upsetting — aspect of Spanish for most newbies is the complexity of verb changes. It may look very complicated but is truly a matter of recognizing patterns. What separates English and Spanish most definitively is the use of polite language and familiar language. This grammatical demand to show reverence has bled into the culture. Latinos, and more specifically Ticos, are extremely polite people.

Vos, tú or usted? You are the question!

It all starts with verbs, and it all depends on whom you are speaking to. Which ending you slap onto a verb tells the people you are addressing quite a bit … even how you feel about them. As a general rule, tú is for people you know well and usted for people you are just meeting or wanting to show respect to, such as an elder, teacher or politician.

The choice of pronoun and verb ending has as much to do with culture as it does with grammar. Looking at a map of the Spanish-speaking world, distinct lines in the sand can be drawn on this basis. In reality, word choices depend on location, and that is dictated by history.

Central America was founded primarily by rogues — common men with little education who were mostly illiterate. Addressing everyone as tú remains commonplace. The majority of people on the street still speak to each other that way pretty much everywhere from Mexico to Panama, with the exception of Costa Rica.

South America was founded by the Jesuits, the most educated dudes on the planet at the time. Later came the royals, with Portugal planting its empire firmly on what is now Brazilian soil. This prompted other royals of the world to frequent and build summer palaces in South America’s Southern Cone — Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile.Vos, from the Latin “you,” was the way royals addressed each other in the familiar. It was their way of saying, “We are both awesome, so we are neither going to revere each other nor use common language.” Thus, vos became the way to say “you” instead of tú. To a person from the Southern Cone tú sounds very Central American. It stands out the way regional accents do among natives of the United States — a Southern accent sounding odd to a Northeasterner, for instance.

As noted, Costa Rica is a special case. Our colonization process was different from the rest of Central America. We were influenced a lot less by our northern neighbors and very little by Spain. Historically, Costa Rica’s closest ally was Colombia, and the accents of native Spanish speakers in the two countries still sound similar in many respects. Lack of a Spanish ruling class here created a more egalitarian society, where people showed a polite respect for everyone. Being distanced from the protection, benefits and social division that the Spanish crown afforded elsewhere, Costa Ricans developed a sense of solidarity and addressed each other as usted. This is especially the case in the Central Valley and southern Costa Rica. People in northern regions tend more to use vos when speaking to family and friends.

Choosing words to express politeness is an interesting aspect of the Costa Rican persona. Among locals, politeness peppers every interaction. It also characterizes a very indirect communication style, where getting straight to the point is considered rude. We’ll focus on this related topic another time.