I used to have this landlady in Bogotá named Stella. There she is on the side– say, ¿quiubo?, Stella. She had a daughter named Frinny, and Frinny’s boyfriend, Pedro, lived close by. Unfortunately, I got to know these people far more than I wanted to, and now you’re going to have to meet their acquaintance as well. But, don’t worry! You’ll be rewarded with a juicy Spanish word at the end of this tale, por supuesto.
In the great tradition of Colombian mother-types, Stella was very metida. Whenever I had to pay my bills, she would invite me in to sit and visit for a while. I’d make chitchat as best I could, and she’d try to pry out succulent tidbits from my personal life. One of her favorite pastimes was doling out unsolicited advice and criticism, especially about my appearance. I also remember how once she answered a phone call from the bank and started yelling at them at the top of her lungs, irately dropping F-bombs left and right, completely off her rocker. I was proud of the restraint and diplomacy I exercised at the time, but now I regret having wasted so much time around the profoundly unhappy woman out of my own loneliness.
In my own great tradition of finding the language lining in all clouds, be they cumulus or thunderheads, I am grateful to Stella for one language lesson she taught me. Every time I handed her the monthly money for the rent and bills, she would smile at me and say, Gracias, Vocabat. Muy formal. This really made me scratch my head. Very formal? It wasn’t like I was ceremoniously presenting the money on a velvet pillow atop a rapier. I think I would say, Aquí tiene. I wondered if maybe that was a really grandiose and obsequious way of handing something over. I started listening closely when other people would hand things to others and noted that they usually simply said, Mira. So, I started saying that too. Mira. And like clockwork, she would say, Gracias. Muy formal, in that screechy voice of hers. Well, I was flummoxed. Was it formal to say anything at all? Should I have thrown the money on the ground and called her a pig? ¡Cógelo, guarra! Called her parce or marica? I really wanted to stop being so “formal,” but didn’t know just how informal to go. Besides, you really didn’t want to get on Stella’s bad side.
As it turns out, formal is a kind of old-fashioned way of saying kind, polite, and nice, at least in Colombia. Muy formal is a stock expression to show your appreciation for a thoughtful gesture like someone opening a door for you. Equivalents would be muy amable and muy gentil. And, yes, muy formal in and of itself is kind of formal, and I rarely heard it, but I did occasionally. I flew back to the US last week on Spirit Airlines, the airline I had previously believed to the la aerolínea más chichipata del mundo (the cheapest airline in the world). They even charge for water. I got engaged in a conversation with a flight attendant, though, who couldn’t believe I wasn’t Paisa/Colombian, and he then secretly slipped me a king size pack of M&M’s and a soda. The reaction of the woman sitting next to me when I showed her? Muy formal. Nothing formal (in the English sense of the word) about it– just incredible kindness.
So, thanks, Stella, for telling me something useful for once. Muy formal.
_________________________________________________ Non-natives, what’s your experience with this phrase? Had you heard it before? How have you heard it used? Where? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with?