Mastering comeback phrases, especially in terms of politeness, is an excellent idea, so having a handful of stock expressions ready to be activated at the right moment is something we need to achieve. “Mucho gusto” someone says, and automatically a click goes off in your brain and you fire back”igualmente.”… You needn’t think at all. Or “el gusto es mío”. “Esta bien” should be the commonest expression to come out of your mouth, “all right.” “I’m going home now”…”esta bien”…” “I’ll call you later”…”esta bien” ….” “I’ll pick you up at 6″….”esta bien”. “Claro” is another colloquial expression meaning ‘of course.’ “Can you lend me a hand getting this broken-down car off the road?” “Claro!” And “como no” is natural sounding. “Ya tengo uno, gracias” …’I already have one, thanks’ is a good expression for fending off vendors, or better still, “ahorita, no gracias”, ‘right now, no thank you’. Here are a few other snappy answers…”en tus sueños” ( in your dreams ), a little bit more impolite way of saying ‘dream on’. When Beto Boca de Basura asks Berta if she’ll come over and clean his house, she responds: “ni sueños” ( not in your wildest dreams ). “Es un burro”, she says. “Tiene menos cerebro que un mosquito”. Pero Berta “tiene mano izquierda” which means she knows how to deal with the situation, burro and all. “En serio”? ‘Really?’ That’s a good one. Also “suficiente” for ‘enough’, as in “tengo suficiente dinero para comprar..” as opposed to “bastante” which rarely works; “tengo bastante dinero” sounds like a bit of a boast as in ‘I’ve got plenty of money’. If someone is spooning Brussels sprouts onto you plate and you think 10 is enough, you might say, “es suficiente, gracias” rather than “es bastante” because the latter sounds like a complaint. “Seguro” means ‘sure’, and it also works for disbelief if you ladle irony all over it. It depends how you say it, because it can also mean the same as our ‘yeah, right.’ These snappy expressions are great because you can avoid frequent stops and starts and punctuating your speech with English interjections.
Foreign words have a certain je ne sais quoi that can make them fun to say, like “ojalá, an Arabism, because the Arabs, as most of you know, were in Spain for centuries. ‘May Allah wish it.’ Very popular in street slang is the use of “madre”, mother being the paragon of the Latin family and held sacred by the Latin male, but it’s the base of an entire vocabulary centered around insulting other people’s mothers. Even grandmothers, aunts and sisters! A “desmadre” is ‘a total mess’, and “hasta la madre” means ‘wasted’. That’s Beto Boca de Basura’s language. You get the point…use “mama” instead. “Me vale madre” means you don’t give a flying French fry about anything. You’ll find that term on t-shirts and in tourist shops. These can be fun expressions but they can also be offensive: don’t use any of them. Warm country, many naughty words. Mexicans love to laugh: they are “ruiseños”. Oh, one more thing I like to teach my students..a good word to avoid in mixed public is “huevos” as it has a crude second meaning, so learn to say, upon entering a store, “hay huevo?” instead of the more risky “tiene huevos?” The point is that using “hay” is not only easier to say but it takes the question out of the realm of the personal and puts it into a more acceptable realm, because to not be stocked with eggs is going to make the grocer feel bad, and besides, the word “hay” which means ‘there is’ or ‘there are’ is so very easy to use.
Having a positive attitude takes precedence over everything else here especially where foreigners are concerned so it’s a good idea to depersonalize responsibility. Using “hay” can help achieve that. Another cultural habit is diminutizing everything. “Casita” for ‘little house’, “poquito” for ‘very little’…”una cervezita”..”papacito”. It reduces the importance of things, to bring them down to a point where they virtually disappear and one doesn’t need to be concerned with them. Apart from the direct meaning of “little”, like “platillo” = little plate = saucer for example, it tends to indicate a frame of mind. It denotes friendliness, kindliness, or in any case a desire to put things pleasantly. If a telephone operator says “espere un momento” she’s being direct, ‘will you hang on a moment’, but if she says “espere un momentito” she’s being more cordial because she’s saying ‘would you mind waiting a moment?’ And the diminutive is a good way to deal with words like ‘rather’, ‘somewhat’ and ‘quite’. “Tempranito” means ‘early-ish’, “crecita” means ‘quite near’ or ‘not very far’. It may be a solution to your difficulties where friendliness is required.
My feeling is, as foreigners, we should we willing to unleash our Spanish in cases calling for common courtesy. And don’t skip over the formalities..instead of wandering around in a shop without saying a word, say something, even if it’s only “buenas tardes” or “adiós”. Try new words..write them on a slip of paper…say them slowly if you have to, speed kills…don’t say them too quickly. That’s one strategy, so adelante. Y buena suerte a todos.