The difference between "gustar" and "caer bien/mal"

Saying that you "like" something or someone in Spanish is quite different from English. Learn about the two most common verbs for expressing like/dislike, "gustar" and "caer bien/mal".

Jan 12, 2021
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Did you know there are two ways to say "to like" in Spanish? Many students are amazed to learn this because, although both verbs are extremely common in Spanish, many teachers explain just one of them.

The verbs in question are "gustar" and "caer bien/mal". The difference between them is super easy to understand, but first you need to understand the grammatical structure they follow.

Affective verbs

Both gustar and caer bien/mal are affective or semi-impersonal verbs, which can be explained through the following example:

  • A Merly le gustan las flores.
    Merly likes flowers.

In English, to express that Merly likes flowers, Merly is the subject and the flowers are the direct object.

To express the same concept in Spanish, we flip the subject and the object: the flowers please Merly. That's why we conjugate "gustar" as "gustan", since flowers is plural, and we use "le" to express that Merly is the person to whom the flowers are pleasant.

More generally, these verbs follow the structure (indirect object) + indirect object pronoun + verb + subject. Interestingly, the verb "to like" does not really exist in Spanish. The most accurate translation of "gustar" is "to please" or "to be pleasing":

Why two verbs?

Because we like to make Spanish students suffer... Just kidding! Each verb has a different feeling. "Gustar" refers to more superficial characteristics such as flavors, physical appearance, smells, etc., while “caer bien/mal” works to express what we like in relation to the personal benefit or discomfort that something or someone brings to us, so its meaning is deeper.

Both verbs can be used with things (real or abstract), food, and people. Let’s take a look at how both verbs are used in each of these contexts

Things, ideas, activities, or abstract concepts

Used with abstract things, ideas or concepts, "gustar" means that we find all the characteristics of such things pleasant (or unpleasant in the negative case).

For instance:

  • A mí me gusta la música de Juanes.
    I like Juanes’ music.
  • A Michael le gusta el color naranja.
    Michael likes the colour orange.

If what you like or don’t like is an activity, you should use an infinitive verb - don’t make the mistake of using gerunds like you do in English with the verb "to like".

  • A nosotros nos gusta trotando trotar.
    We like jogging.
  • ¿Te gustaría bailando bailar?
    Do you like dancing?

However, "caer bien/mal" indicates that a thing can be good or useful for something - especially in the expression "no caer mal". In this context, the meaning in English doesn’t match with "to like". Let’s look at the examples:

  • No me caerían mal unas vacaciones.
    I could use a vacation.
  • A la casa no le caería mal una pintura.
    It wouldn’t hurt to paint the house.

We can also use it in the simple past to indicate that something, usually information, made us feel good or bad:

  • Me cayó muy mal esa noticia.
    I felt really bad about that news.

This means "I was fine until I heard the news, after which I felt emotional and, perhaps, physically sick.".

  • A él le cayó bien saber que cambiaron al jefe.
    He was glad to know his boss was replaced.

One possible context for this sentence is that his boss was horrible, so when he found out that he had been replaced, he felt good.

Food (of course)

With "gustar" we express that we specifically enjoy the taste of the food. Let’s see a couple of examples:

  • A la mayoría de las personas les gusta el chocolate.
    Most people like chocolate.
  • Cuando era una niña, no me gustaba el aguacate pero ahora sí.
    When I was a kid I didn’t like avocado, but now I do.

But with the verb "caer bien/mal" what we mean is that a certain food or drink has a good or bad physical effect on us. Generally, in this context, we talk about what we dislike, but sometimes we can refer to a positive physical effect of a specific food and use "caer bien". For example:

  • Me gusta la leche pero me cae mal.
    I like milk, but I can’t tolerate it.

Meaning, I enjoy the taste of milk, but it makes me feel sick or gives me gas or allergies.

  • Los fríjoles son deliciosos pero me caen mal.
    Beans are delicious but they don’t sit well with me.
  • Mi mejor amigo tenía una resaca terrible, se tomó una sopita y le cayó muy bien.
    My best friend had a terrible hangover, ate some soup and felt a lot better.

It’s important to stress that we’re not talking about whether or not food is good for your health, but rather about the immediate physical effect it has on us after consumption.

People: is there a romantic interest or are you in the friend zone?

We use "gustar" when we want to indicate that we are romantically or sexually attracted to a person. It’s basically the beginning of all relationships and it’s the first verb on our love scale: gustar (♥), querer (♥♥), and amar (♥♥♥).

Getting used to expressing affection with these verbs in Spanish can be tricky because compared to English, the subject and object are reversed/

You say "I like you" which in Spanish thinking is: "you are pleasing to me". So: Me gustas tú. In this example, the word "tú" is optional because its conjugation is exclusive and sufficient.

Let’s see another example:

  • Yo pensé que le gustaba yo.
    I thought he liked me.

Taking a closer look at the above example, notice that the verb is in the past imperfect tense ("gustaba"). In this tense yo, usted, él and ella share the same conjugation, so it is necessary to add the pronoun yo at the end to make it unambiguous.

Similarly, if we want to ask "do you like me?", we need to phrase this as "am I pleasing to you?", which gives us "¿te gusto?". Notice that the subject is "yo".

We can also use "gustar" with groups of people who have characteristics that attract us sexually or romantically.

  • A él le gustan las mujeres rubias.
    He likes blond women.
  • A mí me gustan los hombres altos.
    I like tall men.

With this verb we can also express our admiration for a person in relation to his/her job, especially with people famous or known for their work. For example:

  • A mí me gusta Frida Kahlo.
    I like Frida Kahlo. (I admire her work, I'm not talking about having a crush on her)
  • A Andrea le gusta Tom Hanks.
    Andrea likes Tom Hanks. (she considers him a good actor).

We can also use this verb with groups of general people, such as:

  • Me gustan mis amigos.
    I like my friends.
  • Me gusta mi familia.
    I like my family.
  • A ellos no les gustan los niños.
    They don’t like kids.

This is possible because it’s impossible to confuse ourselves and think that we have a romantic interest in all our friends or our family (that only happens in Game of Thrones).

On the other hand, "caer bien/mal" with people explains that we like or don’t like a person based on their actions, that is, it doesn’t matter if we haven’t had direct contact with this person, but the important thing is that we judge how we feel by how they act in certain situations, by what we see. For example:

  • Yo nunca he hablado con mi vecina, pero ella pone la música muy alta y hace mucho ruido entonces me cae mal.
    I’ve never talked to my neighbor, but she blasts her music and makes a ton of noise so I don’t like her.
  • En cuanto conocí a Ana, me cayó muy bien. Me pareció una excelente persona.
    As soon as I met Ana, I liked her very much. I thought she was an excellent person.

If you like a person and you ask them out and they say "me caes muy bien", that person is probably sending you directly to the friend zone because with their choice of verb they’re indicating that you seem a good person but that they don’t have a romantic interest in you.

It’s very important to remember that we use this verb naturally with people we’re not very close to, with acquaintances. We don’t use it with our family or with the people we love.

Now that you know about the two most common ways to "like" something or someone in Spanish, try out our exercises to practice using them yourself!

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