The role of perception in "ser" vs "estar"

"Estar alto"? "Ser soltero"? Learn how perception can affect the already tricky choice between the verbs "ser" and "estar".

Nov 11, 2019
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The difference between the verbs ser and estar is one of the topics that Spanish students struggle with most, even advanced students. Sometimes, when they think they finally get it, they'll hear a native speaker seem to break all the rules and intuition they worked so hard to learn.

Why is that? Is there something teachers aren’t telling you? As a matter of fact, there is. Most students are taught the basic rules of ser and estar, but there is so much subtlety and depth to these verbs that many students never learn.

In this post, we're going to show you how the choice between ser and estar can be used to change the way we talk about defining characteristics based on our perception.

Let’s start with the general feeling of both verbs.

The feeling

As you might already know, the verbs ser and estar can be roughly translated as "to be" in English. The challenge for English speakers learning Spanish is that now when we want to talk about "being" (being happy, being tall, etc.), we need to pick between two verbs! This choice is not always obvious, but there are some general guidelines that we can follow to develop this intuition.

Ser is used to talk about the essence of something. We use it to describe characteristics that we feel are inherent in a person or thing. These characteristics tend to identify or label their subject, so ser can be thought of as relating to this concept of identity. Some examples include: ser colombiano (to be Colombian), ser hombre (to be a man), ser inteligente (to be intelligent) and ser moreno (to be brown-skinned).

Estar has the same origin as the English word "state", which means that it describes states (mood, location, physical condition, etc) that persist for any amount of time, including forever. These states are often the result of some change or process. Examples include: estar cansado (to be tired), estar sentado (to be seated), estar roto (to be broken), estar limpio (to be clean), estar muerto (to be dead).

This information can help us to use these verbs correctly in most scenarios. But what happens when we use estar instead of ser with characteristics that we normally consider to be "defining" such as alto (tall), interesante (interesting) or amable (nice)? It turns out this isn't necessarily a mistake, and a certain effect can be produced when we use estar instead of ser in this way.

"Ser" vs "estar" with defining characteristics

Let's take a look at three cases of how perception affects whether we should use ser or estar when talking about defining characteristics.

"Blank slate" perception: "ser"

When perceiving something without any prior knowledge or expectations about it (i.e. from a "blank slate"), we use the verb ser to describe what we consider to be its defining or identifying characteristics.

Let’s take a look at an example. Pay close attention to the context here to really understand the usage of ser to describe the defining characteristics perceived:

Sara is looking for a job and her best friend, Susana, got her an interview with the new manager, Felipe. After the interview, Sara describes her interview to Susana like this:

Susana: ¿Cómo te fue en la entrevista?
Susana: How did the interview go?
Sara: Me fue muy bien. Felipe es muy amable y honesto, además de ser bastante guapo. Me gusta mucho también el ambiente de la oficina, es agradable y tranquilo.
Sara: It went well. Felipe is very kind and honest, not to mention quite handsome. I also like the office environment, it's nice and quiet.

Sara’s descriptions are based on her "blank slate" perception (she didn't know anything about Felipe or the office before the interview), and she uses ser because she considers the mentioned characteristics to be defining.

Perception contrary to knowledge or expectations: "estar"

When our perception of a characteristic doesn't correspond with our expectations or prior knowledge, we can use the verb estar. For example, if your nephew has grown a lot since the last time you saw him, you could say mi sobrino está grande.

Let’s continue with our earlier example of Sara's new job. Unlike Sara, Susana has some prior knowledge about Felipe and the office, so let's take a look at what she has to say about them:

Susana, who’s been working with Felipe in that office for quite some time, responds:

Susana: Me alegra mucho que te haya ido bien. Tuviste suerte porque Felipe, desde que lo promovieron, ha estado muy amable, porque normalmente él es una cascarrabias; y ahora que está ganando tanto dinero, está más guapo que de costumbre porque ha cambiado su forma de vestir y hasta su actitud.
Susana: I’m so glad for you. You were lucky because since Felipe was promoted, he’s been acting kinder, because normally he's actually very grumpy; and now that he’s making so much money, he looks more handsome than usual because he's changed the way he dresses and even his whole attitude.
Sara: Tú lo conoces más que yo, obviamente. De cualquier forma, me parece que está muy joven para ser gerente financiero.
Sara: You know him better than I do, obviously. Regardless, I think he's very young to be a financial manager.
Susana: Sí, es verdad. Apenas tiene 25 años. No se puede negar que él es muy trabajador. Y desde que él es el gerente, el ambiente de la empresa ha cambiado mucho y está más agradable y tranquilo.
Susana: Yeah, it's true. He’s barely 25. You can’t deny that he's a hardworking man. And now that he's the manager, the atmosphere in the company has changed a lot and it’s nicer and quieter.

Many of the characteristics perceived by Sara as inherent -es amable, es guapo, es agradable, es tranquilo- are considered by Susana to be the product of a recent change, based on her prior knowledge -estar amable, estar guapo, estar agradable, estar tranquilo- so she uses estar because they are too new to be considered "defining".

Personal perception of what is "defining": "ser" or "estar"

Often times a characteristic may be perceived to be "defining" to one person, but not to another. This is particularly true with marital status or physical appearance.

Let’s continue with the conversation between Sara and Susana to see how their personal perception affects how they describe certain characteristics:

Susana, who’s been working with Felipe in that office for quite some time, responds:

Sara: A pesar de que dices que Felipe no es muy amable en general, a mí me gustó.
Sara: In spite of your opinion about Felipe, I really liked him.
Susana: Pues si te gustó, bien por ti. Y como eres soltera y él también, pues perfecto.
Susana: Well, if you liked him, good for you. Since you are single and he is too, it’s perfect.
Sara: Yo no soy soltera, estoy soltera.
Sara: I'm not a single woman, I'm just single.
Susana: Ok, ok. Allá tú que no te sientes feliz siendo soltera. Yo sí soy soltera y feliz.
Susana: Ok, ok. You just don’t feel happy being single,but I do. I’m single and happy.

Although Sara recognizes that her relationship status is single, she doesn't consider it a part of her identity, but Susana does. Her personal perception of the very same characteristic is different, so they pick different verbs.


Always use ser to describe moral and ethical virtues such as: honesto (honest), leal (loyal), honrado (honourable), respetuoso (respectful), bondadoso (kind-hearted), humilde (humble), solidario (supportive), etc. The uses of estar described above don't apply to these adjectives.

Now that you've learned more about this nuance of ser and estar, put it to practice with our interactive exercises or work on your listening with our podcast!

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