For all I know, você is used almost exclusively as second person pronoun (in Brazil). Sometimes people in shops address me with senhor. I'm not a shop owner, so what would be some typical situations for a layperson like myself to use "senhor/senhora" to address other people?
As @zuul already mentioned in his answer, the usage depends on the social context. In a matter of fact, it works just like in other latin languages such as French and Spanish:
tuis less formal and equivalent to
tuin Spanish and
a senhora(notice the changes due to gender) is equivalent to
vosotrosin Spanish and
Hence, you use
tu when speaking to a person in an informal manner, particularly when you already know each other. And you use
o senhor or
a senhora when speaking to a person in a context in which you don't know each other or you want to show respect. The informal approach is almost always used to address children.
Some additional information:
vósalso exists in Portuguese but it is far less used (except in theatres or period movies).
vocêis a contraction that evolved from
vossa mercê(something like "your mercy"), to
vossemecêand lately to
- Curiously, we do not have a verb to say that we want to change the addressing from formal to informal, like the verbs
tutearin Spanish (
¿Nosotros podemos tutear?) and
tutoyerin French (
On peut se tutoyer?). But if you feel like asking that to someone, just say
Posso te chamar de você?(something like "Can I call you by
P.S.: In Brazil,
vocêdoes not have by itself the superiority issue mentioned by Zuul. A person may show superiority with intonation when using the word, but that may also happen with the use of
o senhor(case in which, in my opinion, the superiority shown is much stronger due to the implied irony).
Take note that this concerns Portugal and may be inaccurate in Brazil.
Actually, it is a bit more complicated than that. It works like layers of intimacy towards the person you are addressing:
Treatment by name is used when there is an intimacy between people who get along:
John, give me the phone.
tu Treatment among friends of the same social level and among whom there is not much age difference:
Do you think she's pretty?
você Usually a poorly accepted treatment, commonly used by a superior person towards a person of lower category:
You want to be fired?
O senhor/A senhora It is a form of treatment for people who don't know each other or from which there is no intimacy. It is also a form of general treatment, accepted in all of the above:
Ter em atenção que se trata de Portugal, podendo ser diferente no Brasil.
Na verdade, é um pouco mais complicado do que isso. Funciona como camadas de intimidade para com a pessoa que estás a abordar:
nome próprio Quando existe uma intimidade ou entre pessoas que se dão bem:
João, dá-me o telefone.
tu Entre amigos do mesmo nível social e entre os quais não há muita diferença de idade:
Tu achas que ela é bonita?
você Geralmente um tratamento mal aceite, vulgarmente utilizado por uma pessoa de categoria superior para pessoa de categoria inferior:
Você quer ser despedido?
O senhor/A senhora É uma forma de tratamento entre pessoas que não se conhecem ou entre as quais não há intimidade. É também uma forma de tratamento geral, aceite em todos os níveis supra citados:
A Senhora está vermelha!
It's not black and white, but here are a few cases where "o senhor" is commonly used:
- When addressing customers in general
- When addressing authorities in a formal situation (meeting, interview etc.)
- When addressing elderly people you don't know, or don't know very well
- Sometimes, when addressing parents or grandparents (but that depends on the family)
The first answer by Luiz Vieira is pretty complete, and the second one by Zuul addresses inner workings of European Portuguese, but my comment got too big for a comment so I decided to add an answer. :D
"Senhor" translates to "Mister", and in Brazil it is used to denote respect.
Some prominent figures, especially intellectuals (Jô Soares comes to mind), actually challenge this standard because they consider using "Senhor" to be demeaning. This also happens with the use of "Doutor" (Doctor), especially because brazil has a tradition of calling Lawyers and (Medical) Doctors as "Doctor" regardless of them having a Doctorate.
The use of "Senhor" was, historically, considered the proper way of "lower" people addressing "higher class" people. A slave or employee had to use that to show he respected the authority.
The usage is still fairly common in hierarchical institutions though, such as the police, the army, corporations and stores.
As a rule of thumb, you should only use "Senhor" if you feel the absolute need to emphasize respect for the person. It is considered safe to use it when addressing authorities, especially cops, double-especially Military Police. If the person is more open and friendly towards you it can still be used, but is not actually needed and most people will ask you to drop the "Senhor" and call them "Você" or just their name.
It is also polite to ask people to drop the "Senhor" (which is usually just a formality anyway) and call you by your name. Not doing that may be an indicator of someone being arrogant, and asking for you to use it will be seen as an indicator of arrogance. This arrogance actually is the reason some intellectuals challenge the use of Senhor and Doctor, but it is rarely done as people in Brazil are usually non-confrontative.
When you meet old people or when you meet someone you know it's better to use another pronoun to show respect (você is quite informal), but you don't know which one, you can use senhor/senhora.