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?

English

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:

You're blushing!


Português

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!

  • 1
    I tagged this question [brasil], because I asked primarily about usage in Brazil. I like your answer, but I have a feeling you're addressing primarily the usage in Portugal...? (That's not a problem, but maybe you could clarify in your answer.) – Earthliŋ Jul 14 '15 at 23:17
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    @Earthliŋ :) I was editing the answer precisely to clarify what you've mentioned! – Zuul Jul 14 '15 at 23:18
  • * A senhora está corada! - priberam.pt/dlpo/corar (ver definiçaõ intransitiva) – ANeves Jul 15 '15 at 10:31

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:

  • você/tu is less formal and equivalent to tu in Spanish and tu/toi in French.
  • o senhor/a senhora (notice the changes due to gender) is equivalent to vos/vosotros in Spanish and vous in French.

Hence, you use você or 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:

  • vós also exists in Portuguese but it is far less used (except in theatres or period movies).
  • você is a contraction that evolved from vossa mercê (something like "your mercy"), to vosmicê/vossemecê and lately to você.
  • Curiously, we do not have a verb to say that we want to change the addressing from formal to informal, like the verbs tutear in Spanish (¿Nosotros podemos tutear?) and tutoyer in 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 você?")

P.S.: In Brazil, você does 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).

  • 1
    "In a matter of fact, it works just like in other latin languages such as French and Spanish" I think in French vous is definitely used as soon as there's any age gap, so a 25 year old would address a 30 year old stranger with vous (and probably vice versa). It strikes me that the situation is much more relaxed in Brazil. There are many situations where people have addressed me with você, which would be considered impolite/rude or just too personal in France. (And so far I've returned the favour. I just hope I haven't been impolite.) – Earthliŋ Jul 16 '15 at 14:00
  • Yeah, you are right @Earthliŋ. I meant that the basic "mechanics" is pretty much the same, but you are correct to consider that in Brazil this is more relaxed (or, perhaps, France is too rigid on the subject?). :) I think you shouldn't worry about being impolite, unless you start a conversation with a person much older than you. In that case, just ask what they prefer. – Luiz Vieira Jul 16 '15 at 15:18

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)
  • Would anyone ever be offended if I addressed them with senhor(a) because it's something you use for elderly people? – Earthliŋ Jul 14 '15 at 23:19
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    Not if you're in a formal situation. And probably not if you have an accent :) Usually, if they prefer to be addressed as "você", they will let you know. – bfavaretto Jul 14 '15 at 23:25

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.

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