“A LA ORDEN” is probably the single most heard and used phrase and expression in Colombia. It literally means “at your order” and you will receive dozens of these greetings a day if you are anywhere near a shopping district. We equate this to a similar expression “at your service” in North America. There are a few different contexts to the phrase that I will attempt to describe here with my less than 100% full knowledge of the Colombian cultural catch phrase.
So far, I have identified three different variations of the use of the expression – a la orden.
1) May I help you?
This seems to be what you hear most often when you are anywhere near a shopping district or you are making a purchase somewhere in Colombia. It is generally directed at you when you window shop or browse a store. Colombians will normally use the phrase to engage you and let you know that they are there to help if you have any questions. This is normally followed by very attentive customer service that can be misconstrued at times.
When I first moved to Colombia in 2005, I thought it was strange how the store attendants would stalk you in the stores sometimes. I kept thinking they thought I was going to steal something! On the contrary, this is part of the culture in which attentive customer service is part of the sales process.
In this sense, a la orden is used in lieau of gracias and it normally occurs after buying something.
3. You can use it/them anytime.
This is yet another use of the expression in which a Colombian replies after you have complimented him or her on some item that they possess such as a car, sunglasses, golf clubs, etc. This use of a la orden appears to be the politically correct form of the phrase as it it normally used as a formal response to a compliment. I once told a Colombian friend of mine in Medellin that I really like his car and he replied a la orden. When I asked his girlfriend who spoke perfect English she told me that he said I could use the car anytime. When I replied “como manana” or how about tomorrow, he just gave me a sheepish smile without answering my question which was trigger response to his nicety. We do something very similar in the USA when we receive compliments to our material possessions and it follows the same logic as the expression my home is your home and what’s mine is yours.
If anybody has knowledge of other uses of this common Colombian saying, please comment below so that we can all have a full understanding.