Being strangers in a strange land, it is always advisable to have at least some understanding of the local cultural flow. Most times, though, this is easier said than done. Western culture – that many expats are accustomed to – is pretty straightforward: You’re born a squealing slimy mess, you’re raised by your family, you go to school, struggle through adolescence, secure some type of career path and along the way you worship (depending on your beliefs, usually passed down from family), confront life’s travails head on, and –for many – raise a family of your own. Business and personal matters are addressed directly, societal expectations are pretty clear, and since everyone else is (mostly) going through life along a similar path, things just seem to happen with a certain level of normalcy and expectedness.
In the Philippines – as with many things – the cultural flow is quite a bit different….
The Philippines today is a conglomeration of all its yesteryears. From the initial Indo-Malay tribal settlements to the strong influence of the Chinese mercantile empires followed by three hundred plus years of Spanish colonialization and another fifty years of American “Hollywood” rule, the culture of the Philippines today seems to be is a mish-mash of values carried over from generations of external influence. The Philippines is also a “young” nation – having only had its independence for about 65 years, and as such it still seems to be striving for some sort of national identity.
Now, with that in mind, let’s take a moment to briefly examine six aspects of Filipino culture that were influenced by Indo-Malay settlement, Asian influences and the centuries of Spanish occupation. For our immediate purposes, I will refer to them as the Six Pillars of Filipino Culture. They are (in no specific order):
2. Pakikisama (smooth interaction)
3. Amor propio (self esteem)
4. Hiya (shame)
5. Utang na loob (debt of obligation)
6. Bahala na (what will be, will be…)
Keep in mind that this is just a collection of information that I have gained through online research, in speaking with locals and with a good amount of cause-and-effect reflection: Seeking to understand why Filipinos do (or not do) some things that – to the average Westerner – seem rather odd.
What behaviors, you ask, seeking an example or two. Well, here’s just a few of many:
Why do they say yes when they actually mean no?
Why do they invite total strangers passing by their gates into their homes for a fiesta celebration?
Why do they have such a hard time saying that they don’t know the answer to something?
Why can Filipinos be so sensitive at times?
Why this obsession to have the most up-to-date fashions and gadgets?
Why do they take so many selfies?
Why is corruption so hard to root out here?
Why are they always asking so many questions when they first meet?
Why do they prefer foreign “name brand” goods over anything made in the Philippines?
Why do they voluntarily ship themselves off to work for decades in foreign lands and send all the money back to their families?
The list of questions goes on and on. Hopefully, by the time we are done, we’ll be able to uncover at least some answers as we feel our way through the aforementioned Six Pillars. Also, keep in mind that this is not an authoritative etched-in-stone assessment – I am certainly no expert on Filipino culture (or anything else for that matter), and it’s simply my own personal musings as I continue to stumble along in my never-ending quest for personal edification.
Yeah, the thesaurus helped in that last bit…
Now, we’ve covered some of the Six Pillars in previous posts, and I will give links to them below. There is quite a bit to actually note about each aspect, but in this post, we’re just going to give a brief description of each and note how most – if not all – of the Six Pillars are interrelated.
Family: Like many other Asian nations, family is THE singular backbone of Filipino culture. Nothing is more important to them, and the needs of the family typically outweigh the needs of the individual family member. Unlike tighter (and smaller) Western nuclear families, Filipino families include aunts, uncles, and even first, second and third cousins. Family get-togethers are important events and no expense is spared when it comes to laying in a total “blow out” party replete with caterers, tents, live music, karaoke, parlor games and freshly roasted pigs (lechon baboy). Ageism isn’t an issue here as it is in most of the West. Older family members are usually treated with the highest respect by younger members, with even younger siblings deferring to their older brothers (kuya) and sisters (ate).
Pakikisama: (Pah-kee-kee-sama) From Tagalog, this refers to the avoidance of conflict in day-to-day life. A 1970’s sociologist actually referred to is as SIR (Smooth Interpersonal Relations) which is ironic considering the ubiquitous usage of “Sir” and “Mum” in daily parlance. Maintaining smooth relations means Filipinos will generally try to avoid confrontation by giving offense. Best witnessed in the way Filipinos will directly avoid declining requests (saying “no”). Pakikisama can also be seen in the way Filipinos will generally avoid arguments, rude language (verbal or physical), public disagreement and direct negotiation of what they see as delicate matters. Generally, it has to do with “going with the flow” and “not making waves.” As a result, Filipino culture is generally very conservative and very traditional. “We do things the way we do them because that is the way we do them.” Recognize also that pakikisama is all about conformity and is the base opposite of individualism.
Amor Propio: Also taken from Tagalog and literally translated as “love of self,” this is best described to us clueless por-en-yares as self-esteem. Amor propio is developed by behaving properly, obeying one’s parents, maintaining smooth relations with others (pakikisama), extending hospitality, giving selflessly of oneself and the like. When amor propio is violated by another person, Filipinos will typically feel embarrassment or shame (hiya). This is generally a state that that will always seek to avoid. (Note that Filipinos can also violate their own amor propio by cheating on their wives, stealing, or refusing to help others.) Usually shame will result in Filipinos shutting down while they internalize all the stress caused by actual or perceived transgressions. In extreme cases, violent reactions can ensue. Amor propio can also be compared to the greater Asian concept of “face,” with those losing face experiencing the embarrassment of hiya. And although it has much to do with specific expected behaviors, what you have (material objects) also plays a role in amor propio, thus a seemingly borderline obsession with “branded” clothing and “gadgets” (iPhones, tablets and the like) – even if they are bootlegged replicas which are VERY common here. Amor propio seems to be a combination of Spanish and more hardcore Asian (“face”) influences.
Hiya: Hiya is best described as shame, but some forms of it can also be seen as shyness. Hiya occurs when a Filipino’s amor propio is violated (actual violation or perceived violation). Probably another carryover from Asian influences (commonly referred to as “losing face”), Filipinos will usually do everything they can to avoid unpleasant emotion, up to an including saying “yes” when they mean no and denying that they were a part of any wrongdoing even when directly confronted with the evidence. Hiya can also come about when Filipinos are not obeying their parents and fulfilling the numerous expectations of pakikisama whist maintaining amor propio.
As I previously noted, hiya can also be seen in Filipino “shyness.” Part of this shyness is a result of “colonial mentality” in the Philippines, where things from away (typically the West) are seen as superior to local commodities, up to and including some Filipinos thinking themselves inferior to Western foreigners.
Utang Na Loob: Best described as “debt of gratitude,” utang na loob is all about favors asked and favors returned. Utang na loob is experienced in the workplace, the community but most of all in the family – where obeying and taking care of one’s parents is the number one Filipino filial duty. The asking of favors is very common in the Philippines and the reciprocity of asking for favors in return is also quite common. Filipinos venturing overseas for decades to support their families is one example they will make in the face of utang na loob, and when one considers that there are approximately 2.4 million Filipino working overseas, it’s pretty easy to see the effect that utang na loob has on the entire Philippine population. SIDE NOT: Anthony Bourdain actuall did an excellent “Parts Unknown” episode on Aurora, a woman who had worked 35 years overseas and was now back with her (grown) Philippines family. You can read more about that episode here: http://cnnphilippines.com/lifestyle/2016/04/27/Manila-Philippines-food-travel-Anthony-Bourdain-Parts-Unknown.html
Bahala na: Literally translated as “God willing” (similar to the Arabic inshallah) it is more commonly described as “what will be will be” (Spanish Que sera, sera). Incorporating a sort of fatalism in the face of adversity, bahala na comes in handy when faced by the devastation of natural disasters, deaths of family members or simply just having to deal with the grind of day-to-day poverty that millions of Filipinos have to deal with.
Now, when one takes the time to actually absorb the six individual pillars and then carries it over to a macro level, some of the mysteries that foreigners are bewildered by everyday Philippines life become a bit more understandable.
Let’s hop back and take a look at some of the original questions we were asking towards the beginning of the article and applying some of the concepts of the Six Pillars. Again, this is just supposition and amateur cultural psychology on my part.
Q: Why do they say yes when they actually mean no?
A: Pakikisama (smooth interpersonal relations) and not wanting to violate their own (or the other persons!) amor propio.
Q:Why do they invite total strangers passing by their gates into their homes for a fiesta celebration?
A: Hospitality and kindness to others is an integral part of amor propio. Pakikisama also plays a part as sacrificing/giving to others (even at one’s own expense or detriment) is relevant here.
Q: Why do they have such a hard time saying that they don’t know the answer to something?
A: Probably has something to do with avoiding hiya – shame in admitting that they don’t know something.
Q: Why are Filipinos be so sensitive at times?
A: There’s actually a Tagalog term for this sensitivity – balat sibuyas or literally, “onion skin.” Maintaining self-esteem (amor propio) in the face of all the vagaries of Philippine life isn’t an easy thing to do. This results in a good deal of self-doubt which seems to make many Filipinos rather sensitive. Another influencer – colonial mentality – also seems to be at work here. The onion skin of Filipino seems to become wear even thinner when confronted by foreigners, especially when faced with “power rangers” of the Caucasian persuasion (Notice I didn’t say “white” cuz that would have been racist!)
Q: Why this obsession to have the most up-to-date fashions and gadgets?
A: Strengthening of personal amor propio. To not have the latest clothing or gadgets (or shiny new Toyota Fortuner) is shameful and could possibly bring on hiya.
Q: Why do Filipinos take so many selfies? (Makati was the selfie capital of the world in 2006.)
A: Amor propio and a smidgen of pakikisama-centric conformity (everyone else is doing it) seems to play a part in this national obsession.
Q: Why is corruption so hard to root out here?
A: Utang na loob seems to be the primary culprit in local and national corruption. Favors given and favors received. Ironically enough (there’s a lot of unintentional irony in the Philippines) pakikisama (not rocking the boat) also seems to play a role.
Q: Why are they always asking (us) foreigners so many questions when we first meet?
A: Although some jaded expats thinks it has to do with “they’re trying to gather intelligence in order to scam us,” I think it has more to do with maintaining good amor propio and pakikisama by extending hospitality.
Q: Why do Filipinos prefer foreign “name brand” goods over anything made in the Philippines?
A: Colonial mentality (a subset of amor propio/hiya). This flies in the face of “Pinoy pride” and is definitely a stumbling block as the Philippines seeks to secure some form of solid national identity.
Q: Why do Filipinos voluntarily ship themselves off to work for decades in foreign lands and send all the money back to their families?
A: Family/Utang na loob (the “debt of obligation” that they owe their parents), pakikisama (conformity and doing what millions of other Filipinos are doing) and amor propio (not obeying the needs/directives of family is a direct violation of amor propio. This sacrifice can also be seen in a more local level in the way young and attractive Filipinas will be with much older (and less attractive) foreigners in order to secure an allowance in order to take care of their families.
Beyond anything else here, the willingness of Filipinos to spend years/decades away from their home to take care of their families totally humbles me. I don’t think I fully realized just how much of an effect in had until I watched the Anthony Bourdain “Parts Unknown” episode about the Filipina OFW who had spent over 30 years in foreign lands as an OFW while she took care of her family. Un-frikken-believable but it’s something that happens here more often than not.
Sacrifice on a level that expat foreigners can never appreciate.
So – I got a bit long-winded, but I hope this rather decidedly amateur cultural psychology piece has been of some help.
Want to add to the discussion? Feel free to leave a comment below.