by Kimberly F. Snider and Richard L. Starcher
Six characteristics of Filipino culture each person needs
to understand and appreciate in order to minister
effectively in that context.
Photo courtesy Richard Starcher
I (Kim) sat across the dinner table from an American pastor who had just finished his first series of evangelistic meetings in the Philippines. His enthusiasm was palpable as he recounted stories of conversions, healings, and answered prayer. He noted that local churches had hired buses to bring people to his meetings. He was thrilled with his success and full of plans for a speedy return to the archipelago.
During a pause in our conversation, I asked him how he had dealt with the food in the remote area where he had been working. I knew it was a challenging menu, even for veteran missionaries. He beamed in response. “No problem,” he said. “I fasted the whole time.”
Instead of being reassured, I was both incredulous and disturbed. He had not eaten for two weeks in a culture where appreciating the host’s food opens the door to both personal and working relationships.
I asked him how this fasting behavior had been received. “It was fine,” he replied, “No one said anything negative.” I wondered what other cultural innuendoes he had missed. I was saddened, but not surprised when I later learned that pastors in the area were not enthusiastic about working with him again despite his self-reported effectiveness (conversions, healings, and answered prayer). He had been “too directive,” they said, “too bossy; wanted to control everything.”
Ministering in the Filipino Context
It is all too easy to give “our best” to others, while misunderstanding what they actually need and want. Such misunderstanding could stem from an inadequate appreciation of the inner workings of a culture. While it is presumptuous for any outsider to attempt to explain another’s culture, in this article we humbly share perceptions of Filipino culture in the hopes of helping visitors who seek to minister there.
Admittedly, learning any culture is hard work and can be frustrating. The Filipino culture is no exception. The Filipino archipelago consists of approximately seven thousand islands whose peoples speak more than one hundred dialects. Yet these diverse people groups share a certain cultural commonality (Jocano 2001, 1-2). The profile we provide represents a distillation of a westerner’s perceptions from over twenty years of relating to these warm and welcoming people.
Here, we discuss six characteristics of Filipino culture we believe westerners (like us) need to understand and appreciate in order to minister effectively:
1. High-context communication
2. Relational conflict management
3. The rule of kinship
4. Leading people
5. Self-esteem and shame
While we intentionally focus only on Filipino culture, some of the cultural characteristics we describe are evident in other Majority World cultures as well. For example, relational conflict management is crucial in several of the African cultures in which one of the authors (Rich) worked. Further, understanding the function of shame is important in many Asian cultures.
In contrast to westerners’ inclination toward verbosity, Filipinos regularly convey information non-verbally, using silence, pauses, and body language. Most westerners find this “high context” aspect of Filipino culture very challenging (Andres 1987). When Filipinos do communicate verbally, westerners often find the message ambiguous because the actual words are only a small part of the communication transaction.
Moreover, Filipinos often deliver the content of their messages indirectly or deliver the message to a third person, making sure that the intended party overhears. Such indirect communication accommodates the intended recipient’s feelings (Jocano 2001, 77), protects the speaker, and avoids conflict. Additionally, Filipinos generally believe messages should be given at the appropriate place, time, hour, and day, and not necessarily as soon as the information becomes available (Maggay 1999, 13).
Westerners often judge a Filipino’s words as less than truthful, when in reality the speaker is merely being sensitive. Indeed, Filipino culture values relationship more highly than verbal accuracy. The culture promotes saving face, preserving personal dignity, and maintaining family loyalty more than it does precise language (Andres 1989a, 1989b). “Truth in charity” is a moral imperative; frankness can be a breach of courtesy (Andres 1987).
For this reason, Filipinos rarely say “no” to a superior and seldom to each other. The word “yes” has lots of meanings—one of which is “no” (Andres 1989a). Many times, the word “yes” simply means, “I hear you.”
Likewise, when Filipinos receive a message, they not only listen to the words said. Rather, they believe they can fully understand the speaker’s intent if they understand his or her personality and character. Because of their own penchant for verbal sensitivity, Filipinos judge others on a case-by-case basis (Andres 1989a). They seldom automatically agree with what others say about an individual; instead, they reserve judgment and make up their own mind.
Relational Conflict Management
One Filipino writer noted that direct confrontation leaves “lasting wounds which no amount of friendly reconciliation can heal” (Andres 1987, 57). Instead of direct confrontation, Filipinos choose to manage, suppress, or avoid conflict by practicing the value of pakikisama.
Pakikisama is the Tagalog word for the ability to get along with others in such a way as to avoid outer signs of conflict. Maintaining pakikisama prompts people to yield to the majority leader, even when they think he or she is wrong and does not promote the common good (Andres 1987). Pakikisama also obliges speakers to think carefully about the words they choose so that blame is not ascribed to anyone specifically. For example, I (Kim) once asked my maid how our CD player had been broken. “It didn’t come in from the rain!” she answered. By this reply, my maid explained how the CD player was ruined without casting any blame on the individual who left it outside.
In order to preserve pakikisama, Filipinos employ two common approaches to conflict management. The first is simply to avoid differences of opinion. For example, a Filipino boss may staff her office with relatives and friends who tend to agree with her. A second option is to create an atmosphere of repression and consistently reward agreement and cooperation (Andres 1991).
An important outgrowth of pakikisama is the influence of a person’s barkada. The term “barkada” can be translated “peer group” in English, but has a much larger field of meaning. One’s barkada consists of schoolmates, fellow workers, neighbors, or members of any group to which one belongs. It is the strongest social connection outside of family (Jocano 2001). Persons who oppose their barkada are considered antisocial, rude, and almost un-Filipino.
To illustrate, many times Filipino evangelicals have told me that they were “forced to drink” against their wishes. What they meant was a refusal to drink alcohol would break harmony and go against the Filipino cultural mandate of pakikisama. Group harmony regularly trumps an individual’s sense of right and wrong. Group harmony is also more important than a direct resolution to any conflict.
The Rule of Kinship
Another cultural feature crucial to understanding the Filipino context is the power of kinship or extended family. Kinship determines and controls interpersonal relationships (Feliciano 1990); family is the strongest and most basic group for all Filipino individuals. It is their primary source of emotional, economic, and moral support (Andres 1987).
Because the family is supreme, the success and prosperity of the family are more important than the success and prosperity of any individual (Andres 1987). Therefore, being too independent or self-reliant is frowned upon (Jocano 2001).
The power of kinship also works itself out in other ways. Filipinos may strive to enlarge the power of their family by having many children. Also, Filipino family ties are not broken by marriage (Andres 1987). Loyalty to siblings and parents is often equal to or greater than loyalty to a spouse. Finally, an offense against one family member is perceived as an offense against the whole family.
Strong kinship results in a type of familism. It can be difficult to engender collaboration among people who are not related, for example, to clean up neighborhoods or to settle land disputes. Familism regularly places the welfare and interest of family above that of the community or larger interests (Andres 1987).
Families often do business only with relatives or friends of relatives. A Filipino boss might hire a relative or even a member of her barkada rather than a more competent “outsider” (Feliciano 1990). Newly-elected politicians often place relations, friends, or followers in positions of power, even if they are not qualified (Andres 1987). While westerners may criticize such practices as nepotism, Filipinos view them as expressions of family loyalty.
The successful foreign worker in the Philippines understands that the Filipino kinship system is so strong that it tends to eclipse any organization. Political parties, labor unions, and other institutions all try to emulate this kinship system by substituting a ritual kinship known as the “compadre system.” What this means is successful businesspeople, church leaders, and missionaries in the Philippines are those who establish a family-like organizational structure in their workplace or church. This “pseudo family” network engenders personal warmth and reciprocal assistance. However, it can also encourage a form of nepotism that results in substandard performance.
The way Filipinos view authority and family affects their leadership style. Followers expect leaders to act like responsible elders. They should be compassionate and should lead, not coerce. They should coordinate, not impose. They should inspire, not repress. Leaders must exercise authority by example (Jocano 1999). Appeals for action regularly include bargaining, calling in favors, and leveraging relationships (Andres 1987).
Successful leaders resolve problems through good personal relationships rather than through group deliberation, debate, or collegial reasoning (Andres 1987). No matter what job title a person has, Filipinos do not respond well to direct instruction or give unquestioned obedience. They like to be persuaded. It is more effective to express confidence and give assurance than to demand compliance (Andres 1987, 59). Good bosses must engage people on a person-to-person basis. They persuade by showing how and why things should be done.
While no one likes arrogant, domineering, or commanding people, Filipinos seem to find them particularly repulsive. “To get cooperation of a Filipino, you put yourself on the side of the weak…. if you put yourself up, the Filipino will put you down; on the other hand, if you put yourself down, he will bring you up” (Andres 1987, 63).
Self-esteem and Shame
In all of the above areas, Filipinos emerge as very concerned about how they are perceived by others (Feliciano 1990, 42). Hence, amor propio or self-love is an important Filipino value. An equivalent term to amor propio is “face”. Melba Maggay writes, “Face is more than just one’s public image or social standing; it is the seat of one’s integrity of being, one’s danggal or pagkatao, one’s personhood” (1999, 24). It is in order to save face that Filipinos concern themselves primarily with reputation instead of with the morality of an action. There is always the desire to “pa-impress”—make a good impression.
The desire to look good reveals itself in curious ways. For example, there are a great number of abortions performed in the Philippines every year. This practice might seem surprising in a Catholic country, but women are reluctant to shame their families by having a baby out of wedlock (Feliciano 1990, 43). At times, amor propio triumps religious beliefs.
Amor propio is also what makes criticizing a Filipino taboo. What might be constructive criticism in the West comes across as insulting and a loss of honor in the Philippines (Andres 1987). Filipinos are easily humiliated and sensitive to hard words and aggressive behavior. Amor propio makes an individual sensitive to an affront or an insult (Andres 1989b). Some Filipino writers even claim amor propio makes their people poor losers, unable to take defeat gracefully.
Hiya, shame, is closely related to amor propio. Tomas Andres writes, “Hiya is a value that regulates Filipino social behavior. When he violates a normal standard of society, the Filipino ordinarily feels a deep sense of shame” (1987, 76). Filipinos are also shamed if they feel inadequate or have to face people whom they think expect too much of them.
The concept of shame has very important implications. Being unable to grant a favor results in shame and an apology for this failure. If someone owes another person money, shame prevents the Filipino from calling in the debt. Many times, this failure to demand payment leads to loss of working capital and the subsequent collapse of businesses (Andres 1987). Shame also compels people to provide hospitality even when they cannot afford it (Hechanova 1989).
Utang na loob is another Filipino value related to shame. These words literally mean “debt of gratitude.” When a Filipino receives a favor, he or she will never forget it (Hechanova 1989). Culture dictates that recipients of a good act or deed must behave generously toward their benefactor as long as they live (Feliciano 1990). People are ashamed to refuse requests from those to whom they owe a favor. An ingrate is stigmatized by society as one who is “not appreciative of graces given him” (Hechanova 1989). Utang na loob extends far beyond personal gratitude into the realm of political success and million-dollar enterprises.
A final important cultural characteristic is fate. In the Filipino worldview individuals have little or no control over what happens to them (Hechanova 1989). Life is decided by fate. Fate is an impersonal force. “Destiny has no face,” writes Feliciano. “It is unfeeling, disinterested, and bears a stamp of unmoving finality” (1990, 14). In And God Said “Bahala Na,” Catholic theologian Jose de Mesa wrote, “[It is the belief that] one’s status in life has been determined by God prior to his birth and that there is nothing a person can do to raise his status higher than that which has been set for him” (1979, 88). Any success is attributed to good fortune, luck, chance, or the will of God (Andres 1987).
Bahala na has a positive side. It can cause people to throw caution to the wind and exercise immense amounts of courage. The classic contemporary example of this is when Filipino presidential candidate Ninoy Aquino walked out of the plane to meet his death crying, “The Filipino is worth dying for” (Feliciano 1990, 14). His gamble with fate, resulting in his death, facilitated the end of the autocratic rule of Ferdinand Marcos and began the People Power Revolution.
On the negative side, bahala na encourages a fatalistic attitude that leads individuals to a resigned acceptance of their lot in life. It convinces them that they have little or no control over what happens. They await the future with very little hope that they can change it. They see success as due to luck rather than effort, so it will probably not last (de Mesa 1979). Bahala na can cause withdrawal from engagement or crisis or shirking personal responsibility (1979).
While no culture can be reduced to just six or seven characteristics, ministry in keeping with the cultural traits mentioned above will go a long way toward enhancing foreigners’ effectiveness in the Philippines. Foreigners should keep in mind the following:
• Words alone are only a small part of communication.
• Blunt or harsh words render the message null and void.
• Kinship is king.
• Relationship is the key to leadership.
• Self-esteem and shame color just about everything else.
• Fate is the stage upon which life is played.
A quick note about stories: Cross-cultural workers would do well to listen carefully to the tales of other people who work or who have worked in the Philippines. They should pay careful attention to the stories told by nationals. When nationals relate anecdotes and experiences, they can be trying to tell foreigners what cultural cues they have missed, hinting at what they are doing wrong without causing the foreigners to lose face. Further, attentive listening helps cross-cultural workers earn the right to be heard themselves, and gives them a platform from which to speak.
Andres, Tomas D. 1987. “Human Relations Filipino Style.” Philippine Values Digest 1(4): 9-16.
_____. 1989a. “How to Communicate Effectively.” Philippine Values Digest 3(3): 13-22.
_____. 1989b. Positive Filipino Values. Quezon City, Philippines: New Day Publishers.
_____. 1991. “Conflict Management in the Philippine Setting.” Philippine Values Digest (4): 12-19.
De Mesa, Jose. 1979. And God Said, “Bahala na!” Quezon City, Philippines: Maryhill Studies.
Feliciano, Evelyn, M. 1990. Filipino Values and Our Christian Faith. Manila: OMF Literature, Inc.
Hechanova, Leila. 1989. “Filipino Values Related to Interpersonal Communication.” Philippine Values Digest 3(3): 34-42.
Jocano, F. Landa. 1999. Management and Culture. Rev. ed. Manila: Punlad Research House, Inc.
_____. 2001. Working with Filipinos. Manila: Punlad Research House, Inc.
Maggay, Melba P. 1999. Understanding Ambiguity in Filipino Communication Patterns. Quezon City, Philippines: Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.
Kimberly F. Snider, PhD, lives in the Philippines and has served as a missionary with Assemblies of God World Missions since 1988. She is director of publications for Asia Pacific Media Ministries and works as adjunct faculty for Asia Pacific Theological Seminary.
Richard L. Starcher, PhD, lived and worked for twenty years in three African countries, where he and his wife, Marcia, raised their three children. He is associate professor of Intercultural Education in Biola University’s Cook School of Intercultural Studies and editor of Missiology: An International Review.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 176-183. Copyright © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.