As I decided and finally typed the title of this essay, I figured I was going to get a ton of flak because Filipinos are overly sensitive about this topic — and almost every little, insignificant thing. But I implore you to put down your pitchforks for a moment and listen. I am a Filipino and if you’re one too, I can understand why your blood is boiling right now. Apart from being hospitable, we should be nationalists too, right?
Lots of things get lost in translation and most of the things we consider as tradition, we accept without questioning. Why? Because that’s been how Filipino children were raised ever since — and any attempt to change it is often met with disdain.
As kids, we were told to always respect our elders. We were asked to perform a number of gestures and incantations — be it grabbing their hands and having it touch our foreheads, to saying po and opo whenever we have elders in our presence. But did we ever stop and ask ourselves why?
There are many ways of showing respect and the ones I mentioned above need not be the be-all and end-all. At the same time, I am not saying there’s anything wrong with this custom but when it’s done by force — imposing it mandatorily—it loses its meaning and conditions children to become passive individuals following orders blindly.
And I think this is the problem. Through generations, most Filipinos have been raising their children this way. By following what their parents tell them to do lest getting a spanking. Children need guidance, not commands. A child who grows up following commands mindlessly — without getting the chance to think and decide for him or herself — carries this approach towards adulthood.
When we give unquestioning respect, we condition ourselves to become unassertive — doing things without meaning but out of sheer convention or fear of getting a whacking. We carry it until our adolescence and — with our tails between our legs — we give it to anyone with a higher rank — most of the time to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
This translates to subservience or the ever audible Sir and Ma’am everywhere you go. I’ve been a manager for quite some time and this disturbs me far more than it makes me feel great and all powerful. A previous company I worked in had expats as interns and I cringed every time a local — with clearly a higher position — addressed them as Sir or Ma’am with their heads tilted downwards.
And this is why foreigners love staying in the Philippines. They feel loved. They feel respected. We call them Sir and Ma’am and attend to their long list of needs and wants without question and in haste.
This needs to change. Let’s drop the titles and just call people by their first names — local or not, Filipino or foreigner. I don’t think there’s anything disrespectful to that. I spent part of my teenage years in Australia and never did I hear anyone one call the teachers by their name prefixed by either Sir, Ma’am, or Teacher. If anything, they called them by either their first names or their surnames prefixed with a more appropriate Mister or Miss.
If we are to progress as a nation, we need to eliminate this subservient mentality. I know how it’s a lot easier said and done so I call out to the leaders and the ones on the top. Make it a point to encourage dissent in your organizations. Let everyone speak up and have their ideas be heard. Only by conditioning our people that every decision doesn’t need to come from the top will they emerge as proactive and assertive — which I think is a win-win for any organization.
Ah, my ever favorite topic! As Malcom Gladwell discussed in his book Outliers, PDI (or power distance index) is the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. It’s so significant that it can influence and cause a very able first officer to hold back his opinions leading to a commercial plane to crash.
I’ve seen this again and again in different organizations but mostly in classrooms. The teacher unknowingly mentions something wrong yet no one is confident or comfortable enough to call him out for it. And there’s a clear negative side to all this. In organizations, someone usually identifies a problem but then is too fearful to say anything to avoid the risk of her getting on the bad side of the boss. The Philippines scored a whopping 94 in PDI and here, passivity — more than anything — is the standard.
Water cooler talk becomes the norm since people feel powerless to do anything. They talk about their problems and concerns hoping someone within that group has enough courage to do something about it. But it is with water cooler talk that people’s expectations are set incorrectly. It’s always best for issues to be raised in the open where it can actually get addressed.
There are many steps families and organizations can take to eliminate or somehow keep subservience in check.
There is nothing wrong with greeting a foreigner with just a Good morning — dropping the Sir and the Ma’am entirely. I know people will have their reservations with completely dropping the use of po and opo so what we do in our family instead is teach our kids to speak in English — eliminating the need for the magical incantations. As I’ve mentioned, there are many ways one can show respect, and perhaps love. In our home, we encourage the kids to give out as many hugs as they can which I think carries more meaning.
Encouraging dissent in the workplace reaps a ton of benefits but I can understand how most authorities would instead exploit a subservient workforce to their advantage. But think about it: not welcoming dissent is actually a sign of weakness and insecurity. Just like a parent who resorts to raising his voice when he can’t think of something to reply to a child who is merely trying to make a point. As an aside, you immediately put a wall between you and your employees when you allow them to call you Sir or Ma’am.
What I usually try to do is play a game where anyone who calls me or prefixes my name with a Sir gets penalized and pays a small amount. We then use the collected amount at the end of the month to spend on food or whatever the team fancies. Do take note that it won’t work right away but after calling their boss by their first name a couple of times, they get more and more comfortable and ultimately get used to it. This then translates to making them feel more at ease when speaking their minds.
I’ve always considered transparency and openness as keys to eliminating the subservient mindset. When an organization or a household fosters transparency and not just welcomes everyone’s ideas but actually goes out of their way to ask for them, people will naturally speak their minds and it is within this kind of environment people can thrive and contribute organically to the organization’s overall success.
I will conclude by saying Filipinos are actually hospitable but for the most part, it’s inauthentic. Would we rather be known as hospitable people yet in the back of our minds, we have our reservations? Unless we become aware of this and start treating ourselves with some respect, I honestly think it will be hard to progress. Wouldn’t it be better if other people describe Filipinos as hospitable yet at the same time respectable and won’t — at any time — hold back on their opinions and beliefs? I believe this is a goal worth pursuing and a goal worth having to get out of our comfort zones.