If you are considering a move to the Philippines, you’ll be interested to know that it is the only country in South-East Asia that was colonised by the West before it had a chance to develop its own government or a distinct culture of its own. Before being colonised, the Filipino archipelago was settled by various migrant groups who arrived from the Asian mainland. The islands were then colonised by the Spanish in 1521, who remained in control until 1898 when the US took over following the Spanish-American War.
The Republic of the Philippines was declared in 1946 when the Philippines became independent politically and economically. Since then, a sense of national identity has been birthed, however for many, loyalty to kin still comes first. Filipino culture has evolved from a mix of influences from Chinese traders, Spanish conquerors and American rulers (it very much still has strong ties to America).
The Spanish left churches, the Muslims left mosques and the Americans left an education system which the Filipino government has since expanded upon. Today the Philippines is leading South-East Asia in education, with some of the highest literacy rates in the region. It’s also one of the only two countries in South-East Asia that is predominately Roman Catholic.
This country of over 100 million consists of a staggering 7000 islands (only 2000 are inhabited though). The main islands are Luzon in the North, Visayas in the centre and Mindanao in the South. Inactive volcanoes and mountains ranges make up most of this archipelago of thousands of islands.
If you’re relocating to the Philippines, some cultural norms may come as a bit of a surprise. First and foremost, be prepared for some hot weather; temperatures don’t usually dip below 15 degrees Celsius at night. When you step onto the tarmac, you’ll be greeted with a wave of warm sticky air that is classic for a South-East Asian country
Unlike other countries in Asia, English is an official language so communication won’t likely be a problem if you are there for a short time- unless you’re looking move longer term and want to feel at home in the culture. And while the culture is generally laid-back and friendly, bartering at markets is expected – so make sure you brush up on your bargaining skills!
Here are 12 cultural norms that you will want to know.
1. There is always time to talk
For locals, people are more important than tasks and there is always time to talk. In fact, people will talk for long periods of time and won’t be in a hurry even if their purpose is to ask for a favour. They will hint indirectly rather than say a direct “no” so it’s important to listen to subtle comments in conversation.
People are typically greeted with a kumusta kayo (hello, how are you?).
People gather over food, markets and basketball, which was introduced by the Americans and it is still a prominent game in the Philippines, with amateur games occurring regularly in neighbourhoods throughout the country.
2. You will be asked for money
Extreme poverty and wealth exist side by side and it’s common to see beggars on the streets and children asking for a few pesos.
3. Pinching children on the cheek is affectionate
Although gaining its independence in 1946, the Americans left many influences in the Philippines, such as standards for beauty, including a preference for fair skin. It’s common for people, especially older women, to pinch the cheeks of young children, and even more so if they have fair skin. If you have children, it may be worth preparing them for this and explain that it is an affectionate gesture.
4. Arriving late is normal
It’s completely acceptable to arrive an hour or two after the designated arrival time and this is frequently referred to as ‘Filipino time’. However, locals will arrive on time for business meetings and official appointments.
5. It’s ok for people to comment on your weight
Try not to be offended if locals comment on your body shape or ask you direct questions. If someone says, “You’ve put on weight”, it’s not meant to be offensive.
6. Privacy is low on the list of importance
With large families living in small homes, privacy is usually not something that is sought after. The Philippines is a collectivist society, meaning the wishes of the group come first and individuals work hard for the benefit of the wider group. Possessions are frequently shared and the welfare of the family is more important than an individual’s need for personal space or time alone.
7. Friendliness and hospitality are highly valued
Filipinos are generally warm and hospitable. If you’re staying for a decent length of time you’ll likely be invited to a local feast or celebration. It’s common for strangers to be willing to talk to you and want to exchange stories of their family and hometown.
8. Older people are respected
Social hierarchy is based on age and status and it is often expressed in speech. Children are raised to show respect to their elders and it’s expected that they will use titles of respect for those older than them. If you are speaking to someone older than you but in the same generation, you can use the term kuya (for males) and ate (for females). Although these terms don’t have an English equivalent, calling someone kuya or ate is similar to older brother and older sister.
9. Avoiding shame is a common motivator
It’s called hiya and it roughly translates into shame or embarrassment. It won’t take you long to notice that respect is important to Filipinos and that one of the more serious blunders you can commit is embarrassing someone or causing them to lose face. In an effort to save face, locals will avoid direct criticisms and compliment others regularly. But don’t be alarmed, it won’t be difficult to find things to compliment during your stay as Filipinos are hospitable and will go to extreme lengths to make you feel welcome and comfortable.
10. English is an official language however, learning the national language of Filipino will gain you respect
The Philippines is linguistically diverse with over 120 languages spoken across the archipelago. Filipino (a form of Tagalog) is the official language and is used in education across the country. English is also an official language and is used in some government settings.
You may be able to get around with only English, but don’t expect everyone to understand you.
11. Loyalty is always first for family
In the Philippines, life revolves around the family and there is strong loyalty for one’s family and place of birth.
Family members gather for ceremonies and celebrations (Baptisms for Catholics, circumcisions for Muslims) and marriages, birthday parties and religious and national holidays.
Food is an important part of celebrations, with the meal built around steamed rice or rice noodles with small amounts of meat and an assortment of fruits and vegetables. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try balut, a boiled embryonic duck still in its egg, popular in the capital city of Manila.
12. Reciprocity with favours is expected
Utang is another Filipino value which doesn’t have an English equivalent, but it roughly means having a sense of indebtedness to someone who has done you a good turn and wanting to repay them out of gratitude. It’s more than just the Western concept of owing a favour however, utang is deeply personal and stems from its collectivist culture. If you can return a favour, it’s worth the time and effort to do so.
Although we have several tips listed here, respect for locals and a friendly disposition would have to be at the top when it comes to fitting in and becoming part of a Filipino community.
I’m an educator and writer living abroad. I love languages, experiencing different cultures and going on adventures with my family.