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Filipino Culture

https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/filipino-culture/filipino-culture-core-concepts#filipino-culture-
core-concepts
Core Concepts
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Hospitality
Hiya
Modesty
Courtesy
Warmth
Respect
Kapwa
Fatalism

Located between the South China Sea and Philippine Sea, the Republic of the Philippines
contains a diverse set of landscapes, languages and cultures. Various countries – such as Spain,
China and the United States – have interacted with and impacted Filipino culture. A sense of
national identity and pride emerged out of struggles for Philippine independence. However,
loyalties remain foremost with one’s family and place of birth. Key values such fellowship,
respect and acceptance are found throughout the culture, with many Filipinos displaying a
warming and hospitable demeanour.

Geographic and Linguistic Diversity


The Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands, of which approximately 2,000 are inhabited.
The islands are categorised into three main clusters – namely Luzon in the north, Visayas in the
centre and Mindanao in the south. The island clusters vary in terms of cuisine, languages and
culture. One of the main distinctions is in respect to religion. The population in the northern
islands generally identify as Christian while it is much more common to find those who identify
as Muslim in the southern parts of the Philippines.

The country is also linguistically diverse, with eight major dialects and over 170 languages
spoken throughout the inhabited islands. The official language of the Philippines is Filipino,
which is mainly Tagalog (the dialect from central and southern Luzon) combined with words
from various other languages. For example, English is widely spoken throughout the Philippines,
and it is common to hear Filipinos use a mixture of English and Tagalog (known informally as
‘Taglish’) in everyday conversations. Depending on their location, Filipinos may not speak the
national language. As a way to retain their local identities, many Filipinos will often choose to
speak in their regional languages and dialects. Indeed, it is common to find Filipinos who are
from different parts of the Philippines conversing in English rather than in Filipino.

National and Local Identity


Given the diversity of the Philippines, the unifying element of Filipino culture is a complex
matter. A sense of national identity emerged out of the long standing struggle for
independence. In contemporary Philippines, many Filipinos are acutely aware of the colonial
history of their country. For example, José Rizal, a national hero in the struggle for Philippine
independence, is a highly revered and well-known figure whom many Filipinos look up to as a
role model of a virtuous person.

However, the sense of a national identity is fragile, with loyalty residing firstly to their kin
group, province or municipality. The Philippines is a collectivist society and individuals tends to
understand themselves as a part of a group. For Filipinos, the interests of the collective often
override the interests of the individual. Filipinos generally feel a strong sense of pride towards
their group and will celebrate their pride through sharing stories or facts about their family,
barangay (village) or town.

The long history of contact with Spain and the United States continues to have a significant
impact on the Filipino identity. One example is the influence of American standards of beauty,
which are often measured in the Philippines by the possession of Western physical traits – such
as fair skin and curly hair. Another example is the prominence of Christian ideology since the
introduction of Christianity by the Spanish. Indeed, when compared to other countries on the
Asian continent, the Philippines has one of the highest Christian populations.

Social Interactions and ‘Hiya’


Social hierarchy in the Philippines is determined according to age and social status. Nearly all
Filipinos are taught from an early age about the importance of the underpinning social
hierarchy. Gestures, terms of address and communication styles vary depending on who one
interacts with and their relative positions in the social hierarchy. For example, it is expected
that, if you are referring to someone who is older than you but within the same generation, you
use the terms kuya for males and ate for females (for example, ‘Ate Jess’). Failing to do so is
considered highly disrespectful and a lack of acknowledgment of the established hierarchy.

Kapwa (fellowship or togetherness) is a core value that explains Filipinos’ interpersonal


behaviour. The term generally refers to a shared identity whereby people bond together
despite differences in wealth or social status. Kapwa is related to the collectivistic nature of
Filipino society. It is believed that, what is good for one person will be good for the collective
and ought to be is shared with fellow people. Being branded as not having any kapwa is an
insult as it implies that the person does not belong to a community.

The concept of ‘hiya’ is also one of the underpinning factors influencing how Filipinos behave
and interact with others. While hiya translates roughly into English as ‘shame’ or
‘embarrassment’, on a deeper level it refers to one’s sense of self, propriety and respect.
Filipinos may be more motivated to succeed by a fear of shame rather than fear of failing the
task at hand. To avoid experiencing shame, they may try to give face to those around them
through complimenting them and avoiding direct criticism. Individuals will often try to be
generous and hospitable to avoid hiya and to maintain kapwa.

Warmth and Acceptance


Filipinos are usually very warm and friendly people who enjoy conversing with those around
them. It is common to find strangers engaging in conversation or sharing stories to family,
friends or foreigners about their hometown, family or country. Filipinos are often expressive
and sentimental while maintaining a light-hearted demeanour. For example, the word ‘hugot’
(‘to pull out’) is often used to describe someone drawing out deep sentimental memories or
experiences. Indeed, Filipinos are often willing to share stories of their past that may be
considered personal.

Alongside their warming and light-hearted demeanour, the general approach to life is of
acceptance. ‘Bahala na’ (come what may) captures the strong belief among many Filipinos that
whatever may happens is a part of God’s will. Any individual or group success is often
attributed to fate or God rather than efforts. This indicates a fatalistic attitude throughout
society whereby Filipinos are generally accepting of theirs and others circumstances. However,
this does not mean Filipinos are passive. Rather, they are hardworking and will often do their
best to help themselves and their family.

Greetings
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How one greets is determined by the age and relationship of the people.
When greeting strangers, a soft handshake accompanied with a smile is common among men.
Among women, a smile and a hand wave is the usual greeting.
Close friends and family may accompany a handshake with a pat on the back. Females may hug
and kiss to greet each other.
Typically, people greet each other by saying, ‘kumusta kayo’ (‘how are you?’ in Tagalog).
If the person you are greeting is older than you but within the same generation, it is expected
that you will refer to that person as 'kuya' for males and 'ate' for females. These terms do not
have direct translations into English.

Mano
The common gesture used to greet is known as ‘mano’, often referred to as ‘bless’ in English.
Mano is performed as a sign of respect towards elders and as a way of accepting a blessing
from the elder. It is usually done towards those who are older by two generations or more. For
example, a niece will perform the mano gesture to her aunt. Similar to kissing a hand, the
person offering a mano will bow towards the offered hand and press their forehead on the
hand. Sometimes they will ask ‘mano po’ to the elder in order to ask permission to perform the
gesture. It is usually performed when visiting an elder or upon entering a house or gathering.
Although the mano gesture is still widely used, some Filipinos have replaced the gesture with
the ‘beso-beso’ (a cheek to cheek kiss).

Religion
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The Philippines is unique among its neighbours in the South East Asian region in that the
majority of Filipinos identify as Christian (92.5%). More specifically, 82.9% of the population
identify as Catholic, 2.8% identify as Evangelical Christian, 2.3% identify as Iglesia ni Kristo and
4.5% identify with some other Christian denomination. Of the remaining population, 5.0%
identify as Muslim, 1.8% identify with some other religion, 0.6% were unspecified and 0.1%
identify with no religion. The Catholic Church and state were officially separated in the 1990s,
yet Catholicism still plays an prominent role in political and societal affairs.

According to the 2011 Census, 78.6% of the Philippines-born population in Australia identify as
Catholic. Of the remaining population, 3.5% identify as Christian (nfd), 2.7% identify as
Pentecostal Christian, 2.6% identify as Baptist and 12.5% identify with ‘Other’.

Christianity in the Philippines


There continues to be a process of cultural adaptation and synthesis of Christianity into the
local culture since the introduction of the religion into the Philippines. The denomination of
Christianity that became most embedded in Filipino culture is Catholicism, which was
introduced in the Philippines during the early colonial period by the Spanish. Catholic ideas
continue to inform beliefs throughout Filipino society such as the sanctity of life and respect for
hierarchy. As a branch of Christianity, Catholicism believes in the doctrine of God as the ‘Holy
Trinity’, comprising of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Like most Catholics, many
Filipinos accept the authority of the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church, which is led by
the Pope.

For many Filipinos, the time of ‘fiesta’ is an important event within the community. During the
Catholic event of fiesta, the local community comes together to celebrate the special day of the
patron saint of a town or ‘barangay’ (village). It is a time for feasting, bonding and paying
homage to the patron saint. Houses are open to guests and plenty of food is served. The fiesta
nearly always includes a Mass, but its primary purpose is a social gathering of the community.
On a day-to-day level, Catholic iconography is evident throughout the Philippines. Indeed, it is
common to find churches and and statues of various saints all throughout the country.
Moreover, many towns and cities are named after saints (for example, San Miguel [‘Saint
Michael’] located in Luzon and Santa Catalina [‘Saint Catherine’] located in Visayas).

In terms of other Christian denominations, there is a strong presence of Protestant traditions in


the Philippines, in part due to the United States colonisation of the country. Many teachers
from the United States were Protestants who were responsible for instituting and controlling
the public education system of the country. As such, they had a strong influence over the
Philippines, particularly with the dispersing of Protestant attitudes and beliefs. The Philippines
also contains a number of Indigenous Christian Churches, such as the Iglesia Filipina
Independiente (Independent Philippine Church) and Inglesia ni Kristo (Church of Christ). These
churches are usually popular among the marginalised in society who feel disconnected from the
Catholic Church.

Islam in the Philippines


Islam was introduced to the southern Philippines from neighbouring countries in Southeast
Asia. The religion rapidly declined as the main monotheistic religion in the Philippines when the
Spanish entered the country. In present day Philippines, most of the Muslim population in the
Philippines reside in the southern islands of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan. Contemporary
Muslim Filipino communities are often collectively known as Moros. Most Moros practice Sunni
Islam, while a small minority practice Shi’a and Ahmadiyya. Like Catholicism, Islam in the
Philippines has absorbed local elements, such as making offerings to spirits (diwatas). All Moros
tend to share the fundamental beliefs of Islam, but the specific practices and rituals vary from
one Moro group to another.

Family
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Family is considered to be the foundation of social life for most Filipinos. The nuclear family is
the core family unit, however bonds are often tight knit among extended family members.
Indeed, people may be encouraged to have a relationship with their aunts and uncles that is
just as strong as the relationship with their parents. Close familial relationships often go beyond
one’s genetic connections or bloodlines to incorporate distant relatives, close neighbours or
friends. For example, it is common to hear people refer to distant relatives or non-relatives with
familial terms such as ‘tita’ (aunt), ‘tito’ (uncle), ‘lola’ (grandmother) and ‘lolo’ (grandfather).
One instance is when a grandchild refers to their grandparent’s friend or cousin as lola or lolo.

Filial Piety
Filial piety is an important concept in Filipino culture. It is understood as essential in order to
maintain the collective face of the family and to avoid experiencing hiya (see Social Interactions
and Hiya in ‘Core Concepts’). Many Filipinos hold the belief that each family member has
several duties and responsibilities they must uphold. Observing one’s duties and responsibilities
is important in order to correctly respect others and to ensure harmony among family
members. For example, family members are required to show respect to their elders at all
times. The opinions of younger family members’ and children’s opinions are considered to be
secondary to their superior. Moreover, those requiring age care are nearly always taken care of
by their children or grandchildren.

Household Structure and Transnational Families


In a Filipino household, it is common to find three generations living together. Often,
grandparents play a large role in raising their grandchildren. Extended family will often live
relatively close to one another and will come together during large celebrations. It is common
to find families in the Philippines that have some members who return to their family home
during weekends after spending a week in major cities for work or study.

Since the 1970s, the Philippines has been exporting labour abroad, with some members
engaging in paid labour abroad while many remain in their home town or village. This means
that many Filipino families are spread across the world. Filipino society has widely adapted to
the change in family structure. Some parents will leave their child in the Philippines in order to
seek labour abroad to better support their family left behind. In turn, they will send back
remittances to their parents or siblings who have been given the duty of caring for the child. It
is also common to find aunts, uncles and godparents taking care of their nieces, nephews or
godchildren, by sending remittances back to the Philippines in order to pay for their education.
Those living abroad with left behind families will attempt to see their family once a year by
returning home to the Philippines during their break from work in another country. This can be
particularly difficult for those with children or elderly parents in the Philippines. In order to
support their families in the Philippines, Filipinos abroad will send a ‘balikbayan box’, containing
various items such as clothing, household objects and gifts for their family. In the Australian
context, it can be quite emotionally distressing for some Filipinos in intercultural marriages to
be denied the opportunity to send remittances home or unable to visit their family, as they feel
they are failing to uphold their duty towards their family.

Gender Roles
At times, Filipino society is tagged as patriarchal. This is in part due to machismo attitudes and
the masculine standards of many Filipino men. However, the Philippines is closer to exhibiting a
matriarchal society. The female influence is significant throughout the country, with many
women holding senior roles throughout business and the government. In the household
structure, it is often a matriarch in charge. Generally, the head of the household is usually the
oldest female, often the grandmother (lola). Income from family members are often pooled
together, then the matriarch will look after the family finances.

Dating and Marriage


In the Philippines, dating often comes in stages, beginning with courtship. Typically, a man will
try to impress a female by courting her. If the woman considers the man to be a good suitor,
they will continue dating. Individuals have a significant level of freedom in terms of choosing
marriage partners, although the choice of a spouse may be influenced by the preferences of the
family. In some families, it is expected for the prospective partner to gain approval of their
potential in-laws. However, in urban areas, dating and marriage practices tend to be less
conservative and are becoming more influenced by the West.

Expectations and practices of marriage are heavily shaped by the Catholic Church. Marriage is
understood as a milestone and it is expected that individuals will one day marry a suitable
partner. Having children out of wedlock is generally frowned upon in Filipino society. Thus,
many couples will marry prior to giving birth to their child to avoid social repercussions.
Monogamy is the norm and divorce is both socially stigmatised and illegal. However, views on
marriage are changing. For example, there is now more acceptance of a person’s choice to
remain single if they wish to be so.

Naming
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The Spanish heritage of the Philippines continues to influence the Filipino naming conventions.
The typical naming format is for someone to acquire their mother’s maiden name as a middle
name, whilst their father’s surname is adopted as their surname (e.g. Maria CRUZ SANTOS).
Sometimes the Spanish format of adding a ‘y’ (‘and’) is practiced in formal events (e.g. Maria
CRUZ y SANTOS).
It is also common for someone to have more than one first name.
Many names in the Philippines are Spanish translations of Catholic saints (such as Miguel for
Michael).
It is also common for sons to adopt their father’s name, thus acquiring the suffix of Junior (Jr.).
Women tend to adopt their husband’s surname, but it not uncommon for a woman to
hyphenate their maiden name with their husband’s surname.
It is common for someone to have a nickname that is often a repeat of a syllable from that
person’s name (e.g. ‘Mon-Mon’ as the nickname for ‘Ramon’). However, this is reserved for
people who are close to the person, such as family and friends.
Another common way to gain a nickname is by the use of diminutive forms of words that
describe physical characteristics. Such nicknames may be given to someone when they are
young and will last with them throughout their life. These nicknames are used by friends and
family to express endearment, rather than as an insult.
If meeting someone for the first time, use the appropriate title along with their whole surname.

Etiquette
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Basic Etiquette
Filipinos tend to dress modestly, especially when in public.
It is expected that the elderly and those of a higher social status are treated with respect.
Given large family sizes and typically small living quarters, Filipinos are generally not demanding
of privacy. Within one family, possessions are typically thought to be communal and shared.
Thus, it is expected to be open about one’s possessions and space.
Many Filipinos avoid blasphemy and cursing as it may cause themselves to lose face.
Filipinos typically have a relaxed approach towards timekeeping and punctuality. It is common
for Filipinos to arrive an hour or two hours after the designated time. This is commonly referred
to as ‘Filipino time’. However, Filipinos will observe punctuality in a formal context such as
important business meetings, appointments or when visiting the doctor.

Visiting
Do not refer to the woman of the house as ‘hostess’ as this has an alternative meaning in the
Philippines that is offensive.
It is common practice to remove one’s shoes before entering someone’s home. The host may
offer you slippers to wear inside the home.
Try to accept any refreshments offered. Refusing them is considered impolite.
To display their hospitality, Filipinos will often use their finest crockery and cutlery when they
have a visitor. It would be polite to comment on it out of acknowledgement for their efforts.
If there is a visitor, Filipinos are reluctant to take the last serving of any shared food served at a
meal.
If someone is eating and someone walks past, many Filipinos will offer the person passing by to
stop and eat. However, this is not a literal offer but rather out of respect.

Eating
Nearly all meals are served with rice. If a meal is not served with rice, it is normally not
considered a main meal but rather a snack.
Many Filipinos eat with their hands or with a spoon and fork. However, they will often try their
best to accommodate for their guests by finding suitable cutlery for their guest.
It is considered rude to lean on one’s arms when present at the dinner table.
Filipinos may allow food to go cold before eating it as they wish to have all the dishes present
on the table before serving.
It is common to leave food at the table just in case someone else arrives or is hungry later.

Gift Giving
Presentation is important, so Filipinos will take considerable effort to make sure their gifts are
well presented and wrapped.
Filipinos will often put a lot of thought into their gifts and will give sentimental, thoughtful
and/or practical gifts.
Gifts are generally not opened when received. Often one will thank the giver and set the gift
aside.

Do's and Do Not's


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Do’s
Observe hierarchical relations determined by age and status. Showing respect is a core part of
Filipino culture and is often demonstrated through speech.
Show an interest into the wellbeing of your Filipino counterpart’s family. In the Philippines,
family is an important component in an individual’s life.
Acknowledge your counterpart’s education and English proficiency. Many Filipinos are fluent in
English. Avoid talking to them in overly simplified English as this may be interpreted as
patronising.
Smile when meeting people. Filipinos are renowned for being joyful people who try to show
warmth where they can.
Compliment people’s efforts and hospitality. For Filipinos, hospitality is an essential component
of interaction and they will often go to extreme lengths to be hospitable to their company.

Do Not’s
Approach questions about income, standard of living or things that would often be considered
personal in Australia with sensitivity. These topics are not always welcomed in discussion.
However, it is not uncommon for Filipinos to ask questions relating to age, work and level of
education to ensure they address you correctly in future interactions.
Avoid directly criticising the Philippines as a country. This may not be well received and
criticisms from a foreigner may be interpreted as an insult.
Do not publicly display signs of anger, raising your voice or shouting in front of those older or
superior to you. Any confrontational or aggressive behaviour may bring hiya (shame or
embarrassment), tarnishing your reputation.
Try not to be offended if your Filipino counterpart makes frank comments about people’s body
shape. Unlike in Australia, it is not considered taboo or rude to make comments such as, “Oh,
you’ve put on weight” or "Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?". Such comments are not
intended to be hurtful, invasive or offensive.
Communication
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Verbal
Indirect Communication: Filipinos often communicate indirectly in order to prevent a loss of
face and evoking hiya on either side of an exchange. They tend to avoid interrupting others and
are more attentive to posture, expression and tone of voice to draw meaning. Speech is often
ambiguous and Filipinos may speak in the passive voice rather than the active to avoid being
perceived as speaking harshly. To find the underlying meaning, it is common to check for
clarification several times.
Communication Style: Filipinos will try to express their opinions and ideas diplomatically and
with humility to avoid appearing arrogant. The tone of voice varies widely by language, dialect
and region.
Refusals: Since many Filipinos try to save face and avoid hiya in their interactions, many will be
overly polite and seldom give a flat ‘no’ or negative response. When conversing with your
Filipino counterpart, try to focus on hints of hesitation. Listen to what they say and also pay
close attention to what they don’t say.
Respect: When speaking to those who are older or of higher status, Filipinos tend to use the
polite forms of speech. At the end of phrases, sentences or questions, they will say ‘po’ to
demonstrate this respect for hierarchy. For example, when conversing with an elder or
someone of higher status, one will say ‘salamat po’ (‘thank you po’).

Non-Verbal
Physical Contact: Among relatives or friends of the same gender, it is common for Filipinos to
walk hand in hand or arm in arm. This is generally done so as a sign of affection, friendship or if
they are shy and would like someone to accompany them. Filipinos tend to be modest and
conservative in their interactions with their significant other, and public displays of affection
among couples (such as kissing or hugging) is quite uncommon.
Personal Space: When interacting with people they are familiar with, Filipinos tend to prefer
standing at an arm's length from one another. Around strangers this distance is farther.
However, in public areas like a market or subway, personal space is often limited and pushing is
common.
Laughter: While Filipinos often laugh in conversations, the meaning of laughter tends to depend
on the situation. At times, laughing may indicate happiness or pleasure, while other times it
may be used to relieve tension. In some circumstances, laughter is used as an attempt to cover
embarrassment.
Pointing: Filipinos may point to objects by puckering their lips and moving their mouths in the
direction they are pointing to.
Gestures: Putting one’s hands on their hips is a sign of anger.
Beckoning: The common way to beckon someone is by gesturing with the hand facing
downwards and waving fingers towards oneself, the same gesture that would represent
‘shooing’ in Australia. If a Filipino wants someone’s attention, it is common for them to make a
sound like ‘pssst’.
Other Considerations
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The Philippines has received a considerable amount of international media attention since the
election of the current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte. The topic of illicit drug use is a
sensitive matter and opinions vary among Filipinos. Although this topic is not taboo, avoid
asserting your opinion in a critical manner. Criticism from foreigners about this topic has often
been negatively received from the Filipino community.
Filipinos can be quite superstitious. There are many taboos and omens that people look out for
and try to avoid. Generally, expatriate Filipinos who are acculturated to Australia will not
believe in many superstitious. While superstitions vary from place to place, some examples
include: do not sweep at nighttime; a pregnant woman should not wear a necklace; a brother
and sister should not marry in the same year; and a single woman should not sing while
cooking.

Business Culture
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Meetings
It is important to be punctual. You can expect a Filipino to be on time when the appointment is
business-related.
Expect people to defer decision making to those in higher ranking positions.
Negotiations often progress slowly as Filipinos like to check in on how everyone feels about a
matter.
The end of a meeting usually consists of social conversation, and it is important that everyone
remains and engages in it.

Relationship Oriented
Personal relationships play a large role in Filipino business culture. Finding a third-party
introduction is a helpful strategy as Filipinos prefer to work with those that they know and
trust. For this reason among others, nepotism is common. It is also favoured that face-to-face
meetings are held when possible as they consider over-the-phone business to be impersonal.

Keep in mind that networking is not done idly in Filipino culture. Personal contacts can be
crucial to success, and therefore Filipinos invest much time and effort into their relationships.
They seek to develop a friendship between individuals, not companies. Therefore, if during
negotiations your company changes the representative who is in contact with them, you may
have to start over in order to cultivate a new relationship and deal.

Filipinos will often be eager to know you and may ask many questions about your family and
personal life. Sometimes this can come across as direct and overly personal, but it is not
intended that way; in fact, they will expect you to do the same to them. They may expect you
to grant privileges for them on the basis of your friendship and vice versa, which usually entail
favours for their family. Try to be flexible in receiving and extending these favours as they will
help you generously in return.
In order to deepen a relationship, be talkative and personable as possible. Avoid appearing stiff
and cold but maintain modesty. The impression you have on a Filipino will largely influence the
decisions they make to the point that their view of you may even override certain business
objectives. For example, price can become secondary to Filipinos if they like their business
partner.

Considerations
Filipino business culture is hierarchical, with the person of highest status approving all final
decisions but group consensus is still necessary for all decisions before it reaches this person.
Verbal agreements are adhered to on the basis of trust. If you break them, you will jeopardise
your business relationships.
Because they can be preoccupied with avoiding hiya (shame or embarrassment), a Filipino is
unlikely to directly refuse a proposal or reject something you say, even when they do not agree
with it. Therefore, focus on hints of hesitation. Listen to what they say, but also pay close
attention to what they don’t say (and might implicitly mean) and double check your
understanding.
To avoid directly saying ‘no’, a Filipino may respond with a statement to the effect of ‘bahala
na’, which generally means that it is up to God’s will or fate.
Appealing to emotion and making exaggerations or promises that sound too good to be true
are likely to make Filipinos hesitant or suspicious of doing business with you.
On the Corruption Perception Index (2017), the Philippines ranks 111th out of 180 countries,
receiving a score of 34 (on a scale from 0 to 100). This perception suggests that the country’s
public sector is somewhat corrupt.

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