04 September 2020
I uploaded a Blog article on UNDERSTANDING PHILIPPINE CULTURE on 19th December 2019. Friends who have read it have since asked for additional material on why we do what we do, so I have decided to write a follow-up article on Philippine Culture. /1/
In my previous piece, I argued that stereotypical random traits of Filipinos can be grouped together to form trait orientations. For example, makibahagi (take part) and makisama (go along), both deemed highly desirable attributes, can be subsumed under the bigger value orientation of smooth interpersonal relationships. Without categories, we will have a list of a hundred traits--what to do with them? I then used the orientation of Collectivism vs Individualism, positing that Filipinos are extremely collectivistic—we are family and group-orientated, loyal, accommodating, cooperative, interdependent, respectful of hierarchies, i.e., possessing various qualities which define collectivism.
We are not alone in being collectivistic, but unluckily, we are also a poor country. Without the Confucian work ethic of the likewise collectivistic Chinese, especially their perseverance and thrift, it is difficult for us to rise above poverty. Instead, our hierarchical structure and highly skewed income distribution have given rise to a system of patronage. Along with it, I discussed the issue of corruption and how we can mitigate it through changes in structures that we ourselves can devise--perhaps as business manager, civil servant, or even as householder.
In the present article, I will focus on what it is we want to achieve. Cultural traits are neither good nor bad, but only when they impede or facilitate the attainment of our goals.
Most psychologists say that if we want to be happy—as I suppose most Filipinos do--we should cultivate close relationships with family and friends. Everyone will agree that we are very much a people people. Additionally, we are charming, friendly, hospitable, generous, and are a gregarious lot of extroverts. We are arguably the only country in Asia with a sense of humour.
These psychologists also say that spirituality and religiousness protect us from anxiety, enabling us to better handle the vicissitudes of life. If anyone doubts our deep religiosity, they only need visit a Filipino home and see the icons of Mama Mary. Compare us therefore to the UK Minister of Loneliness Tracey Crouch—yes, that rich country has many lonely people--who says, “Nobody should be left alone or be left with no one to turn to.” This almost never happens in the Philippines.
With all these, we should be a happy people, and indeed we generally are! Unfortunately, psychologists also identify poverty as one of the biggest impediments to happiness. Therefore, if our objective is to increase our wealth and perhaps join the ranks of our richer Asian neighbours, then we do have a dysfunctional culture. On wealth measured by per capita GDP, the Philippines at USD3,300 in 2019, ranks 123rd out of 186 countries surveyed.
In his seminal book CULTURE'S CONSEQUENCES, Geert Hofstede asserts that right cultural values are a necessary although not a sufficient cause for economic growth. Two other conditionalities are: the existence of a market, and the existence of a supportive political climate. We do have markets as evidenced by our next door neighbours who have exploited these markets much more successfully. We may lack the political context, but already there are many commentaries about our government’s shortcomings without me adding to them.
As fellow Filipinos, however, both our leaders and us share similar cultural strengths and weaknesses. For instance, we are sensual and visual rather than conceptual, we prefer the concrete over the abstract. Most importantly, we have the same all-consuming focus on personal relationships. Because of our inability to depersonalise activities and our dislike of abstract ideas, we are weak in planning, and in creating systems and procedures. As proof, we only need to read all the complaints in social media about the inefficiences of those assigned to put planning systems in place in order to respond to the threat of COVID-19, and the similar inefficiences of those tasked to implement these systems.
How to ameliorate them? Perhaps, we should keep organisations small so that spans of control are narrow, and as much as possible, operated on a personal level. Large organisations need bureaucratisation and bureaucratisation needs impersonal systems and procedures. For instance, I feel that federalism as a form of government is better suited for us than our current centrally managed one, if only because federalism has narrower foci of authority. Further, our provincial governments would have higher degrees of autonomy so that we don’t always have to think “nationwide.” It is sad that this idea is being politicised.
Perhaps as important is our extremely short-term orientation, again confirmed in Hofstede’s book. He defines long-term orientation as that which fosters virtues directed towards future rewards, as opposed to short-term orientation with its emphasis on rewards geared towards the present and past. Exhibit 7.1 on page 356 of CULTURE’S CONSEQUENCES ranks the Philippines No. 21 out of 23 countries surveyed in terms of scores on the Long-Term Orientation Index. Some indicators used are hard work, future time outlook, self-reliance, honesty, and accountability. He also cites in particular persistence and thrift./2/ Whilst it is true that some other peoples are much more profligate—think Americans--richer nations have institutional social security systems sorely lacking in the Philippines.
Again, can this short-termism be related to the Bahala Na (come what may) Syndrome—a sense of fatalism that frees us from worrying about the future? The bahala na philosophy will forever trap us in a cycle of poverty. Ideally, as described in my earlier essay, enlightened leadership can build the structures so necessary if we were to change this attitude. Absent this enlightened leadership, we can build our own structures that limit the possible behavioural responses that lead to fatalism.
As an example, my gardener recently asked me for a loan so he could give a salu-salo (party) on the occasion of his baby’s baptism. It was too big an amount--equivalent to a couple of months’ salary. Not only did I say no, but I also said he couldn’t order a lechon (roast pig) and prepare other expensive food. Additionally, he couldn’t have an open house for the whole community—never mind what people will say. As it was close to the end of the month, I instead gave him his salary and together we sat down to fix a much cheaper menu. To ensure he didn’t borrow money from elsewhere, I asked him to share with me a sampler plate of the dishes he would be serving when he came for work the next day.
This exchange would not have been possible in Western, more individualistic countries, but with the hierarchical structure of Philippine society and the large power distance between him and me, he couldn’t complain when I closed avenues he might otherwise have exploited. Also, with our paternalistic values, I had some obligation to disabuse him of the notion preventing him from saving--that money was only truly his once he had spent it.
Naturally, we ideally change attitudes through education and exposure. Filipinos are known for “spoiling” our children. As mothers, we can take a fresh look at our child rearing practices. Many habits are formed during the first five years of life. If we teach our toddlers how to postpone gratification, we are already half-way there. In a best selling book EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE, Daniel Goleman narrates the story of a teacher showing her class a jar of cookies. Those who wanted could have one now, but if they waited for a while until her return—she had to leave the room for a few minutes--they could have two cookies. Thus can a teacher show her pupils that waiting can have its own rewards./3/
Instilling this single character alone will influence the attainment of other inter-connected traits within our orientations. Learning to postpone gratification leads to the development of self-control and therefore self-discipline, then to achievement, self-confidence, and finally, tenacity in the pursuit of our goals.
NOTES: /1/ There are of course caveats within this exposition, including sub-cultures within cultures; relativity of cultural traits (e.g., compared to which other group?); and individual variations within cultures so that we should never judge another person based on their national culture; /2/Geert Hofstede. CULTURE’S CONSEQUENCES, Second Edition. London, Sage Publications, 2001; /3/Daniel Goleman. EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE. London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996.