Footprints

For Cultural Hybrids Seeking Home

MIRROR TO OURSELVES

04 September 2020

In my previous writings on understanding Philippine culture, I had argued that we could list stereotypical traits of Filipinos ad infinitum.  But if we hope to really understand ourselves, we have to group them into meaningful categories.  For example, Filipino management style can be broken into their multifarious complementaries.

 

Most recently, I used the individualism-collectivism continuum, citing that, for example, makibahagi (take part), makisama (go along), and bayanihan (concerted effort) can be subsumed under the bigger value orientation of Smooth Interpersonal Relationships (SIR).  Filipinos are known for their SIRs.  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.  The Chinese, Japanese, and many other east and southeast Asian cultures are likewise collectivistic in varying degrees.  Is collectivism then a desirable stereotypical trait orientation?

Cultural traits are neither good nor bad, but only functional or dysfunctional depending on whether they impede or promote the attainment of our goals.  In this article, I will focus on what it is I think we want to achieve, and how helpful or destructive selected collectivistic values.

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, warm, 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 deeply traditional 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 said, “Nobody should be left alone or be left with no one to turn to.” This almost never happens in the Philippines. In fact, many pundits claim that there is currently an epidemic of loneliness in rich, individualistic Western countries.

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.

Without the corresonding Confucian work ethic of the Chinese, especially their perseverance and thrift, and without the industry, honesty, and discipline of the Japanese, it is difficult for us to rise above poverty.  Instead, our heirachical structure and highly skewed income destribution have given rise to a system of patronage, which in turn contributes to endemic corruption.

In his seminal book CULTURE'S CONSEQUENCES, Geert Hofstede asserts that right cultural values are a necessary but not a sufficient cause for economic growth. Two other conditionalities are: the existence of a market, and the existence of a supportive political climate. That we do have markets is 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.

Both our leaders and ourselves share similar cultural strengths and weaknesses. For instance, we are sensual and visual rather than conceptual:  our talents for visual and performing arts are known the world over. We also 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, which by their very nature are impersonal and abstract. As proof, we only need to read all the complaints in social media about the inefficiencies of those assigned to put planning systems in place in order to respond to the needs of the country, and the similar inefficiencies of those tasked to implement these systems.  Instead, we substitute creative ad hoc solutions, the better if we have familiar faces we can attach to them.  Hence, the who-you-know syndrome.

How to ameliorate them? Instead of changing values to fit structures, what if we also change structures to fit values?  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.  Moreover, our provincial governments would have higher degrees of autonomy so that we don’t always have to think “nationwide,” an outlook beyond the ken of most of our leaders. It is sad that the idea of federalism is being politicised and the devolution of power to local governments is discouraged by an overly strong central control.

As important is our extremely short-term orientation, again confirmed in Hofstede’s book.  He ranks the Philippines No. 21 out of 23 countries surveyed in terms of scores on the Time Orientation Index. Some indicators used are hard work, future time outlook, self-reliance, honesty, and accountability. He also cites persistence and thrift./2/  Whilst it is true that some other peoples are more profligate—think Americans--richer nations have institutional social security systems sorely lacking in the Philippines.

This short-termism can be related to the Bahala Na (come what may) complex—a sense of fatalism that frees us from worrying about the future. Bahala na 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 still build our own structures to limit our subordinates' 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 day after the salu-salo.

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.

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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.