A Guide to The Philippines – etiquette, customs, clothing and more…

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Facts & Statistics


philippines-handflagThe Philippines is officially known as The Republic of the Philippines. It is an archipelago, consisting of about 7,641 islands, sprawling over approximately 300,000 square kilometres. These are divided into three major island groups, namely Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.
The Philippines has a population of about 100 million, with about 10 major ethnolinguistic groups and more than 100 tribal groups or indigenous peoples.


Its National Capital Region (NCR) is found in Luzon, and it is known as Metropolitan Manila or Metro Manila. However, this is not to be confused with the City of Manila, which is the capital city of the Philippines. When a Filipino tells a foreigner that he or she is “from Manila”, it is likely that he or she resides in NCR.


Metro Manila is the most densely populated area in the Philippines, with a population of roughly 12.8 million. It is composed of 16 independent, highly urbanized cities, and 1 independent municipality.
Officially, the Philippines is a secular state. However, Christianity is the prevalent religion, and over 80% of Filipinos are Roman Catholics. This is followed by Islam, with most of the Muslims residing in the provinces of Mindanao.


The Philippines currently holds the 20th spot on the Happy Planet Index (HPI), a definitive ranking of the happiest countries in the world.
In 2014, Makati City was dubbed the “Selfie Capital of the World” as a result of TIME magazine’s study over social media platform, Instagram. The Philippines also topped a 2016 study by We Are Social, in terms of time spent on social media daily and time spent on the Internet in general.


Local Culture & Language


Although the Philippines is located in Southeast Asia, its people are commonly deemed to be significantly “less Asian” than those from other Asian countries. This is due to the myriad of inhabitants the country has had throughout the years, including Chinese, Malay, and Islamic peoples to name a few. The Philippines prides itself in its rich cultural history, influenced most notably by Spanish and American colonialism. In a sense, Philippine culture can be said to be a marriage of the East and the West.


Spanish influences on Philippine culture are most evident when it comes to religion and religious practices. As the slogan suggests, “It’s more fun in the Philippines”. Numerous “fiestas” or religious festivals are celebrated year-round, mostly in honour of their respective patron saints. Fiesta celebrations involve whole communities, with locals decking the exteriors of their houses in crops and decorations and opening their homes to neighbours and tourists alike to partake in sumptuous feasts.


In some rural areas of the country, Filipinos are still superstitious despite this clashing with religious beliefs. It is also in these parts that preference is given to alternative medicine and even faith healers called “albularyo”, perhaps due to lack of access to modern hospitals or to avoid incurring the higher costs of seeking professional medical help. At any rate, if the elders swear by it, then it would still be widely practiced by members of their family.


On the other hand, urban life buzzes and thrives in Metro Manila. It is here that the American impact on Philippine culture is evident, what with imported fast food chains and brands. It has also permeated Filipino pop culture, and younger generations are quite familiar with Western trends and ideals.


The official languages in the Philippines are Filipino and English. Filipino is widely referred to as “Tagalog”, as this used to be the country’s national language, being spoken by over half of the population. Aside from Tagalog, there are 18 other recognised regional languages and over 180 indigenous languages.


English is used as the medium of instruction in the educational system. It is also used professionally across different fields, such as business, broadcast media, government, and medicine. 2016 statistics show that 52 million Filipinos are English speakers, and about 36,000 Filipinos named English as their first language. This puts the Philippines in the Top 3 English-speaking countries in the world. People from neighbouring Asian countries often go to the Philippines to learn English.


A popular “language” of sorts is made by frequent code-switching between English and Filipino. This is known as “Taglish”. Taglish is widely spoken in informal or colloquial settings.


Etiquette & Customs


When encountering acquaintances, Filipinos will often touch cheeks or “beso” (from the Spanish term for kiss). The beso is a single cheek-to-cheek kiss, although some would do “beso-beso” or offer both cheeks in more familiar and affectionate relationships. It is more common as a casual greeting for members of the upper class, while it is generally used during family gatherings across classes. Cheek kisses are exchanged between a male and a female or two females, never between two males as in that of Arab countries.


Filipinos typically get awkward when subjected to small talk. When asking “How are you? (Kamusta?)”, be prepared, as you may actually end up in a long conversation instead of the usual exchange of customary pleasantries.


On a similar note, because they love food, a Filipino will often greet you with a “Have you eaten?” or “Let’s eat!” (“Kain!”), whether they simply chanced upon you in public, are meeting you at the office, or inviting you into their home.


When eating at a restaurant in groups, Filipinos will usually order food for sharing or family style. Be observant, as being the first to get food may be seen as rude. It is safe to politely decline or offer the food to others first and then wait until it is offered to you a second time before getting your portion. Similarly, when a last portion or piece of the dish is left, Filipinos will typically wait for one another instead of getting it right away, often ending up in leaving it untouched altogether.


In addition to this, Filipinos are also prone to another kind of “hiya” – best described as shyness or shame in a social context. This guides their decision-making and behaviour, in that they strive to maintain a sense of propriety. For them, failure to do so will shame not only him or herself, but will also be a reflection on their family.


Filipinos are more collectivistic than individualistic, so they regard their family and societal units highly. They will tend to conform in such a way to avoid confrontation and posing inconvenience on others – the concept of “pakikisama”. One who does not practice “pakikisama” will be widely disliked and be deemed as part of an outgroup, instead of being integrated into society.


Filipinos also have a heightened sense of indebtedness or “utang na loob”. This is somewhat an observable norm of reciprocity; when you do a Filipino a favour, they will definitely remember this and come to your aid in the future whether you require it or not.


Business Meeting & Management Advice


Power distance is apparent in Philippine culture. This means that subordinate employees generally accept the hierarchy in companies and have no qualms about being told what to do by their superiors. They will more often than not refer to their higher-ups as “Sir” or “Ma’am”, as opposed to being on a first-name basis. Employees of more prominent multinational companies will try to observe a more Western, egalitarian culture. However, do not be surprised if you are still addressed as such out of habit and as a form of respect.


Despite the power distance, managers or bosses are still expected to have a level of cordiality in their dealings. Because Filipinos value interpersonal relationships, they will respond well to positive reinforcement whether verbally or through simple pats on the back. On the other hand, a manager who is too socially detached from his or her team may experience difficulty getting its full cooperation.


As mentioned earlier, food is a huge part of Filipino culture and socialisation, so expect business meetings to be conducted over lunch, afternoon snack known as “merienda”, or dinner. When it comes to meetings, the one who initiated or invited is usually expected to foot the bill. You will also definitely encounter the term “Filipino time”. Punctuality is not one of the Filipinos’ strongest suits, and professionals try their best to shake this notion and make a good impression. However, people you will be meeting with may not arrive until half an hour after the set time. This may irk you, but still arrive on time yourself.


Another word of warning for management and organisational development – Filipinos generally find constructive criticism hard to swallow. What may be an effort to give performance evaluation and feedback to improve performance may backfire, as Filipinos are conscious of losing face, especially in front of their peers, colleagues, or superiors. This brings us back to the concept of “hiya” as mentioned earlier.


At the end of the day, it is best to keep in mind that Filipinos are very social. You will be able to build a professional relationship founded on trust if you show genuine interest in your business partner, colleagues, or employees as a person and not merely resources of the company they represent or belong to.


Relocating / Expat Advice


Aside from the booming business opportunities available, foreigners often find themselves moving to the Philippines due to the promise of its paradise beaches and friendly people. While the country’s allure is undeniable, you must not lose sight of practical considerations for daily living to make the most out of your long-term stay in the country.


When relocating, one of the most pressing concerns for an expat would be housing options and the place of residence. Many expats find subdivisions or residential areas suitable to their lifestyle in Makati City, Bonifacio Global City, and Alabang.


For expats moving with their families, there are safe and quiet neighbourhoods close to private international schools. If you are relocating alone, it is a good idea to invest in a condominium unit. You must also consider the proximity of your residence to financial or to business districts where you will most likely be working, as traffic in Metro Manila is known to be unpredictable and often terrible.


A foreigner may experience difficulty getting around via public transportation (i.e. jeepneys, buses, MRT/LRT). This may also pose safety risks for you, especially if you come off as conspicuous or can be perceived as an easy target for pickpockets or muggers. Taking cabs would be a good option, but be cautious of Filipino drivers who will take advantage of you and hike up the fares. Vehicles hailed through ride-sharing apps on smartphones are abundant, safe, and reliable.


To escape the city and have a change in scenery, you may want to try going on a road trip up north to Baguio City or South to Tagaytay City. For longer trips or holidays, if you wish to visit and experience the different regional cultures, the most recommended method would be to go island hopping in the Visayas area.

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If you’re conducting business in the Philippines you may need assistance with certified translation services or legal translation. Kwintessential are proud of our experienced team of Filipino translators who can help, we also have Spanish translators if necessary. Contact us for more information and quotes now.

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