Series: SIR? Yes Sir!

SIR is the basis on which Philippine Society functions.  It is the very foundation of Philippine Culture.  It is also something that most foreigners don’t understand, even if they try.  I don’t fully understand it, although I have a pretty good understanding of SIR, I think, but there is always a need to learn more about a topic that is so important that it dictates how you need to live your life if you are living the Philippines.  If you can’t grasp SIR to some extent, and at least make some effort to live your life in a way that is compatible with SIR, you probably won’t be very happy Living in the Philippines.

SIR Keeps everybody getting along!
SIR Keeps everybody getting along!

Who is this “SIR” that I am talking about?  Actually, it’s not a person, it is a lifestyle, a culture.  SIR stands for Smooth Interpersonal Relations.  It is the main building block, the foundation of how Philippine Society operates.  “Smooth” being part of the name, let’s say that SIR is the way that things are kept “Smooth” in the society.  SIR dictates how a person should act, how others should be treated, where your place is in society, how to interact with others, just about everything about life in the Society of the Philippines.

Flowers from WowPhilippines

Many foreigners like you and I may just laugh this off, think that the culture of the Philippines is inferior to Western culture, etc.  But, if you plan to live in the Philippines, it’s best to put that attitude behind you, and at least try to adopt to the accepted culture of your new home.  If you choose not to, it could cost you your life in extreme cases.  So, I don’t laugh off SIR, I believe it is something that I should learn more about, and show deference to.

Last year, AmericanLola wrote an article on this site about SIR.  She had been to a conference where Intercultural relationships were discussed, and she told us a little about SIR. For those who don’t know who AmericanLola is, she is an American who lived in the Philippines for over 20 years, as I recall.  She is currently on a sort of haitus from the LiP site, and from the Philippines.  She is back in the States, but she expects to return to the Philippines sometime next year, and I fully expect that she will return to writing on LiP at that time too.

Recently, my teacher, Bebe Metillo gave me two sets of papers about Philippine Culture.  One of the items spelled out the Eight Basic Cultural Values that make up SIR.  The other item she gave me goes into more detail in explaining cultural norms in the Philippines.  When I looked over these materials I immediatley thought back to AmericanLola’s attendence at the conference about SIR, something which I had kind of forgotten about.  I believe that AmericanLola and I may be using the same materials, because AmericanLola also has some relationship with the group that Bebe works with too.  Whether the materials are the same or not, I find this subject to be very enlightening.

Many of the aspects of SIR are things that I already knew about.  But, in reading the materials, I find that new concepts are introduced that I had not understood or thought of before.  This particularly happens when concept A and concept B are then related to each other, which creates a whole new concept.  I may have understood A and B, but never considered how they interacted with each other to create totally new concepts.  In reading these things, I find that I can look back and see how these dynamics were present in different situations that I have experienced in my time living in the Philippines.  I believe that learning this to a deeper extend, and applying these things to my life as much as I can will have a positive effect on my future of living in the Philippines.

So, what are the 8 Basic Cultural Values that make up SIR?

  1. In Group
  2. Ability to get along
  3. Shame, Loss of Face
  4. Debt of Gratitude
  5. Go-Between
  6. Self-Esteem, Self-Worth
  7. Compadre/Kinship System
  8. Time-Event

In the coming series of articles, I will address each of these Values, how they work, and how they interact with each other.  I will also address things that we, as foreigners may not understand.

So, consider this as the first article in a series of articles that I will be writing about SIR over the next couple of weeks.  I won’t write about this every day, some might find the subject boring, but I will write a number of articles on this over time.  If you find that you have questions about SIR, ask away!  If I don’t know the answer, I will ask Bebe about it and will get back to the discussion with her answer.  She teaches the subject in school, after all, so she has expertise on this, and would be happy to share it.

Post Author: MindanaoBob (1345 Posts)

Bob Martin is the Publisher & Editor in Chief of the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine. Bob is an Internet Entrepreneur who is based in Davao. Bob is an American who has lived permanently in Mindanao since May 2000. Here in Mindanao, Bob has resided in General Santos City, and now in Davao City. Bob is the owner of this website and many others.

Live in the Philippines Consulting


  1. says

    Hi Bob great article I have experienced this myself in the years I have been travelling to RP as we say in the west you have to learn to go with the flow and when in rome look forward to the rest of the articles.

  2. says

    Hi Bob- What a terrific topic, now that I'm on my way I'd better start learning and understanding it PDQ.
    I'm sure with you as teacher and your insight we will all benifit from this series in time.
    Thanks again Bob.

  3. says

    Hi Jim Cunningham- I have already studied all of the materials that Bebe gave me, and this is some really good stuff. I hope that I can pass it along in a way that is beneficial to all.

    Hope to see you soon! Have a great trip!

  4. says

    This will be a great addiiton to your contributions here Bob. My wife has mentioned the SIR concept more thna once … as you suggest, many of us foreigners can benefit. There are alot of things in Filipino culture that are not necessarily better or necessarily worse, they are howvere _different_ and if we are going to live here … especially without being upset and angry all the time, it pays to learn how people 'tick'.

  5. says

    Hi Dave- I know that I personally have gone through a time in my living here where I just got mad about all of these kind of things. If I didn't understand it, I just got mad! That helps nobody, especially me! I want to try to adopt some parts of SIR into my own life, but not all. As I recently wrote, I am not Filipino, and no matter what I do I will not be Filipino. So, there are parts of SIR that are not right for me, that I would not even want to add to my life. However, even if I choose not to make it my lifestyle, learning about it, and accepting it are good for me. It sure beats just getting mad because I don't understand it!

  6. says

    Thanks Bob, I really do look forward to your upcoming articles on this subject of SIR. I really hope to develop an understanding of the culture on a deep genuine level since I will one day make Mindanao my new home. I realize the others such as yourself may have had to learn things the hard way so I am thankful I won't have to totally learn all of the things the hard way as this site really is an educational resource. Thanks much for this and your other sites. They have indeed become part of my daily routine.

  7. says

    Hi Dave- Thank you for your kind words. Indeed, as I look back, I learned a lot of things the hard way, or did them the hard way. When I first met Feyma and married her there was no internet in those days, so we corresponded by mail. From the time I moved to the Philippines, there were few online resources in this area, so like you say, I had to learn the hard way. It makes me happy to be able to pass along the things I learned to others so that they can at least get an idea ahead of time. Many hard lessons will still have to be learned, but at least it's a bit easier, I think.

  8. says

    Maayong Buntag Bob
    There are many things I like about the Philippine culture such as respect for the family and respect for others. I know this is intertwined with losing face and yes I feel losing face is taken too seriously at times in the RP. The Philippine culture is one of the things that the more I learn about it the more I realize in need to learn. Looking forward to your articles and learning more.

  9. says

    Hi Bob,

    You said "She [Bebe] teaches the subject in school . . .". I would have thought SIR would have been learned in the home. At what age/school grade do the children start learning this, and for how long? Thanks. Really looking forward to the articles.

  10. Danny says

    Hi Bob,

    I look forward to these upcoming articles..grant it some of the 8 SIRS are self explanatory, but some are not.
    I can't wait…..:)


  11. says

    Hi Larry- Causing someone to lose face is the worst thing to do to a Filipino. It is taken as seriously as life itself, so it is very serious. I expect that this series will run about once or twice a week for 2 months or so, I have lots of information!

  12. says

    Hi John in Austria- For Filipino kids, they learn this in their homes. However, Bebe does not teach Filipino kids. Bebe teaches at a school here in Davao that is exclusively for foreigners, and mostly kids of Missionaries. Under Philippine law, Filipino kids are not allowed to go to this school, because the Dept. of Education only accredits this school for foreigners. The school teaches an American curriculum, and follows the US school year. They have mostly Korean students these days, I hear. So, these kids don't learn SIR in their homes, because their parents also know nothing about SIR. Bebe teaches language and Philippine culture to these foreign kids.

  13. Bob New York says

    This looks like it will be a very interesting and informative series of articles Bob. I believe I have noticed some of these things in my two brief visits there and some may at first appear to be simple and subtle depending on the interests of the observer. Here is just one of my observations.

    The first time I noticed how somone opened up what we might call an " individual " size package of a snack food like potato chips, I had never seen them opened that way, the package was kind of split down the center of the front with the front of the package peeled apart and kept in a horizontal position. Here as you know we generally open the package on the top and keep it in a vertical position for individual consumption, pouring it into a bowl or a plate, or resealing any unconcumed portion for future use.

    Although I did not give it too much thought the first time I saw someone doing this, it is many times small details that I will remember and think about later.

    Seeing this more than once by quite a few people I realized this is how people must open packages like this in The Philippines.

    Before reading your series of articles on Philippine Culture I would like to mention my conclusion of seeing how a package of potatoe chips are opened there and see how accurate my conclusion is.

    My conclusion, the package is opened so the contents are easily shared with others that are present with the concept that the contents of the package are to be completely consumed with none left over.

    This is one of many subtlties I have noticed and remember from my visits there and I look forward to your series of " SIR " articles which will help to define many other cultural differences.

  14. says

    Hi Bob New York- I really got a chuckle when I read your comment. There have been a lot of times that I have wanted to write about how people open a pack of potato chips here, but I always thought it was too simple of a thing to devote an article to! 😆

    You are partially right, I think, Bob. You see, it is almost impossible to open a pack of chips by grabbing the bag and pulling the top open like we do in the States. Somehow the way that the bags are manufactured here, it just doesn't work. It's like the glue is too strong, and no matter how hard you pull, it won't open! From time to time, you find a bag that will open that way, but it is only an exception. So, you have to pull the side open the way you described.

    To be honest, even knowing how the bags are made here, I never considered that it makes it easier for sharing with others. I think you have a good point there, though. Sharing of food or anything that you have is the way things work here, and potato chips would be no different. Indeed, opening the bag the way they do here makes sharing easier!

    Thanks for bringing up a topic that I've been holding back on for a couple of years now!

  15. Graham says

    When i 1st came to the Philippines 10 years ago i was a bit taken aback people kept on calling me sir! Actually it made me feel a bit embaressed and i guess sometimes even now i still feel a bit that way. Back in the UK people never ever called me sir! At first i thought it was peope here just being overly polite becuase i was a foreigner but as time went by i realised that "Sir" was used to Filipinos also. It was a bit of let down to realise it was not becuase i was a foreinger and special! haha.

    I still dont know the proper reaction to be called "Sir" i notice in stores when the staff say "Sir" to a filipino they tend to just totally ignore them, but for me i feel ablidged to say something back out of politness back. But i guess as i have been here for sometime now i tend to ignore sometimes, it can be a pain in the ass when store attendants follow you around a store and say, pants sir! socks sir! how about tie sir! 20% discount Sir haha

    I think i will always be put back a bit when anyone calls me "Sir" but i just had a thought will they still call me "Sir" if i walk around unwashed and wearing torn jeans!

    Good topic….

  16. says

    Hi Graham- Hello Sir! Just teasing…

    I used to be quite uncomfortable when everybody called me "Sir" but I've gotten used to it now. I don't really mind it, but am still more comfortable being simply called "Bob."

  17. hill roberts says

    Hi, Bob, hope you're not yet tired of me. I laughed at some of the comments in your new terrific topic. Indeed, Filipinos in general are very polite, even too polite
    for their own good. The acronym SIR, and the word "sir", or Ma'am, Manang/Manong/Kuya/Ate and the obligatory "opo"—if one addresses somebody
    older, or of authority would find some non-Pinoys confused. But that's how people show respect. If the above bloggers have become my social or personal friends, and Id' introduce all of them to my nuclear and extended families, automatically, the younger ones would start addressing the above as "Uncle John,Dave, Larry, et al. This is typical and literal and imposed implicitly on the
    young Filipnos as a sure sign of proper respect. They do not even need to be told. It is part of life that "opo", yes sir, ma'am, "uncle"–"auntie"–blood-related or not become "Pinoy-speak". Imagine young Filipino kids not replying "opo" to me
    or to some higher authority or to elders, he/she would be "grounded" for days or be "told off" in no uncertain terms that that's the way "it should be…no questions asked…"When I communicate with my nieces and nephews by e-mail, sometimes I'd hate it when they keep replying, non-stop, "opo, tita", when "yes" would do since it is only one syllable, so quicker to type out. But habit is habit,
    and they must show total respect using the word, "opo". Now for the acronym, SIR, I'd love to hear what Bob has to say. No doubt it would be another very interesting interaction. Cheers to all, sirs!"

  18. says

    Hi hill roberts- It's important, though, to remember that "opo" is not "Pinoy speak". It is "Tagalog Speak". I never hear people in Mindanao say "opo" to anybody. That's because "opo" is not used by Bisaya speakers, and that is what you will generally find in the southern part of the country.

  19. malcolm says

    Hi Bob
    I do have some experience of this topic and I can say that if we followed this system more closely in the west as well, we might all get along a lot better. It`s really all about respect for your fellow man.
    All the best

  20. says

    Hi malcolm- That's probably true. I can't speak for the UK, but in America a lot of people long for the kind of culture we had back in the 50's or before where interpersonal relationships were a more important part of our lives. We moved away from that. I wonder… do you think the Philippines will move away over time as well?

  21. Phil R. says

    SIR so that is what it is called , i seen it in the family structure ..and when a foreigner come into a family some times it causes turmoil and maybe not ..?I've seen both sides of the fence so far ..?

  22. says

    Hi Phil R.- I think that a foreigner coming into the family always causes some turmoil. It just depends on how the turmoil is dealt with by the family and by the foreigner.

  23. Phil R. says

    Yea Bob i slid in and made no ripples and everything went very smooth had a good time ..all the adults were sitting on the floor in one room so my wife an i went in and sit down ,then she gets up and leaves me there .??? ohhh i think this is it ..we talked some and they ask questions then her aunt asked me if i want a beer I said no I don't drink beer ,,then some ask y and some ask other questions then her aunt said that jess don't care if I drink beer So I said I do I like sex too much to be drinking beer ..then everybody started laughing after that we had a good time …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>