SIR: A debt of gratitude

Well, it has been a few days, so it seems to be time for another installment in my SIR series.  What is SIR?  If you are asking that, you must have missed my earlier articles!  SIR stands for Smooth Interpersonal Relations, and it is the foundation of Philippine Culture.  In case you did miss my earlier articles in the series, you should check them out:

Series Introduction
In Group
Ulaw or Hiya

For today, we will move on to a new tenet of SIR, Debt of Gratitude.  In Bisaya, this is called Utang Kabubut-on.  In Tagalog is is known as Utang na loob.  Here is how my study materials define this important part of Filipino Culture:

Utang Kabubut-on – “A Debt of Gratitude”

Every Filipino is aware of his sense of duty to those from whom he has received favors.  He is compelled to act in a grateful manner to honor what is considered an important obligation.  The finest compliment one can pay a Filipino is to say that he totally fulfills his obligations.

I believe that in the Western World, we also hold a value very similar to this.  It is just human nature that if somebody does a favor for us, we naturally owe them something in return.  I do not mean that we owe money to the person who helped us, but it is natural that when the day comes when our friend needs a favor, or some help that we could offer, we would do that in return to the person, as a sort of “pay back” for the debt, or the appreciation for what was done for us.

In the Philippines it goes a step, or many steps, beyond that, though.  Utang na loob is very serious, and must be fulfilled.  I have heard of cases in the past where even a small favor that was done years before was held over the head of a person, and the payback was very large.  I have also heard from people here that they don’t necessarily like to receive favors, simply because they never know what will be expected in return.  Anyway, in the Philippines, and especially in more rural Provincial parts of the Philippines, to owe a debt to somebody is a huge responsibility, and it must be repaid at some point.  I am not necessarily talking about a debt of money, even just a favor done, or a kindness can create utang na loob.

In some ways, I wonder, though, if this particular part of the culture is fading.  Why?  I often see signs that such indebtedness is not taken too seriously, or at least as seriously as it was 15 or 20 years ago.  For example, if I give something to a person, often it does not seem to lead toward that person feeling indebted to me, or even to any graciousness from them.  In fact, if often leads to requests for more in the future.  For example, something that is often given here is load, the credit which can be used for using your cellular phone.  They have something here called “Pass a load” in which you can send credit from your phone to somebody else’s phone.  Often, if somebody in my extended family has no load, I will send them some load.  Frankly, it is never repaid to me, and often I don’t even get a “thank you” for that. Even just giving me something simple in return would feel nice to me.  For example, let’s say that I send somebody P50 load, and I do that from time to time for months on end.  Would it be too much that they might bake me some cookies, buy me a cup of coffee or just go out of their way to visit me sometime?  See, these simple things would feel nice to me.  Some people do things like this, but there is also a significant number of people who do nothing in return, but do ask for more when it is needed.  Hmm… is there no utang na loob?

Sending P50 worth of load is just a small thing, and if the kindness is not returned, it is frankly not a big deal, right?  What about bigger things though?  Let’s look at a big example.  I have a niece that I will mention here.  This niece is in her mid-20’s now.  Basically, Feyma and I put her through school, starting from elementary school all the way through one of the better high schools in Davao City.  After high school, we sent her to the best college in Davao for two years.  After two years, she did some things that caused her to loose her free ride.  Even though I offered her some options that would allow her to return to the University and complete her education, she elected not to do so.  Now, after sending her to good schools for more than ten years, wouldn’t you expect that she would feel some debt to Feyma and I?  I would.  However, the only time I ever hear from this girl is if I contact her.  In all of the years that we supported her, I never heard the words “thank you” come from her mouth, nor did I even see actions from her that would indicate that she felt any kind of thanks for what had been done for her.  In fact, many of her actions toward Feyma and I were quite hostile.

This experience, and similar experiences with people here that I have helped make me wonder if utang na loob is considered applicable toward foreigners, or only to Filipinos?  I ask that question very seriously, because in the vast majority of cases where I have helped people there is no indication that the help is even appreciated.  I like helping people, but it does leave me feeling sad when such help seems to be taken for granted, or not appreciated.

What do you think about utang na loob?  Is it a cultural tenet that is fading?  Does it apply toward foreigners?  Does the person who offers help have to “call in the check” before appreciation is given?  Leave a comment and give me your thoughts, I would truly apreciate that.

Post Author: MindanaoBob (1354 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.

49 Ways to Make a Living without a Job


  1. roy says

    Hi Bob, very relevant topic esp round Christmas where everyone is giving. I'd like to take my time to weigh in my thoughts about this but first, can you tell the meaning of the idiom you just used w/c is "call in the check"? Thanks!

  2. says

    Hi roy – "call in the check" means that the person who is owed the favor will ask for the favor to be repaid. For example, let's say that I have done something for you a few years ago, thus you have utang na loob toward me. I might text you and ask you to do something to pay me back.

  3. AussieLee says

    Morning Bob,
    After the first few paragraphs I was thinking to myself that this concept obviously does not apply to money and,second, to foreigners! Well, you then spelled out exactly what I was thinking in sugsequent paragraphs! From my knowldege, I know Philippino's who have not repaid money loans to other Philippino's. I remember the your post many months ago where some local people literally think we walk down the street with $50,000 in our pockets. Consequently, you can understand the reluctance to repay money to westerners. However, a thank-you is free. Values also tend to diminish when people become urbanised. They can "escape" and avoid people more readily than in the old agrarian times.

  4. roy says

    Thanks Bob! Right off the bat, the answer is yes, "the cultural tenet of utang na loob is fading." Has it been there in the first place? :-) I think it's a cliché. Or grossly exagerrated Filipino value. Filipinos like to think that they have this but from what I've experienced is the contrary, at least for the most part or not in the way we hope people should show utang na loob. Before fellow Filipinos disown me, I promise I will support my opinion later. I just have a class in 30 minutes.

    "Utang na loob" is not as structured like in the case of the americans. There's a system that they follow. You do one a favor. Giving thanks is always expected. The dynamics that the american society is quite an egalitarian culture comes into play too. There's pride among people. Even in linguistics, american brand of utang na loob is structured. Hence, you have 'call in the check' expression. I doubt if there is an equivalent expression in Filipino.

  5. brian says

    I was told by a ex pat who lived in Cebu for 15 yrs "never expect anything in return for an act of kindness or money given, to family ,to friends, to beggers…for few have any moral obligation to even utter a word of thanks, because I/you are a percieved rich American" he went on to say exactly what you mentioned….they will only ask for more and if given will come to expect more..and if then denied will turn on you. On a personal note I have been to several Asian countrys and can attest to this..the street beggers (children) in every asian country except the RP always say thank you. It is a rare rare day when I get a thank you in the RP.
    Does this bother me? It used to …but now I have come to expect it and give without condition. Even my pinoy wife is disgusted with this mentality….

  6. says

    Hi AussieLee- Yes, this particular part of SIR is something that intrigues me, and leaves me wondering. I do believe that back in the days when I married Feyma, Utang na loob was a strong force, but it just seems to be fading to nothing.

  7. says

    Hi roy- Your opinion on this is very valuable to me. Because of the fact that you are Filipino, you have a stronger ability to address this issue, and help us understand what it means. Unfortunately, what you describe seems to be pretty much on par with what most of us westerns feel already. I was hoping that we simply didn't understand it,and that another way of looking at it would mean that we could see something that was easier to grasp for us, but it would seem not to.

    I look forward to your further opinions after your class!

  8. says

    Hi brian- What you and your friend describe really mirrors my experiences as well. To even hear "thank you" when you help somebody would really be a nice thing, but hearing that is very rare. I will say, while I have gotten used to it to some extent, it does still bother me. Feyma is like your wife too… she gets disgusted with this.

  9. Phil R. says

    Nice Bob … I run in to this when i was there , I think it is more in the tribal customs .. and as they become more modernized they lose that which makes them different . their customs..and way-of-life ..Utang Kabubut-on.. KIDS who knows ??? Phil R.

  10. Steven says

    I am so use to helping people out back in North America. For example helping someone move some stuff, or pick something up for them, give them a ride, I just do because it is not a big deal to me or really inconveniences me and frankly I don't even think of it as a favor. Just something I do blindly if you will.

    The Philippines is truly an interesting culture that I keep learning about everyday. As for the notion of doing favors here in the Philippines I never consider it as such. But at the same time I haven't really experienced having to do favors for anyone except my Filipino in laws or perhaps giving someone a lift from time to time.

    However, Bob no matter where I might do favors, I never give thought to being paid back tangibly or intangibly. I learned that lesson long ago that helping people must come 100% from the heart and almost be unconscious and never expect anything in return.

    Money lending is something entirely different and I look at from strictly a business point of view.

  11. says

    Hi Steven- I totally agree about doing things from the heart and not expecting repayment or really anything in return. But, when you help somebody with their college education, it would feel good to at least have them treat you nicely, instead of acting like you've never done a thing to help them… that feels frustrating.

  12. Steven says

    You make a good point Bob but i might suggest (at least in my book) that might go beyond the scope of what I might consider a favor. I draw the line with money. That to me changes the equation and creates a circumstance of exactly what you are feeling. Money ruins many things for many people. Even if it is for a little amount. That can often be even worse.

  13. says

    Hi Steven- In the situation about the education, it is not even the money, but for about 7 years having the girl live with us, providing a house for her, all of her food, emotional support, etc. Also like 16 years of financial support. I never expected to get the money back, didn't even want to. But, to be treated nicely, given some respect, and such.. that would make all the difference in the world. 😯

  14. Steven says

    I'm really sorry Bob. That truly su..ks. I feel for you. How selfish she is. I can't imagine that being a cultural thing just common manners and courtesy for any culture. It will come back to haunt her later on in life and she will suffer when someone in her future doesn't take well to her attitude.

  15. says

    Hi Steven- Really, I don't wish anything bad to happen to the girl. She is family, even though she has a lot to learn. What I am saying is that culturally, she is supposed to feel a debt of gratitude, and to try to pay it back (even if not financially), but she seems to have totally forgotten that. So, I agree, it is certainly not cultural.

  16. says

    Hi Phil R.- You are so right. I don't expect any money or anything hanging over a person's head. But, a hug and "thanks for helping me" would really feel nice.

  17. says

    Yet another extremely thought provoking post Bob!
    My experience of this aspect of the Filipino has been interesting.
    When Hana and I set up house with her Nanay; an uncle loaned us a 'Ref' (refrigerator). This ref was a spare, not being used; but twice I was asked to pay something for the loan. i.e. rent. (not a huge amount but significant enough). The debate on this subject only ended when I pointed out that I was paying for everything in the house and no one had done us any favours towards this apart from lending us the ref. Suddenly the subject was never mentioned again. I was not concious of utang na-loob just common sense.
    In the case of one expat friend is a salient lesson in trouble one can run into. 'Pat' was in PI for 2 years courting his sweetheart before marrying her a year ago.
    Being on a generous pension plan from the States, 'Pat' went from the solo party life to domestic bliss and to make his wife happy he put the amount he was spending before into her purse. Being disconnected to normal life here 'Pat' did not immeditely realise he was giving his wife the equivalent of 15 full time wages. A baby came, money became a priority for 'Pat; after 3 years in the Philippines he sat down and did a budget.
    It turned out there was P10,000 a week which could not be accounted for.
    His wife had been secretly supporting her family; under her sense of obligation, having this huge amount of money given to her without question, how could she not share her good fortune?
    'Pat' had been knowingly helping also; he was greatly offended that his wife could betray a trust. This has now developed into a full blown rift with the family; including a lot of lost face over 'Pat's' reaction.
    If there is one tradition here expats need to avoid it's the one of giving all of your money to your wife. It can be taken for granted she will have a huge sense of debt to her family which she will feel obliged to pay once the needs of the home are met. If she needs to justify her action she will say "I'm just trying to help people who helped me; without them I wouldn't be here. Besides that how much money are you wasting at the bars?"
    Utang na loob can have huge consequences and needs a strategic approach.
    I have found that if I follow the basic principles of supporting my wife properly, always taking a snack when visiting and always offering food to guests things go reasonably smooth.

  18. says

    In America I would always show appreciation to someone who did me a favor. For instance I had a friend who was a Master Mechenic. He would do my brakes, take the parts to work to be ground and then come home and complete the job. He then would only charge me for the parts. I would always take him and his wife out for dinner.

    Here we had a nephew who borrowed money for trainning at a possible job. He then quit and moved back to his family in Surago. Now the only time I hear from him or his sister is to remind me their birthday is close. I replay back, Happy Birthday.

    From reading your article, I wonder if we are seen as "Rich Foreigners" and repayment or Utang Kabubut-on is not to be paid.

  19. Danny says

    Kamusta Bob,

    Of course, not living there and seeing for myself..I am not sure if this is practiced still or not..sounds like it is not. But I would expect there are some families there that would still feel the need to repay a debt, if possible, be it money, and some form of a thank you.
    But to me as someone has said before, I would think that most filipino would perceive you as being a "rich American", and probably think you don't think the things you have given them or lent to them, is that big of a deal to you, and that you have an endless amount of money at your disposal.
    I too like to be generous when possible and help people, but I usually wouldn't help that person twice, if I knew they did not appreciate it.
    Just another lesson learned living there in the Philippines. I have heard Rose speak of this a little before. I am not sure this is in the same "ball park", but she had mentioned before about neighbors that were rude and mean to others in the barangay there, that even if that person or a family member were to pass away, neighbors and sometimes family would not attend the funeral.


  20. neil says

    Hi Bob
    I think utang na loob is really dying in the Philippines. I really believe it was more prominent in the rural areas especially where a few wealthy families operated from. I think as people move into the cities or work for big companies utang na loob is really a thing of the past. I think it is more important for common sense, that if someone does a favor for you, that you say thank you or write a card showing your appreciation. I do believe that being a foreigner that for some Filipinos who do not show much appreciation or any at all is because they think we can afford the things we give to them, so no big deal. I really believe that the culture is changing in the Philippines.
    I've had this discussion with my gf. I said to her that the reason it is part of Filipino culture to support their parents is because the parents dont have enough money for their retirement like many other coutries in this world. In the U.S. you dont see that much of this support because of personal wealth, pensions, ss or medicare. That if the Philippines was as wealthy as the U.S. people would not need to support their parents as they do now and that part of the culture would die off.

  21. says

    Maayong hapon Bob
    Like AusssieLee when I first started reading your post I was in disagreement with you. After you said this is fading I feel you are right on. Part if this I feel is caused by the belief that all Americans walk around with $5000 in there pocket for spending money. The thing is that it is not only Filipinos that do not appreciate gifts and help. This lack of appreciation is growing in all countries and cultures. More and more I see younger generation expecting things to be given to them and do not appreciate what they have.

  22. says

    Hi Chris- In the case of your friend… I don't really see where his wife did anything wrong. You said that he just put the amount into her purse. Once he does that, it would seem to me that it is up to her to spend it as she sees fit. If he didn't want her to give it to her family, he should have told her that. In the Philippines, when you marry the girl, you marry the family, so this should not be unexpected. Just my opinion.

  23. says

    Hi Danny- I feel that even if the person thinks we are rich Americans. the words "thank you" are only polite, and would be the right thing to do.

  24. says

    Hi Larry- Yes, in other countries showing gratitude is dying out too. However, for example, in America, we don't promote it that part of our culture is to show undying gratitude for the smallest of favors, only to ignore on our commitment. That would seem to be the way the Philippines is going, though.

  25. says

    I'm with you there Bob; at least in the case of my friend. I put exactly that point to him. I know the family expectations here are very different along with socio economics generally. I think it's only natural the family will need help and look to the wealthiest in the family to give it. My point here is more about setting up expectations of continuous flows of high income in the direction of the family through the wifes obligation.

  26. says

    Hi Chris- I have been lucky in terms of family expectations. Over the 18 years that Feyma and I have been married, there have been very few times that I have been asked for anything. Since living here, I don't really recall any requests for money, in fact. Usually, if we help, it is because Feyma and I choose to do so and feel that it is needed.

  27. Steven says

    Bob I am curious if SIR also applies to a great extent to the those Filipinos that may have spent lots of time living in other countries or are from the higher more monied echelons of Philippines society. Logic would dictate to me they might have perhaps only a portion of these SIR traits and also acquired traits of other countries they may have been schooled in or lived in like the States or Europe. I ask this only because my own wife for example lived in North America for over 11 years before I met her in the Philippines and she does not have many of these SIR traits you talk about. She has many friends that are Filipino of course and she is sometimes embarrassed by their behavior in this regard as she views them often as impedance to progress particularly among the poor. She is from a middle class family

  28. Steven says

    (continuation) Not to suggest my wife is a snob or better than anyone. Quite the contrary she is the most generous person I ever met. She helps out more people here in the Philippines than could ever be imagined and has more friends than can be counted. Nevertheless, she doesn't get caught up in all these cultural SIR

  29. Paul says

    Hi Bob – Funny thing that this topic should pop up. Yesterday's "big-time" house blessing / warming party served over 300 barangay folks. Part of the "traditional" element was ensuring each guest that he or she was welcomed and provided food, drink, entertainment and good times "free and clear" of any obligation or utang. We wanted them all to share with us the love we have for our barangay. Prior to that announcement, many were hovering near the gate – nearly 4/5 of them – wondering if and what any obligation they would undertake by coming in. Once they were sure, the flood of humanity started. 😀

    Many more smiles, waves and greetings this morning than days before! We're (I'm) feeling more accepted! Of course, the children stopped by at lunch time to see if there happened to be any extra candy left just lying around not doing anything! 😆

  30. roy says

    Hi Bob! Thank you for your interest in the “insider’s view”, so to speak After reading all the comments, I realized that some readers mixed up the concept of lack of “utang na loob” to persons who are simply lacking in manners. Filipinos are not big in ‘thank you's”. Definitely not in the way it is almost a template here in the US. “Thank you…I appreciate this…” are words that do not come easily to pinoys. It’s just lack of manners, I think. Parents failed on this too. Or maybe pinoy kids were totally suppressed to open their mouths, they became too shy to even say “thank you”. Or for the really timid ones, too shy even to say “thank you”. ( To our credit, we are profused w/ “Ma’am and Sir” )While some do not unlearn this bad habit of not saying thank you at once, others though like me, ehem, try to be appreciative as much as I can. 
    Utang na loob though is not just settled by a simple “thank you”. It is like an intangible concept that’s so hard to quantify. It’s there but not really there. You know a particular person owes you utang na loob but that doesn’t do you any good either. You cannot demand that they show you their utang na loob because it spoils the whole thing. Good if they show you respect by them being nice to you & all. But for the most part, the beneficiary of your generosity goes through life thinking that what you did to him didn’t entail you sacrifices. As life imitates art, you often hear dialogs in the Fil movies that run like this: Pagkatapos ng nagawa ko sa yo, ito pa ang igaganti mo sa akin? Wala kang utang na loob! (After all that I’ve done for you, you repay me w/ this? Ungrateful!) In real life, utang na loob is invoked only when the relationship is compromised. Usually, it is when the benefactor–instead of being treated well–is crossed by the beneficiary.
    Whew! Bob, how do I put the icon w/c shows beads of sweat in my temples?

  31. says

    Hi Steven- It is funny that you mention about your wife, because Feyma and I have been discussing this lately, in relation to her feelings. Feyma spent 10 years in the States, and by the time we moved here, she had largely become American in terms of culture. These days, Feyma tells me that she finds herself going back toward Filipino culture in her feelings, though. Very interesting, don't you think? She is somewhere in the middle, but her personal pendulum is certainly swinging toward the Filipino side right now.

  32. says

    Hi Paul- That sounds like a wonderful celebration that you had! Congratulations, and Feyma and I hope that your new house becomes a true home for you! It sounds like it already has, and that you are welcomed to the neighborhood!

  33. says

    Hi roy- I would agree that utang na loob can not be settled by a mere thank you, I think most of us foreigners who have been discussing this mean more like – it would be at least a minimal effort to show an appreciation for the good deed. Thanks for your explanation, Roy, I do appreciate it greatly.

    Not sure how to do that emoticon that you mention, sorry…

  34. Michael says

    Hi Bob,
    I think the concept is obviously outdated. Both my filipina wife and I have helped family and friends with loans over the years. Very rarely have they been repaid, never have we been thanked and on the few occasions we have asked for significant sums of money to be repaid we have been completely shunned from then on as if we were the ones in the wrong.
    One incident sums it up for me – my wife's sister was ill in hospital after a miscarriage and desperately needed 12,000 pesos for treatment plus support after her operation because she could not work. I willingly gave not loaned the money to help in that sad situation.
    Guess what happened a bit later – we were putting my wife's youngest sister through school and paying boarding for her with the older sister. They kicked her out and we had to put her into a private boarding house. Worse followed when the good for nothing husband demanded 20,000 pesos to pay off some man who the little sister was supposed to have borrowed the money from.
    Bob it was a blatant attempt at blackmail and when I called his bluff and said I would rather pay the police to investigate and give this guy a seeing to he went to water reducing it to 5,000 and the nothing. Here was a man who I had bailed out by supporting his wife and family through a crisis trying to blackmail me in the most unsavoury manner!
    I have brought my wife's little sister to Australia as a dependent to give her a chance of a life here. She seems very thankful for our support but I just hope and pray she doesn't turn out like the others. That would shatter my faith.

  35. says

    Hi Michael- What a sad situation! Unfortunately, I have seen very similar situations many, many times myself. The people that I have personally helped the most have turned against me the greatest amount! It is mind boggling, to be honest. It certainly goes against the way that we think in western countries, doesn't it?

    Sorry to hear of your situation, Michael.

  36. says

    Hi Michael- I really hope that it works out as you foresee it! Just yesterday we had a niece walk out on us – second time this has happened. It can be quite a painful thing, after you have invested a lot of your emotions into them, and they leave like that.

  37. says

    A wise old Indian remarked "invest in sincerity, promote intelligence!"
    I have heard many stories along these lines also.
    I guess?/… Bob you must be an optimist in your assessment overall, in that you are still philanthropic (and still here). Also Michael despite the pain of what happened still doing your best is really great .
    I think we as westerners forget too easily how priveleged we are in terms of real earning power. Only when we come to be expats in less priveleged countries do we experience reality for the majority of the world's population. (from an elevated economic postition if not otherwise).
    At the dawn of Asia's expansion into the world comes the economic crisis and peak oil. This is starting to affect everyone, all of our ideas and values are up for debate worldwide right now. What social system worked best before may no longer do so in the future.
    Maybe it's the youth here that keep the place so vibrant? In Australia everyone I know is on edge over macro economics, here people debate the niceties of the drag queens in the build up to the "national event! Miss Gay!" (Which by the way is the only regular event in the RP gaining major media coverage in Australia).
    Barangay Pageants, basketball and volleyball every night, some of the best shopping in the world in terms of up to date fashion at bargain prices in viillages everywhere. Perfect beach weather; the Philippines is a potential rival to Thailand in terms of tourist attractions.
    I know this is a bit off track but I thought it's a good time to remember what a great time it is to be here!

  38. says

    Hi Chris- It's kind of funny. About a month ago or so, somebody made a comment (I don't recall who it was) and said that they enjoyed my articles on this site, but that I never had anything negative to say, only good stuff. Now, on this series, I have been (somewhat intentionally) pointing out some of the negative things that I see under the SIR system here. Now, you say that I must still be an optimist, given that I am still here.

    The fact is that indeed, I am very bullish about the Philippines. I love it here, and I enjoy most of what I experience here.

    Sometimes on this site, when I write articles, I play a devil's advocate role to see what kind of reactions come out. It makes for an even more informative and interesting site.

    Anyway, to answer your inquiry, I am indeed an optimist, especially in the terms of the Philippines.

  39. Phil R. says

    Bob you do a great service by informing the people about the " why's " of the Philippines , more whys and less trouble . 😀 . and this is one of the best site I have found on the internet
    Hey Chris too bad about Pat ..Hope everything works out for him….My wife explained everything to me about her customs before I run in to it .. Jess offers snacks when guest arrive , But when we go someones home I get a 4 course meal ..rice,meat,noodles, vegetables..They think I am a big eater for some reason .?? Phil R.

  40. Bob New York says

    Good article and a lot of great comments. During my visits there I derive many thoughts and impressions that I don't particularly care or should I say " Dare " to inquire about at the time. Being able to read about some of these impresions or maybe it is better expressed as some of the " Vibes " I have sensed while there, it is good to be able to read about the first hand experiences of the other readers.

    In many parts of the world I think traditions of the past get a little more diluted with each new generation. When television became more available in many parts of the world it allowed people to see how people in far away places lived. Some of it was undoubtedly true and a good percentage exagerated or overemphasized such as in " entertainment " movies ( Hollywood Style ).

    Some 40 or 50 years later we are now going through an even more emphasized version of that with the Internet with instant 2 way or even multiple communication in text, pictures, video etc.

    With websites like Youtube and other similar websites nearly the entire world has their own worldwide TV Network. In some situations this is great as it allwos the average individual to show things to the world that the commercial press often edits out or never includes in their broadcasts.

    This enables people to see how others live, work and spend their leisure in a capacity that Television could never do and it has more of an influence, both good and bad to those of differing cultures. This may further add to the dilution or maybe better expressed as the modification of certain past traditions and culture.

    Thanks again for the great article and all of the comments as it confirms some of the things I have wondered about but felt uncomfotable to just come out and ask.

  41. maria says

    hi bob
    your sir articles are the underpinnings of philippine culture that should be discussed. daghang salamat and keep writing them.


  42. Francisco San Giorg says

    Sometimes I wonder if I really am in the same country as others here or, is it that the behavioiur of the people here (Filippino/as) is so dramatically dofferent from island to island, or for that matter province to province.

    I'd first like to say that I've not felt that "when you marry a Pinay, you marry the family" has applicable in my case. That's not to say I never help but, I have never been told or, made to feel it was a mandantory obligation.

    My wife and I have given a few loans to people and, except for a distant cousin, all were paid back monetarally or with other favors. We built a house for my wife's parents because their little nipa hut was falling apart. that was more than a year ago and the parents still tell people that it is not their house but, the house of the Kano. My wifes parents are forever dong things for us…offers to baby sit when we want to take a trip to shop in Ozamis or CDO, offering to buy the pig for birthdays and such, her father comes with the workers, for no pay, to help in renovations or repairs we might need, Lola has come to cook for the workers when they are here, about ten family members shoed up here when we had a small flash flood, to help clean the house, with no mention of pay, or having to return the favor. the list goes on.

    We loaned money to a neighbor for her husbands medical bills and within a few weeks, she repaid and still brigs food to the house every once in a while in gratitude.

    I just don't feel that this "Utang na loob" thing is a dyiing cultural thing at all, at least not in my personal experience.

    I'd like, also, to relate a little story that kind of suggest the type of family I married into; For several months before I came here to marry, I was sending large amounts of money so my wife could deposit in the her bank account. She was to get an apartment, furniishing and whatever she needed to move in. I also had her get a computer so we could chat without her having to go to the net cafe.
    One Morning (here) we connected and my wife mentioned that she hadn't taken her breakfast yet. I asked her why, her reply was that there was no rice or fish in the house. I asked her why she hadn't gone to the grocery to buy food. Her reply to this was " You didn't give me permission to buy food and my mom told me not to spend the money on anything that you didn't say" "she said it's not your money and Frank will be angry if you spend his money without permission".
    It seems her mom had been bringing rice and fish from the mountain to feed my wife. So, you can see, I have a small problem when I hear the statements ike,"when you marry a Pinay, you marry the family" "loans and favors are rarely returned" and "because you're the rich foreigner, you are expected to support the family".

    In my opinion, this thing about not getting thanks for favors or loans repaid, is more from the upbringing of the person or the area they live in and should not be construed as being indictative of the country as a whole.

    Whenever I read those who have so many netative experiences in this "untang na loob" thing, I thank God for the wife and her family.


  43. says

    Hi Bob,

    A second niece walked out? Without getting into your business, what possessed her to do that? You have described here in rather good detail the arrangement you have and it seems like a real way to get ahead. Surprised that she would just walk away from it.

  44. markus says

    Hi Bob, my experiances in Cebu was that I had to say on number of occassions ; "stop thanking me, you thanked me enough!" and some people did bring me a small present, So I am surprised to here all those negatives. The only explanation I can think of, is that when the people who received the loans or help, feeled belittle by the fact they have to ask (or beg) for help, then they would turn against the giver. – Just my thought.

  45. AmericanLola says

    Hi Bob, You've taken on a big one! I think 'debt of gratitude' doesn't quite translate the concept. "Debt of the will" is actually more accurate, and as mentioned, it isn't really about monetary debt. A child can never pay back his parents for giving him life, feeding him and sacrificing to send him to school. As Roy has said, the 'debt' card is played when the child is ungrateful or is failing to do what the one who has sacrificed expects, in light of that sacrifice. In some families, this creates great dysfunction, with the parents (Grandparents, Aunts, or whoever) demanding, shaming and manipulating the younger generation to get what they can. In other families, it produces an appropriate respect, honor and sense of responsibility that puts westerners to shame.

    When a foreigner enters the picture, much depends on the original family culture as to how he fits in. How he behaves also plays a part. If his money seems easy, and the family sees that there is no sacrifice on his part when he helps, then there is less sense of indebtedness. Filipinos tend to repay loans to each other only when the loaner can show a greater need for that money than the loanee. The need of the Kano is less than most family members, so the money is not repaid. On the other hand, many families will feel that it is to their honor NOT to be indebted to the foreigner, and will work hard to repay every debt. We have seen examples of both in the comments above.

    We had a helper who was diagnosed with TB. The doctor told me to just send her home. We paid for her treatment and took care of her, and she said to me, "Ma'am, I will just set aside my plans to go to school. I will just work for you as long as you are in the Philippines." Yikes! We worked out a plan by which she could work off half of the medical expenses and call it even, and we helped her get through college. To this day, she brings gifts to us for Christmas, even though she has to come a long ways on the bus and gets horribly car-sick. I wish she didn't feel obligated to do that, but I know it is her way of showing her gratitude and love, and I accept that. And we love her too, and love to see her!

    As to 'thank you,' it is not a normal part of Filipino culture to be saying thank you as often as we tend to say it. They also don't say 'bless you' or anything at all when someone sneezes. One of my helpers said to me one day, "Ate, I am really learning what that verse in the Bible means, 'In everything give thanks.' All the time I hear you and Kuya saying 'thank you' to us and to each other, and I think that is really a good thing. I am also giving thanks more all the time." I think the normal tendency is to say 'thank you' for big things and in a more formal way than we do, but people find that they can please us by saying it more often.

    Your niece was ungrateful and shameless by both Filipino and American standards. If she had done that in a context where there was no foreigner involved, she still would have been considered a bad, ungrateful girl. You did the right thing and she did not, but you were also right to forgive her and move on. There is much bitterness and family pain because of the demands and failures of 'utang kabuboton,' and it is sad.

  46. Stede says

    My wife is a province woman, and this " utang kabuboton " is a subject that we have debated on many times. Yes you should try to help, if you can. But from the beginning I let them know that I am not thier pension, and that I am not some retired guy who has bank written on my forehead.

    It was hard for them to understand that an American could have grown up poor and didnt get everything handed to him, but had to work for it. We help when we can, to get a thank you is rare. I just have learned to not to expect anything in return. I let them know that what we do comes at great sacrifice.

    I grew up always saying thank you an please, even for the simplest of things because I didnt have much…in a rich country.

  47. says

    Hi Bob New York- I am happy that you have found some assistance by reading this series of articles. I agree that entertainment and instant communications have watered down many traditions of people worldwide.

  48. Obei says

    Quite often, "utang na loob" is used for political gains and power play and I am sure you've seen these kinds a lot. Debt of gratitude for the Filipino is not about just giving money back or providing and expecting "thank you" in return, it runs deeper and often the debt of gratitude is repaid in services and – in severe circumstances, one's life. The "payment" is almost never talked about, it's just "agreed upon" between parties – sometimes with a handshake.

    As far as saying "thank you", there is more of an "understanding" between Filipinos culturally that once help is provided the provider automatically "assumes" that the recipient is indebted to him/her and the recipient "assumes" that the provider knows that "utang na loob" ko ito sa iyo, thus skipping the "thank you" part. It is really hard to explain the science of it and if you are coming from a western standpoint wherein the simple act of saying thank you is enough and is expected, not getting that "reaction" elicits a kind of ungrateful feeling.

    Nevertheless, education and application plays a big role in making Filipinos understand the value of "thank you". It is taught is schools ever since but nary practiced even by the educators themselves. I find myself getting the heat at home when I forget to practice what I preach, when my kid hands me over something and I forget to say thank you… bad indeed and a real learning curve for many Filipinos.

  49. says

    Hi maria- Thank you very much. I do plan to continue writing the series until it is complete. I hope that you will share some of your wisdom on these topics too!

  50. says

    Hi Francisco San Giorgio- Thanks for sharing your thoughts. For me, when the phrase comes in – "when you marry a Filipina, you marry the family," it means a lot more than just financial. Other things come into play, that are non-financial.

    I will say, your experiences with "utang na loob" are very different than mine are, and I am happy for you on that.

  51. says

    Hi Tom N- Yes, another niece left two days ago. The two that we are talking about are sisters, and Feyma and I both believe that there is something in the way the kids of that family have been raised which leads to their strange pattern of behavior.

  52. says

    Hi markus- I don't necessarily think that the differences we have experienced are regional, rather just differences between the people we have dealt with. I have heard from other people in Cebu who have similar experiences to mine.

    I appreciate your input!

  53. says

    Hi AmericanLola- Regarding the title – "A debt of gratitude" – I took that directly from the study materials that I have been given by my language teacher. I felt somewhat the it was a little off from what it should have been too, but it is an exact quote.

    I find your experiences that you describe to be pretty much "on" – some of my experiences have to do with some family dynamics that are quite untypical. I find your words about how a foreigner fits into the concept to be very interesting.

    Thanks for sharing.

  54. says

    Hi Stede- Yes, indeed. Many Americans grew up poor and pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. I can't be sure how many Filipinos can really fathom that, because it really goes against what many local people believe.

  55. Stede says

    By the way we are planning to move to the PI. We plan to move to Davao. I much rather put my family to work than just give them money.

  56. Rey says

    Hi Bob, kumusta na?

    American Lola pretty much sums it up regarding utang na loob but one thing to watch out for with this indebtedness, it's so difficult to pay it back with the pinoy concept. Once you invoke an utang na loob or asked anybody a favor, that debt of gratitude is for life and there is no measure of how you pay it back. Most of the time you can only pay this kind of debt by doing something more than what you have done in order for you to be free of this indebtedness.

    Also, it could extend to the family or the group (as you described in your previous SIR article) your indebtedness. This is what the expats should watch out for because once you ask even for just a little favor, be sure to pay it back a thousand fold. Sometimes, the way you pay it also matters as it could depend on which level of the hierarchy of the society you belong to also.

    There is so much to say about this subject that even I a pinoy cannot expound it on thoroughly as i myself don't completely understand it why. One thing i'm sure though, it may be a bane sometimes but most of the time it becomes a boon as it is usually abused. You can always observe this whenever election time comes up.

    Anyways, me thinks American Lola has truly become filipinized. 😀

  57. says

    Hi Rey- Wow, it does sound very complicated. I have a question, though. When you say that the debt is for a lifetime,and very serious and such…. why is it that the people that I have helped seem to feel no debt toward me? I just don't understand that.

  58. Rey says

    Hi bob,

    Yup, it's mind boggling sometime but with your question, i'm just going to hazard a guess why. Could it be sometime in the past feyma or her family must have gotten some kind of indebtedness from the family of those you have helped and they feel it is your obligation thus the reason why they don't show any gratitude towards you as they thought you were just paying it back? Sometime you wouldn't even know it yourself that you actually owe them something like say, you were done some kind of favor that you thought was not such a big deal but for the person who gave it thinks it was as if he has saved your life therefore you owe him a lot.

    This usually occurs with close relations, although not prevalent but it happens and this is why I never liked this Utang na Loob syndrome we pinoys got. I would rather prefer that I owed something that I can pay back materially than owe an intangible that is so difficult to pay back that even if you feel you paid your dues, still there's a hanging doubt you haven't paid enough.

    Don't get me wrong though as i'm showing only one facet of this Utang na Loob, the part which I don't understand and never liked especially if i'm the one who's paying it back.

  59. lee says

    utang na loob does not generally apply too foreigners, because there is an "entitlement spirit" directed toward foreigners that causes many Filipinos to feel that the foreigner "already" owes something; and in extending aid in any form, he is simply paying back his own utang.

  60. lee says

    utang na loob does not generally apply to foreigners, because there is an "entitlement spirit" directed toward foreigners that causes many Filipinos to feel that the foreigner "already" owes something; and in extending aid in any form, he is simply paying back his own utang.

  61. Mike from Dumaguete says

    You know its funny. In America, the belief is that everyone is essentially equal…however we need to earn the things we have. But in the Philippines, there is more of a ‘class system’ or hierarchy way of thinking… but if you are better off than another, you are expected to give to equal it out more.

    Very confusing.

  62. Aiko says

    Your niece has no utang na loob.

    It applies to everyone, I think those people you mentioned are disgraceful.


  63. Brent says

    With the last few comments here, it seems that you’ve been hanging around with ill-mannered Filipinos who made you change your perspective towards us. Don’t worry, you’ll still find places here in the Philippines where a pure Filipino culture is kept. Honestly there are Filipinos who see Dollar signs upon seeing a foreigner, but I assure you that these are isolated cases.

    • MindanaoBob says

      I love Filipino people, Brent, and I love much about the culture. I try to live by the culture here for the most part. I do find disappointment at times when I feel that I am excluded from the cultural norms here, due to the color of my skin. I feel that this practice shows that the culture here is not very widely impressed upon the people.

  64. Brent says

    Oh by the way… regarding the nieces. When they get matured enough to realize that they owe you more than money… they will have ways to to give back to you. Immaturity plays a big role in their behavior maybe. They have no sense of that, yet.

    • MindanaoBob says

      One of my nieces is 30 years old or so. If she has not learned by this age, she will likely never learn. At this time, she doesn’t even talk to us. Likely, she is to embarrassed by her actions to do so.

  65. G says

    I chanced upon this old article bec I’m searching on stuff to include for my PhD thesis. I am a Filipino by ethnicity but lives o/seas. As I got older there are embedded Filipino beliefs that I’ve (thankfully) got rid of that I’ve seen growing up that now I think is irrelevant and does nothing positive to one’s life or being, one of them is ‘debt of gratitude’. Being the youngest of 8, I had all 7 older sibling pretty much tell me how to live my life, what decisions or choices to make & were openly vocal when they think I’m not making the right choices. When I do try to speak out, I’m accused of ‘self pity’ & ‘stubbornness’. Pretty much up to now, I still get criticized, even after getting my graduate and postgrad degree, w/c entailed me taking out student loans to do that, it’s still damn if I do, damn if I don’t. Debt of gratitude is nice, however, many Filipinos tend to take it to the extreme ie owe me for the rest of your life. I believe that if you want to help or assist someone, you do so bec you want to, not bec you want to use it as a leverage later on & throw it at someone’s face bec they’re not doing what you think they ought to be doing. If you don’t want to help, don’t. If you want to, then help. Sincere and genuine intention to help means you’re not expecting any gain in return. How many times do you expect the person you helped to say ‘thank you’? How many times do you need a boost of ego or to want to announce to the world you helped? One thing many Filipinos do when talking abt helping others is begin their sentence with “If it wasn’t for me….”. C’mon, time to get over yourselves, what do you expect a gold medal or trophy? Is it not enough to see or know that in your heart you made a difference in someone else’s life? or does it have to be, if you help someone eg. send them to school, they have to do exactly as you say or expect, otherwise your help is a waste. When I see street baskers & I give them money, I don’t attach a note that says ‘spend only on food’. I helped bec I wanted to. I don’t expect the rest of my family to agree w/ me but guess what? the best decision I made that actually helped me find peace of mind, was the day I told them I don’t give a crap what they say or think, anymore. They can say I’m ungrateful whatever, bottom line is they’re not perfect too & I can’t live my life constantly worrying abt what they may say or think. I never interfere, contradict or criticize them for what they do with their lives so it’s only fair they extend me the same courtesy. I am thankful for those who help me along the way but reality is I’m not living my life to please a few. Whether they believe, appreciate or agree with me, that’s their problem. My way of showing gratitude is to also help others when and how I can. I tell my kids that I’m taking care of them, sending them to school, feeding them etc… bec it is my responsibility as a parent, not bec I want then to ‘owe and repay’ me when they get older. I’m sure they will be there for me when I get older, not bec they feel ‘obligated’ but bec they love and respect me. How some people think it’s ok when kids stay around to help parents by sending money etc…bec they are ‘obligated’ to do so, is beyond me. Wouldn’t you rather they do so bec they love and respect you & not bec you threw that ‘debt of gratitude’ to them? Those who think bec they help, those they help shld owe them a ‘debt of gratitude’ for the rest of that person’s life, get over yourselves and move on.

    • G says

      BTW.. I’m not saying ‘debt of gratitude’ is bad, like anything else, it depends on how a person interprets and uses it. Expressing gratitude to those who help you is, of course, very positive. But if those who help you expect to drag it on and on and throw it at your face when they feel the need to, then ‘debt of gratitude’ becomes clouded. A friend of mine once told me ‘Jesus helped those who needed help and gave his life for us, yet he doesn’t come down from heaven telling everyone, “where’s your debt of gratitude?”

    • says

      Hi G – One of the statements that you made which I agree strongly with is:

      Debt of gratitude is nice, however, many Filipinos tend to take it to the extreme ie owe me for the rest of your life.

      I firmly believe the same myself. It is a great character trait to recognize a debt (not necessarily monetary) and repay that debt. But, you are right, a debt of this kind, in the Philippines should be paid back over and over again for the rest of your life. This is too extreme.

  66. says

    Hi Rey – This is absolutely fascinating! I never even considered that they might have felt that something was owed to them. I don't really thin, that is the case, but, hey, who knows? It certainly would explain the situation.

  67. says

    My goodness, lee… that's quite bold to say! So, according to you, a foreigner owes Filipinos, even if he has never borrowed anything at all? It's pretty true that foreigners are often treated like that… it's quite bastos, though.

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