For today, we will delve back into SIR: Smooth Interpersonal Relations, the foundation of Filipino society. For todays specific topic, we will look at Ulaw (as it is known in Bisaya areas) or Hiya (the Tagalog equivalent) which is another very, very important part of Filipino culture. For my writing, I will use the term Ulaw since I live in a Bisaya area, and that is the language that I am learning to speak. But, it would be just as proper to say Hiya instead, so don’t let that throw you.
Ulaw is shame, or loss of face. Here is what my study materials have to say about Ulaw:
Ulaw: “Shame, Loss of Face”
Ulaw is a strong sense of propriety. It is a Filipino’s place in a social setting. It is a strong insult to charge a Filipino with not having “ulaw,” for it means that he does not know either the difference between right and wrong, or he does not feel the proper sense of shame when in a socially unacceptable position.
This is something that I find very foreign to my way of thinking. One thing that has always made me feel very uncomfortable is that Filipino kids are taught to be ashamed. I have always felt that Filipinos (particularly children) have very low self esteem, and that this low self esteem is taught to them, and expected of them. If they do not have this sense of shame, they are being too forward, or being braggarts. While I understand that this is important to the culture of the Philippines, it is something that I am very uncomfortable with, even after having lived here for a long time already.
As an example, sometimes you will meet a young child who is very cute. If you talk to the kid, firstly they usually won’t respond to you. They have been taught that they should be shy or ashamed to talk to people, especially foreigners. Their “place” (as described above) is below that of the foreigner. Where I come from, we are taught that all of us are equal, so this sense of Ulaw goes against the grain of the culture that I have learned since being a young child. If you can actually get a young Filipino child to talk to you, if you ask them if they are “gwapa” or beautiful, they invariably answer that they are not, some will even say that they are ugly. I really hate to hear this, it makes me feel uncomfortable.
For the Filipino, though, if the child would actually say that they are cute or good looking, it would be shameful, a totally wrong thing to say. It makes me feel bad, though. How do you feel about this?
Again, for this topic, let’s have a look at our foreigner thinking, and compare it to how Filipinos would think of the same topic:
- American/Foreigner way of thinking: Men are equal.
Filipino way of thinking: A class system (hierarchy).
This is so true. Where I come from, we think that no matter how poor or rich a person, we are equal when it comes right down to it. Here, though, generally the person with the most wealth is “more equal” than the poor person.
- American/Foreigner way of thinking: Horizontal outlook of people (equality).
Filipino way of thinking: Vertical outlook of people (hierarchy).
Again, this is very similar to #1. I often hear people say “he is higher than you” or “he is lower than you.” Usually, for a foreigner, you are the one who is at the top, or near the top of the totem pole. I often feel pretty uncomfortable when I go to some occasion and I am put into a situation of high esteem, when I may not even be known to the others there. For example, I may be invited to a wedding (for no other reason that I am a foreigner). If I go, I will often end up being up at the head table, and I don’t even know the couple who is getting married. Surely there must be somebody else attending the wedding who deserves more to be at the head table than I do!
- American/Foreigner thinking: Strong sense of right and wrong.
Filipino thinking: Shame is a major control system.
In foreigner thinking, a person can be good at one time, and bad at another, it depends if he does the right thing or the wrong thing in each instance. Under Filipino thinking, if the person is high on the totem pole, if he does something wrong, it may be ignored, simply to not embarrass him. It would be shameful to say that he has done wrong.
- American/Foreigner thinking: Good or bad.
Filipino thinking: What will people say?
For many of us foreigner, we don’t really care much what other people think, as long as we feel that we are doing the right thing for ourselves and our families, what others think doesn’t really play a role in our thinking. But, what others will think is of the utmost importance to a Filipino.
So, what do you think? As you can see, Filipinos are very concerned with what other people think. If you do something that casts a bad light on the Filipino, it causes them to lose face because it shows other people that they have done something bad. If they do something bad, but nobody notices, it is as if nothing bad was done at all. But, calling them out on it can cause you serious problems, because it basically brings down the stock of the Filipino to others who are watching. You don’t want to do that.
We’ll look at SIR some more next week, and see what other areas of Filipino Culture are different from what we are used to.