I got an e-mail the other day from a regular reader of this blog and he asked me to write about how to effectively communicate with Filipinos. He was particularly interested in how to get his ideas across without hurting the feelings of Filipinos, especially the feelings of his in-laws. I would tend to agree that this is an issue that any foreigner needs to study a bit if he wants to have good relations here.
The thing is that most Filipinos have somewhat of a delicate way about them, and if you say the wrong thing, it is indeed easy to hurt their feelings. In my experience, when you hurt the feelings of a Filipino, it can take a long time to “make up” and get your relationship back on track again too. This is just a cultural difference between western societies and Philippine society, I guess.
In 1901, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt first uttered a statement that later became famous – “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” This came to be known as “Big Stick Diplomacy.” The meaning was that the USA didn’t need to get all mad and say bad things, but rather just remain calm, but always have a lot of force behind what it said. By Roosevelt’s theory, the USA could usually get it’s way by just having the threat of military intervention, without actually having to fight. Well, Roosevelt’s statement has some application for a foreigner in the Philippines, but only part of it. “Speak softly” – forget about the big stick part! That won’t help you, it will likely cause hard feelings between you and your Filipino friends.
When talking with your in-laws or other Filipinos, remember first that English is a second language for Filipinos, and they speak and understand the language a little differently than we do. Heck, British and Americans don’t have exactly the same understanding of the same words as each other, and we each speak English as our first language (or should I say our only language?). George Bernard Shaw once said that “British and Americans are separated by a common language,” and that statement goes even stronger when talking about Filipinos and Americans or other English speakers. Because there can be different understandings of the same statement, try talking a little slower, and pronounce your words as clearly as possible. This will lead to better understanding by your in-laws or other Filipino friends.
Another thing that I have learned from experience is that disagreements are a lot different here than in the West. For example, for an American, if we are talking to somebody and disagree, we will be very direct and state our opinions. Sure, it hurts the feelings of the other guy, and he may say things to hurt our feelings, but once we get it all out, in 5 or 10 minutes we might sit down and have a beer. It doesn’t work that way here. If you have a disagreement with a Filipino and his/her feelings are hurt, it may be months or even years before he even talks to you again! I have known Filipinos who told me that they were mad at a guy and have been for years. I ask them, “what happened that made you so angry?” The answer – “I can’t remember.” For Americans, this would rarely happen, because once the words are out and both sides understand each other, we forget about it and go on with life. Because of this, if you sense that you and your Filipino friend disagree, it’s best to just change the topic of conversation to something else before it gets out of hand.
Remember this – no matter what I say on this post or any other post on this blog, not every Filipino is the same. Just like Americans, Brits, Aussies or whoever, every person is an individual. I don’t want it to sound like I mean “every Filipino” when I talk about something general like this. Keep that in mind.
Also, remember… speak softly, and leave the stick at home!