Located between the South China Sea and Philippine Sea, the Republic of the Philippines contains a diverse set of landscapes, languages and cultures. Various countries – such as Spain, China and the United States – have interacted with and impacted Filipino culture. A sense of national identity and pride emerged out of struggles for Philippine independence. However, loyalties remain foremost with one’s family and place of birth. Key values such fellowship, respect and acceptance are found throughout the culture, with many Filipinos displaying a warming and hospitable demeanour.
Geographic and Linguistic Diversity
The Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands, of which approximately 2,000 are inhabited. The islands are categorised into three main clusters – namely Luzon in the north, Visayas in the centre and Mindanao in the south. The island clusters vary in terms of cuisine, languages and culture. One of the main distinctions is in respect to religion. The population in the northern islands generally identify as Christian while it is much more common to find those who identify as Muslim in the southern parts of the Philippines.
The country is also linguistically diverse, with eight major dialects and over 170 languages spoken throughout the inhabited islands. The official language of the Philippines is Filipino, which is mainly Tagalog (the dialect from central and southern Luzon) combined with words from various other languages. For example, English is widely spoken throughout the Philippines, and it is common to hear Filipinos use a mixture of English and Tagalog (known informally as ‘Taglish’) in everyday conversations. Depending on their location, Filipinos may not speak the national language. As a way to retain their local identities, many Filipinos will often choose to speak in their regional languages and dialects. Indeed, it is common to find Filipinos who are from different parts of the Philippines conversing in English rather than in Filipino.
National and Local Identity
Given the diversity of the Philippines, the unifying element of Filipino culture is a complex matter. A sense of national identity emerged out of the long standing struggle for independence. In contemporary Philippines, many Filipinos are acutely aware of the colonial history of their country. For example, José Rizal, a national hero in the struggle for Philippine independence, is a highly revered and well-known figure whom many Filipinos look up to as a role model of a virtuous person.
However, the sense of a national identity is fragile, with loyalty residing firstly to their kin group, province or municipality. The Philippines is a collectivist society and individuals tends to understand themselves as a part of a group. For Filipinos, the interests of the collective often override the interests of the individual. Filipinos generally feel a strong sense of pride towards their group and will celebrate their pride through sharing stories or facts about their family, barangay (village) or town.
The long history of contact with Spain and the United States continues to have a significant impact on the Filipino identity. One example is the influence of American standards of beauty, which are often measured in the Philippines by the possession of Western physical traits – such as fair skin and curly hair. Another example is the prominence of Christian ideology since the introduction of Christianity by the Spanish. Indeed, when compared to other countries on the Asian continent, the Philippines has one of the highest Christian populations.
Social Interactions and ‘Hiya’
Social hierarchy in the Philippines is determined according to age and social status. Nearly all Filipinos are taught from an early age about the importance of the underpinning social hierarchy. Gestures, terms of address and communication styles vary depending on who one interacts with and their relative positions in the social hierarchy. For example, it is expected that, if you are referring to someone who is older than you but within the same generation, you use the terms kuya for males and ate for females (for example, ‘Ate Jess’). Failing to do so is considered highly disrespectful and a lack of acknowledgment of the established hierarchy.
Kapwa (fellowship or togetherness) is a core value that explains Filipinos’ interpersonal behaviour. The term generally refers to a shared identity whereby people bond together despite differences in wealth or social status. Kapwa is related to the collectivistic nature of Filipino society. It is believed that, what is good for one person will be good for the collective and ought to be is shared with fellow people. Being branded as not having any kapwa is an insult as it implies that the person does not belong to a community.
The concept of ‘hiya’ is also one of the underpinning factors influencing how Filipinos behave and interact with others. While hiya translates roughly into English as ‘shame’ or ‘embarrassment’, on a deeper level it refers to one’s sense of self, propriety and respect. Filipinos may be more motivated to succeed by a fear of shame rather than fear of failing the task at hand. To avoid experiencing shame, they may try to give face to those around them through complimenting them and avoiding direct criticism. Individuals will often try to be generous and hospitable to avoid hiya and to maintain kapwa.
Warmth and Acceptance
Filipinos are usually very warm and friendly people who enjoy conversing with those around them. It is common to find strangers engaging in conversation or sharing stories to family, friends or foreigners about their hometown, family or country. Filipinos are often expressive and sentimental while maintaining a light-hearted demeanour. For example, the word ‘hugot’ (‘to pull out’) is often used to describe someone drawing out deep sentimental memories or experiences. Indeed, Filipinos are often willing to share stories of their past that may be considered personal.
Alongside their warming and light-hearted demeanour, the general approach to life is of acceptance. ‘Bahala na’ (come what may) captures the strong belief among many Filipinos that whatever may happens is a part of God’s will. Any individual or group success is often attributed to fate or God rather than efforts. This indicates a fatalistic attitude throughout society whereby Filipinos are generally accepting of theirs and others circumstances. However, this does not mean Filipinos are passive. Rather, they are hardworking and will often do their best to help themselves and their family.