26 August 2015

Filipinos and the Sir, Ma’am Culture when Dealing with Westerners

Image credit:  San Jose Mercury News.

Sunday night, and over pizza, burgers and beer a group of us was enjoying after football socials at this local joint. As rather tends to be after an afternoon’s workout, talk was mostly mundane; but the intellectual levels shot up a notch after the topic swung to that of working with westerners, particularly the whites.

One in our group had worked in the service industry in Singapore and the UK. Another one worked for almost a year in Saudi in the air transport industry. A third worked for a locally based multinational IT company and was frequently sent to the United States for working stints.

The discussion was initially about all the swearing that goes on in western movies and television shows but switched tone when one of the fellers who had worked abroad confirmed that yes, the westerners do swear a lot when they talk.

Another one agreed, and both said that they will tone down on the invectives if you swear right back at them. Just to make sure that everyone gets this in context, the two gentlemen were referring to westerners with whom they worked.

“I quickly learned to address them using first names,” the one from the IT industry said. Apparently, the Filipinos’ deferential ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ culture only gets you looked down upon, unless you are dealing with customers in the service industry.

Addressing them by their first names, while this will be frowned upon in the Philippines especially if the other employee is older, implicitly lets them know that you are dealing with them as an equal, at least in the context of ethnicity if not the organisational chart.

At this point, I felt impelled to mention something that went on while I attended an academic forum at UP Baguio just a couple of years back. One of the forum’s guests was from a large placement agency, and what she had to say to the academicians at UP I recall very well because it echoed a sentiment I heard from one of my former students now working in the United States.

“First of all,” she said, “you have to teach your students good English. More than the facility with the language however, you should give them the confidence to deal with westerners on equal terms.”

Citing experience from her placement agency, she went on that they would get feedback from multinational companies that even some of our most brilliant engineers who graduated from the country’s top engineering schools sometimes do not perform as well as they should.

First of all, language sometimes lets them down. However, even if they are fluent in English, their opinions are often swatted down by the more aggressive westerners because they are not assertive enough.

The use of the word ‘aggressive’ to describe westerners is probably a tad overboard, even if one of my former players, born in the Philippines but raised in Los Angeles, used the same word to describe the American environment he grew up in. In contrast, he calls the culture in the Philippines ‘kinder.’

Everything you have read so far, I need to point out, are all sweeping generalisations about westerners. In my work at DLSL’s external affairs in the past, I had had the opportunity to meet westerners and many of them were very pleasant. However, because of the nature of my work, my dealings with these westerners were primarily of a social rather than a working nature.

But yes, even in non-working environments, they do tend to speak their minds. This straightforwardness, I believe, is a matter of culture.

In contrast, ours is often a euphemistic and non-confrontational culture. While our kindness and good-naturedness probably give us an edge in the hospitality and other service industries, these may actually work to our disadvantage in other industries and work places where assertiveness is necessary.

* * * * *

Up until I was in high school in the early seventies, an older person was formally addressed as Mister, Miss or Missis. The first person we were impelled to refer to as ‘Sir’ with his first name was a lovable if eccentric Biology teacher.

By the time I returned back to DLSL in the early eighties as a teacher, the practice of calling teachers as Sir-This or Ma’am-That had become widespread. Worse, it was a practice that I was starting to hear even outside the school.

I personally feel there is nothing wrong with addressing an older person with whom I am not in first name terms with using the formal titles Mister, Miss or Missis. This is just being respectful, irrespective of one’s ethnicity.


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