Getting Cultured

This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Year’s Blog Challenge, week three: Cultural Differences. I have to say that this week’s topic—exploring differences between the values and beliefs of the Philippines and the United States—had me stumped. When talking about culture, it is easy to risk painting with strokes that are too broad. I’ve lived in the Philippines for over a year, but my ability to “get” the culture is filtered through my own outlook on the world, the nature of my experience working as an American volunteer in a provincial setting, and the indigenous community in which I live. All of that, and the fact that I am not Filipino.

Therefore, I decided it would be best to let one of the experts–Virgilio Gaspar Enriquez, Ph.D., the father of Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino Psychology)–take on the challenge of exploring the definitive traits of Filipinos. In the wake of centuries of colonization and the imposition of Western hegemony on all fields of academic research, Enriquez’s Sikolohiyang Pilipino offered the first look at the cultural ethos of the Philippines based on the experiences, ideas and orientation of the Filipino people*.

(*As with any great thinker, Enriquez’s cultural theory has faced its fair share of critics in its time—most notably those who wonder if Filipino-Americans ‘count’ as cultural Filipinos, given that they were born in the United States, do not share the Philippine cultural experience, and hardly speak any of the Philippines’ languages. A great explanation of these counter-arguments can be found here.)

I can’t say that I have observed all of these characteristics in every Filipino I have met, but—as with all stereotypes—there tends to be a grain of truth in what’s put forward. Do you observe any of these characteristics in people from the United States? In such times of confusion and crisis in my home country, I hope we can adopt the values of kapwa (a shared sense of humanity) and bahala na (determination in the face of uncertainty) from the Philippines.

SIKOLOHIYANG PILIPINO: A Sampling of Filipino Cultural Values

(Note: The following is not an exhaustive list of Filipino cultural values and is largely lifted from the sources identified below, with some edits and additions from yours truly. Don’t want any plagiarism scandals here—check out the original articles if you can…they are great!!)


According to Enriquez, the core of Filipino personhood is kapwa—the notion of a “shared self”. Kapwa implies that each person is connected to all persons outside him or herself, even total strangers. Kapwa obliges people to treat one another as fellow human beings equal in value despite differences such as race, socioeconomic status, and class. Kapwa is valued not solely for its role in maintaining smooth interpersonal relations, but as the embodiment of the Christian precept to ‘love your fellow man just like your own body’.

Kapwa can be observed in the inclusiveness of Filipinos; it is culturally important that every person feels ‘a part of the group’. Outsiders will be catered to and encouraged to join in and be one with others. In order to truly join the group, politeness and building trust is imperative. Regardless of status or a sense of direct duty, entire communities will rally around an individual facing troubles because it is believed that this person’s well-being is the shared responsibility of the community. Strong family and group ties are one of the hallmarks of Filipino culture.

However, many believe that Filipinos’ sense of kapwa is being deteriorated by the infiltration of Western media in the Philippines. Popular movies, TV shows, and music from the United States emphasize cut-throat competition and push forward light-skinned celebrities as more desirable and worthy than their darker-skinned counterparts. Growing economic disparity in the Philippines also contributes to a decreased sense of “shared self” between the ultra-wealthy and the poor.


Pakikiramdam is described as a “shared inner perception” that compliments the “shared identity” of kapwa. This heightened awareness and empathic sensitivity to the feelings of others serves as a survival tool in a society where much social interaction is carried on without words. Filipinos are experts at navigating ambiguities such as knowing when to join a group or how to blend in with other people. Pakikiramdan encourages Filipinos to ask themselves, “If I were in the other person’s situation, how would I feel?’’ As a result of ‘‘feeling for another,” Filipinos exercise great care and deliberation in their social relationships and are skilled in reading body language and non-verbal cues.


The Filipino phrase “Bahala Na” (imperfectly translated as “Come What May”) has long been misinterpreted by foreigners as demonstrating the fatalism of a happy-go-lucky people willing to throw their hands up whenever catastrophe is on the way. However, the term Bahala has sacred undertones. The ancient Filipino inscription divides the term into “ba’’ for woman and “la” for man. “Ha” means breath or wind—in a larger sense, spirit or God.

A more accurate understanding of Bahala na is “determination in the face of uncertainty.” Undoubtedly, the traits of resourcefulness, courage, creativity, perseverance, and hard work can be observed in Filipinos who dare to live along the earth’s “fire-belt” where erupting volcanoes, tidal waves, and tropical storms—an ever-restless environment—continually threaten survival.


Loosely translated as ‘shyness’ or ‘shame’ by most Western psychologists, hiya is actually ‘sense of propriety’. In its different forms, hiya can refer to embarrassment at one’s self, feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment by others, and shyness. Hiya can be linked to the Spanish concept of “amor propio” — self-esteem that prevents one from losing or swallowing their pride.

In order to maintain a sense of propriety, Filipinos often ‘save face’ by watching out for other people’s egos or avoiding public confrontation. Although attempts to ‘save face’ can be perceived by Westerners as deceptive and pandering, sensitivity to maintaining the social balance allows Filipinos to keep their pride and egos intact.


Filipinos are expected by their neighbors to return favors—whether the return favor was directly asked for or not. However, according to Enriquez, looking at utang na loob more closely in the context of Filipino culture shows that the phrase is more closely related to gratitude and solidarity than it is to a burden or a debt. According to scholars Rogelia Pe-Pua and Elizabeth Protacio-Marcelino (2000):

“In the Filipino pattern of interpersonal relations, there is always an opportunity to return a favor. It is not absolutely obligatory in the immediate future, for the opportunity to show utang na loob might come only in the next generation, maybe not in your lifetime. Your children will see to it that it is recognized and respected. It is a beautiful element of Filipino interpersonal relationships that binds a person to his or her home community or home country. In fact, this is expressed in a popular Filipino saying, ‘‘Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan. (Those who do not look back to where they came from will not reach their destination).” Utang na loob is a calling heard by many Filipinos who go to other lands but who still retain strong ties with their homeland.”


Pakikisama was identified by American psychologists as the emphasis that Filipinos place on maintaining smooth interpersonal relations by going along with the group and maintaining conformity. In his theory of Sikolohiyang Pilipino, Enriquez argues that pakikisama is not merely concerned with maintaining smooth interpersonal relationships, but is an essential component of pakikipagkapwa–treating other persons as kapwa, or fellow human beings.


Pe-Pua, R. and Protacio-Marcelino, E. 2000. Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino psychology): A legacy of virgilio g. enriquez. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 3 (49-71). Accessed from

Yu, P.S. 2016. Culture of the mixed: A study on the contrast and amalgamation of confucianist principles/teaching and Filipino traits present within the attitudes of chinese-filipino adolescents. Chinese Study Program Lecture Series, 3(28-55). Accessed from,d.dGo


3 thoughts on “Getting Cultured

  1. richard

    Fascinating, indeed, although I’m not sure that the conformity is a trait that I’d much value. My first real experience with Filipinos was when I had a sabbatical in Hong Kong in 1993; there is a large population there of mostly Filipino woman who had jobs as nannies and housekeepers for the Hong Kong Chinese. The women were horridly I exploited and treated, by and large, very nastily. What I found so notable was how, in spite of the abuse, the women were the loveliest and sweetest of people. Much more to be said about that phenomenon. A number of my friends in NYC have recently hired Filipino women to either care for their young kids, or to be health aides for elderly parents. I have become particularly close with one who cares for a close friend who has Parkinson’s. In virtually all cases, the women are beloved and tremendously appreciated. And, perhaps most of all, they really do become “one of the family” because they are so smart, informed, and such gentle and caring people.

    What a marvelous experience you are having. Is Louise there now?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A very true assessment of Filipinas! My mom left right around Christmas time–we had a lot of fun hanging out in Cebu and were reminiscing about the fun we had with you on the Touro Israel Summer program. Hope all is well!


  2. Pingback: New Years 2017 Blog Challenge Round Up #3 - Blogging Abroad

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