The unique blend of east and west has cultivated the Philippines both in appearance and culture. The Filipino character is a fusion of different cultures that create an interesting and fascinating society. The spirit of kinship or bayanihan is said to have come from their Malay ancestors, the piousness from the Spanish influence, and the close-knit family relations from the Chinese. 

Filipino society is conservative and places great importance on family values. Although geographically a part of Southeast Asia, the country has strong European and American cultural ties. This means that many aspects of the culture will be familiar to Western expats and it will not take long for them to feel at home. Nevertheless, expats will probably experience some degree of culture shock in the Philippines.

With a little time and effort, new arrivals will soon see and appreciate the Filipino people’s distinct character and positive outlook on life. Other nationalities have commended the Filipinos for their hospitable and welcoming nature, particularly with foreign visitors.

Language in the Philippines

The two official languages used in the Philippines are Filipino and English. Filipino is the national language of the country, while English is widely used as a medium of instruction in higher education and formal business settings.

Aside from English, Spanish is another foreign language spoken fluently by many Filipinos, along with Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. There are also eight major Filipino dialects: Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynon or Ilonggo, Bicol, Waray, Pampango and Pangasinense.

Communication in the Philippines

Filipinos often use their eyes, lips and hands to convey a wide range of messages. Raised eyebrows and a smile indicate a silent 'hello' or a 'yes' in response to a question. Fixed eye contact between men is usually considered aggressive. The proper method to summon somebody is with a downward wave.

Filipinos place great emphasis on polite language and gentle conversation. Tone of voice should always be soft and gentle, and direct questions should be avoided. 

As a sign of respect, Filipinos address people much older than them with po and opo. They do not call elders by their first names, but use words such as Kuya, Ate, Manong or Manang that denote their superiority and greater wisdom. They also practise the gesture of kissing the hands of the elders and the peculiar gesture of letting the front of the hand of an elder touch their foreheads.

Dress in the Philippines

In the Philippines people generally dress for the weather. In the business world, dress is quite formal and conservative. Men wear dark business suits with a tie and women go for a business suit or a skirt and blouse. 

Women in the Philippines

Interestingly, the Philippines is a matriarchal society and women are highly respected within family life. Women have the same social and political rights as men and often hold high positions in the political and business worlds. 

Religion in the Philippines

With myriad foreign influences, the spiritual aspect of the Filipinos has also been diversified. The two primary religions in the Philippines are Islam and Christianity. Today, most of the population are Roman Catholics. Islam is concentrated at the southern end of the archipelago. 

Social customs in the Philippines

Expats in the Philippines are often forgiven for their lack of knowledge of gestures that can be insulting to the locals. We suggest doing some reading regarding Filipino customs and courtesy, but Filipinos are usually happy to explain local gestures to foreigners.

In Asia, generally speaking, 'saving face' is among the most important issues. Public displays of anger, criticism or disrespect of one’s rank or position go against the concept of saving face. When in an embarrassing situation, Filipinos may laugh or try to change the subject to hide the awkwardness. 

Dining in the Philippines

Filipinos love to eat and drink. During their time in the Philippines, expats will likely be invited to meals and banquets. Filipino eating habits are similar to those of the Spanish and the Chinese.

Most restaurants and families serve each person their own plate of food. In some restaurants, diners may order a variety of food and everyone will share what is on the table. Filipinos regard food very highly, so if a guest in a Filipino home is offered food, it should be accepted. Filipinos will take it as an insult and lack of respect if their guest doesn’t eat the food offered to them. 

Most Filipinos in the rural areas are still accustomed to eating with their hands, or what is called kamay or kamayan. The four fingers are used as the spoon and the thumb is used to push the food into one’s mouth. Expats attempting this method of eating should not put the food on the palms of their hands, as it may resemble lack of respect for the food.

General etiquette tips for the Philippines

  • Expats should not put their elbows on the table when eating; it is disrespectful to the food and host.

  • If host to Filipino guests or friends, expats should not clear or leave the table until everyone has finished.

  • When invited by a Filipino family or friend to dine at their home, expats should not sit at the head of the table (the cabizera), as this seat is usually reserved for the host. When dining at a restaurant, the person sitting at the head of the table usually pays for everyone’s meal.

  • Staring is impolite and confrontational. However, foreigners may be stared at in the street, but this is mainly just curiosity from the locals.

  • When visiting a Filipino home, expats should remove their shoes before going inside.

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