Is it just me, or is there something iffy with the way respect and politeness have evolved in the Philippines? Respect and politeness are shown through both speech and actions.
First off, let’s examine respectful and polite speech in the Philippines.
Just to bring everyone up to speed, in Filipino/Tagalog, the so-called “national language”, the words po/opo (most formal/polite) and ho/oho (a notch below in formality) are used at the end of sentences or sentence clauses when respectful or polite speech is required. We also use the plural form of the 2nd person pronoun (you) – ikaw is 2nd person singular, kayo is 2nd person plural – also as part of respectful or polite speech. We also have titles and honorifics for members of the family, and other members of society.
Contrast this with the type of more egalitarian societies in the West. The European languages I’ve encountered so far differentiate between a formal you and an informal you. The formal you is used when dealing with people not part of one’s intimate circle, informal you when with close friends and family. In English, however, there’s just “you”.
Respectful or polite speech is more emphasized and is a more integral part of societies like the Philippines where social status and its determining factors, such as age, profession, and rank, play a bigger part in social stratification. A more recent development, I believe, is the peppering of sentences with “Sir” and “Ma’am”, especially in the corporate world and service industry.
When I was younger, one po/opo and ho/oho, either at the end of the first clause, or at the end of the entire sentence was enough. Nowadays, I hear these words, on the average, after every other word. My Bisaya-speaking friends tell me that such excessive use of po/opo and ho/oho has crept into their colloquial speech; their language, at its core, does not use such politeness markers. Furthermore, they perceive excessive use of it as fake and insincere.
Outgoing president Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino was a noted example; it formed part of why his speeches were rather cringe-worthy. Incoming Vice-President Leni Robredo, as some commentators on social media pointed out, was also doing the same in a recent speech.
One can’t help but wonder how polite speech here has become what it has. Is it because Filipinos are, more than ever, afraid to come off as offensive? Is it because there is an excessive compensation for something else? Is there a hint of submission, deference, or just plain pandering that is going on when speech is excessively polite? Is it just me, or has respect been reduced to superficiality here?
There is an inordinate, often crossing into unhealthy, focus on respect in the Philippines, which finds its way into social interactions, conversations and discussions. Before people accept what you have to say, they have to accept you as a person first. You have to “mind your manners”, which really is a euphemism for “know your place”. You have to have credentials. You have to be associated with the “right people”. You have to mind your tone, lest you come off as angry. All that is reality, regardless of whether or not what you’re saying is logically sound or argumentatively valid. Never mind if adding polite speech markers removes from the impact of what you have to say.
Because I’ve acclimated to Western notions of egalitarianism, I rarely use po/opo and ho/oho, and rarely do the other things I mentioned above in my speech. In fact, I’ve been called out for “talking to my partners as if we were feeling close. Which I think is bullshit.
I’ve worked with more open-minded Filipino and foreigner bosses, who insisted I drop the “sir” or “ma’am”. It was liberating. I believe respect and politeness is conveyed through the overall impression, which is both speech and deed.
So now, let’s talk about how Filipinos approach respect through actions.
When reminding Filipinos of simple rules and regulations such as, “no littering”, or “fall in line”, one will typically get a response of “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”, or “MIND YOUR OWN GODDAMN BUSINESS!”.
For those who drive and bring motor vehicles, Filipino drivers are notorious for disregarding traffic rules and “trying to get an edge”, especially when they know they can get away with it.
For a people who are “so proud” of their freedom of speech and democracy, Filipino society is all too eager to suppress and beat into submission all who harbor viewpoints and opinions that are any or all of the following: uncomfortable, not popular, or not agreeable.
Three examples. There are many more readily observable ones in Filipino society, but even with just these, a common theme emerges: respect is a one-way street. Respect goes up, but don’t expect it to come back down.
Real and genuine respect in any society is a two-way street. Even in societies like Japan, where politeness and respect have been taken to an art form, this holds true. To further illustrate the Japanese example, we define the senpai, who is the more senior one and looks after the kohai, the junior. The kohai is expected to be respectful and listen to the senpai, and to generally heed his/her teachings/advice and keep from embarrassing him/her. The duty of the senpai is to look after his/her juniors, to give the right advice/lesson, and to prepare them properly for their own comings-of-age. Although it may seem like juniors cannot argue with their seniors, the seniors are expected to be self-accountable, to self-correct if they have committed errors, and not to abuse their authority. Of course there are exceptions to this; there will always be.
When we look at our local example, we find that respect goes all the way up across societal levels, but is generally treated as optional going back down. As children, Filipinos are expected to do all the biddings of their parents without question. In the worst cases, they are treated as property; talking back and asking questions that they don’t want to answer will result in the children being called “ungrateful” or “smart-alecky”. Children are given “subtle” hints to stifle their curiosity, or will be rewarded with smart-alecky pilosopo answers like “galing sa pwet” (came from the ass). And when these children grow up, you can’t blame them for doing it to their own juniors.
What has become of respect in Filipino society?
Superficiality – respect is shown through excessive use of speech markers, but the actions don’t necessarily match the speech.
Lack of mutuality – what goes up never comes down.
Inequality – Filipino society puts unnecessary emphasis on ranks, and its inhabitants are always looking for that “edge” that they can use over others.
Respect is regarded as an entitlement dependent on rank.
True respect, however, is earned and reciprocated. It is based on simple consideration for your fellow man, regardless of status. It is vital for the well-being and development of any society.
Good luck trying to find that here in the Philippines.
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