Life in the Philippines – It’s All a Big Misunderstanding!

Things That Even Filipinos Misunderstand

There are many things that we as foreigners misunderstand about Filipino culture and way of life in the Philippines. Some of us figure it out and go with the flow, and some foreigners never come to grips with all the confusion. Then there many things that even Filipinos themselves misunderstand, which is ever more perplexing to us foreigners. Below I have listed 10 things that seem to muster-up confusion among Filipinos and foreigners alike. There are more, I’m sure.

Misunderstandings Rule!
Misunderstandings Rule!

1. Telephone Hyphens – I have noticed, in our area at least, that there is no consistency in the displaying of phone numbers. Knowing that the Philippines uses both open and closed numbering plans, having two different systems simply adds to the confusion. For example, in reference to landlines using the open numbering system, a single phone number, which may have a variable set of numbers, will be displayed or printed in several different formats like: (012) 345-6789 or 012-3456-789 or 0123-456-789 or 0123-4567-89. More simply, just put the hyphen wherever you feel comfortable. Most consumers in this country cannot explain their own phone numbering system, nor do they understand how to display numbers in a uniform format. This might be the very reason nobody can remember anyone’s phone number. At least the cellular system in the Philippines is based upon a closed numbering plan (10 numbers), but it is just as misunderstood. You should never ask someone how to call a landline number on one island from a cell phone on a different island, unless you want to create mass confusion.

2. White and Yellow Stripped Road Markings – This problem is two-sided. Most persons in the Philippines whom are licensed drivers KNOW what the markings mean, but may not fully understand why they are where they are. Many unlicensed drivers neither know the purpose or why they are there, and if one set of drivers is not going to play by the rules, why should the other set of drivers? Take the white dashed lines that are supposed to be lane dividers (Manila) – just a big waste of paint. Everyone knows there is always room for 6 vehicles abreast on a 4 lane road! I asked a bus driver once what the solid yellow line was for and he said it was to make the line more visible during heavy rains. So in this case, the unlicensed and unknowing drivers rule by default!

3. 3-in-1 Coffee – This is more of a misnomer than anything. Whether you go to a sari-sari store or to a restaurant here and you ask for coffee, most likely you will be served a packet of 3-in-1 (or the choice of another packaged coffee drink) along with a cup of hot water. If you closely read the labeled ingredients, you will notice there is NO coffee listed. Depending on the brand of packaged “coffee drink”, you might see “coffee flavoring” added, but this is not coffee. If you want real coffee, you need to ask for Nescafe black coffee (instant), but many times you will get the “Out of Stock” response. Want to confuse a Filipino counter girl, tell her that 3-in-1 is not coffee! Filipinos drink their 3-in-1 thinking it is coffee…I say it is more like sugar with coffee flavor added! It’s the sugar stupid, not the caffeine that wakes you up!

4. Line or Que Jumping – I will admit, there can be some advantages to line jumping, but only in rare circumstances like when buying tickets to a sold out concert or for an aircon bus seat during an evacuation. But most times, and in all actuality, there is no real reason to hurry! Here is a good example; While waiting on our ferry-boat to dock recently, people scrambled to get in line to get off the boat (we hadn’t even docked yet!). They will push and shove their way to the front of the line, squeeze between you and your family members, scurry in pairs of two to get down a ladder that is designed for one person at a time, just to get off the boat first…only to get on the same bus you are on which doesn’t leave until everyone is loaded anyway! It could be the aircon on the bus they seek so badly, but my honest guess is that it might have something to do with bad luck and the ferry-boat sinking before they can get off!

Filipino Time
Filipino Time

5. Filipino Time – Somewhat related to the above line jumping, people always seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere when it really doesn’t matter. Filipino time is almost entirely relegated by the transportation system here in the Philippines. Most people don’t understand that their hurriedness will not get them to where they are going any sooner than if they just took their time in advance of their scheduled appointment (unless they miss that last jeepney). For those that are driving, they do not understand that they put lives at risk for the sake of being late anyway. During my time in the Philippines, I’ve noticed that more Filipinos wear watches than do not, and that makes absolutely little sense when you have no control over time itself (and when you have a cell phone that has the “correct” time!) The misunderstanding of a country on Filipino time imposes huge implications on tardiness and safety. Read my Filipino Real-Time Scenario.

6. Crossing of Words – To all English-speaking people, the repetitive mis-use of English prepositions might drive one batty. The crossing of words seems to be more prevalent here in the Philippines as compared to many other countries. Take “His” and “Her” for example. I’ve known some Filipinos who have been residing in the west for several years only to still call “him” a “her” or “he” a “she” or visa versa. The same goes for “on” and “off” and “open” and “close” or “in” and “on.”  Here in the Philippines, you open or close the light instead of turning it on or off!  And no matter how many times you correct someone, you still find yourself getting “on” a taxi, or heading to Manila “on” January!  To be fair here though, I should apologize for how ridiculous the English language can be, as it should be considered one of the more difficult languages to learn.

7. Boasting – There is no shortage of Filipinos boasting to being the best in something. Best workers, best actors, best artists, best singers, best this and that. But it turns out that they are only best in boasting. Even if Filipinos boast of being the best in this, the best in that, one can only respond with “prove it!”  I believe that boasting on being the best should come with proof that they are the best. Otherwise, the boaster simply proves to be a liar – or maybe there is a more underlying and sinister reason such as the distraction from and/or to cover-up all the deficiencies facing this country. When you have an old tattered chair that you love so much, you place a chair cover on it to make it look good, right! People here sure like to boast about their chair covers!

8. Pride – In all fairness to the “Boasting” paragraph above, Filipinos tend to be an overly proud and generally happy bunch of people. Filipinos are usually insulted though when they are the butt of jokes and they believe that pride must always come first! They insist that they deserve to be proud and that the solution to all their problems is to have even more pride as a people. I just don’t get it…what are they so proud of? Family and culture? Okay, I get that…and maybe Manny Pacquio, but really folks, this country is still an underperforming, semi-developing country that will never shake the “third world” tagline, not in my lifetime anyway. Filipinos just misunderstand the whole “pride” issue, IMHO. Honor, integrity, and character…now that would be something to be really proud of, but pride seems to get in the way of all that.

10. Zip Codes –  Much like phone numbers, the address system here is so misunderstood, it is easier for the mail carrier to deliver all the mail to the barangay secretary and let them deal with finding the addressee. There is an address system here which is seldom used, especially in the provincial areas. I’m almost certain though that this misunderstanding of the postal system is related to total incompetence and the inefficiencies of the Philippine Postal Service and through the lack of imposing regulation and rule. I’m not just saying this because I have a letter missing now for over 90 days while the postal supervisor in our local office comes to work everyday looking to better her Candy Crush Saga score from the day prior. Nor is it because I can still see last years Christmas cards still undelivered and sitting on a desk in the farthest, most dimly lit corner of the office. It is a system in disarray and is the most likely reason nobody can grasp it. Take a look at zip code placements in addresses and you will note that sometimes the code is placed before the city and sometimes after. Sometimes it comes before the province, sometimes after. And even more rare is when it is placed where it should probably go…at the end of the address! I’ve always thought that if I really wanted to mess things up a little more in our post office, I would just submit a change of address and then just not move.

I’m certain I could list 10 more things, and then even add 10 more things on top of that. While I love the warmth and hospitality of the Filipino people, it just amazes me how many people seem to be satisfied with the level of everyday ignorance and the status quo. I guess the majority must simply misunderstand how a democracy really works. If only they knew that they held the power to effect real change. If only they didn’t need that P100 so badly in exchange for their vote.


4 thoughts on “Life in the Philippines – It’s All a Big Misunderstanding!

  1. So it’s got nothing to do with them being rude, pig ignorant & uneducated?:)

  2. I didn’t really want to dealve into the reasons why, but just identify some things that they don’t seem to understand. Even the educated can be guilty of not knowing…or not caring. We have the same rude, pig ignorant, and uneducated in the west – difference being they are usually called out and mostly held accountable for their stupidity. That’s the big difference in my opinon.

  3. Great list !
    I can really sympathize with pretty much all of it, being married to a filipino myself, though not actually living there…
    With regards to your number 6, this is most likely due to Tagalog being an incredibly simple and at the same time complex language; so much of the understanding of it lies in the context… there is a lot of ambiguity in the language – even for my wife, who’s had 30-odd years to practice ! 🙂
    They just simply don’t have the words to convey a lot of concepts, so a lot of their sentences use word-combinations that would not make sense even to filipino if literally translated into english. For instance, the word “hanggang” which means “until” gets tacked on “ngayon” to mean “still”, like “i still haven’t found my soulmate”, which will cause no end of confusion when they translate into english literally – this is a real example from when i was courting my wife and told her that “i haven’t found my soul mate until now”, which she took to mean i still hadn’t, and you can imagine the outbreak of anger and crying that little confusion caused, hehe 🙂
    And also, about him/her, he/she, etc., Tagalog quite simply doesn’t have that concept – sure, they can talk about lalaki(boy) and babae(girl), but any third person will simply be s(i)ya(he/she) : doon sya – there he is.

    One item I would add to the list, and which quite frankly i’m surprised you didn’t put there, is Drama. Filipinos love to watch it on the TV, but they also love to talk about and make it 🙂
    So much so, that i’ve been accused so many times of “being drama” since getting married to a filipina that i lost count, hehe
    But i guess the saying is true that “the liar trusts noone”; if you yourself use something to get what you want, you naturally think everyone else does so also…..

  4. Peter, you are on to it! Like I said in the post, I could have added many more, but I thought I would just stick with 10. The language thing could merit it’s own book, if anyone felt compelled to capture it all. Communications in the Philippines itself is also worthy of its own article and I think I’ve written about it previously. And the “drama”…well, it never ends, right? And for me, it’s also been just over 30 years and we still occasionally find ourselves on different wavelengths…I’ve learned to practice simple and effective communications, just to keep me out of the doghouse!

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