Crossing Cultures

19 September 2020

In my previous article MIRROR TO OURSELVES, I wrote about how we Filipinos with our cultural attributes can better compete in the marketplace against those coming from possibly more efficient cultures.

Now, I would like to discuss how others coming from a foreign orientation might understand Filipino cultural traits so that miscommunication can be avoided; relationships can be cultivated; and in general, culturally different we may be—how we can accept each other.

There is a great deal of literature on crossing cultures, many of which are about process: e.g., stages in cultural adjustment, dealing with culture shock, stress management, and awareness of one’s “adaptability quotient.” There are also a number of books on cultural typologies: The anthropologist Edward T. Hall talks about polychronic time orientation-- e.g., multi-tasking Filipinos such as saleswomen who serve several customers at the same time--versus the monochronic or one-event-at-a-time attention of Americans and northern Europeans. /1/ In order to prevent interruptions, Germans, for example, switch off their phones and close doors when meeting.

Hall goes on to pioneer the study of the use of personal space, which he calls “proxemics,” from the American, and especially northern Europeans’ non-contact culture with their need for big personal spaces or bubbles, to what I have observed as the Filipinos’ contact culture with our preference to touch and other gestures of intimacy. I once saw an amusing documentary film with two people chatting—one coming from a contact culture and the other from a non-contact culture. As Person A leaned toward Person B, Person B stepped back. Person A then stepped forward to get closer to Person B who again stepped back as he probably felt uncomfortable. After 30 minutes--still talking amicably and possibly totally unaware of what they were doing--they ended up from one end of the room to the other. /2/

Likewise, some architects design multifunctional rooms for large Filipino families who use the same area for several activities.  Beautiful and well decorated living and dining rooms are un-used as they are simply for show.  On the other hand, there are very large master bedrooms as children might want to sleep with their parents.  Or large kitchens as whole families can spend hours eating and "bonding" there.

Another anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell writes about non-verbal communication, including body movements--postures, gestures, and so on./3/ Thus we are reminded that when Filipinos raise and drop their eyebrows, they are saying yes.

Varied outlooks towards time, space, and forms of non-verbal communication are not only stereotypical but also relative, that is, differences among national cultures are frequently a matter of degree rather than their total presence of absence. Therefore, it is always best when analysing a national culture that we are aware of where we are coming from. For instance, Filipinos have a high tolerance for ambiguity when compared to the Germans, but not as high when compared to some countries in the Caribbean where uncertainty is a common feature of everyday life and therefore, to protect themselves from anxiety, had to learn to develop a high threshold for ambiguity.

Perhaps I can take myself as an example. Compared to most Filipinos, I am highly individualistic.  I am direct, and sometimes, even confrontational. I probably imbibed these when I was a young student at university in New York City. One of the first advice I heard then was, “When Americans shout at you, you shout louder”! I learned that the most efficient way of communicating was to say exactly what you mean, much as the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And efficiency was important to me. When at meetings, I spoke even when not called, and disagreed openly even when my superiors were present. With appointments, I was usually on time and became annoyed when others were late. Needless to say, when I came back to the country some 15 years ago, I had a very difficult time adjusting.

A recent book by Erin Myers THE CULTURE MAP borrows from the more academic publications mentioned above, applying identified typologies to the business setting. She employs vignettes to describe cultural responses./4/ 

The chart below is a summary of some contrasting responses to the same issues faced by people from different cultures.  To delimit the discussion, I chose the four basic functions of management:  planning, organising, leading, and controlling.  I could have used other areas of activity but management was the field of my international experience. I taught it at  university and used it in my business later on. 

The responses on the right are typically Filipino, the ones on the left are oftentimes, but not always, American or northern European.

A. PLANNING: when scheduling meetings to plan activities, or when “deadlines” are imposed, Philippine time is flexible. Time is not commoditised the way it is in more economically developed countries where it can be spent, saved, or wasted. Time can even be circular. Reflecting the agrarian planting and harvesting seasons, opportunities missed now will come again.

Similarly, in decision-making, Filipinos believe in a top-down approach. The person in authority is respected and is expected to be responsible for making decisions whilst others follow. In America too, because of the preference for quick action, decision-making is often top-down relative to say, Japan or Germany which are more consensual; i.e., with their preference for quick action, the American boss decides but their decisions can as easily be overturned the moment new information come on stream.

B. ORGANISING: Filipino communication style is highly contextual. What is said is not necessarily what is meant, so one has to be astute in reading between the lines. Because of the importance of smooth relationships, a “maybe” can as easily mean a “no.” Thus, people coming from low-context cultures where messages are explicit and clarity highly valued have to develop sensitivities to decipher what are alluded to or hinted.

Similarly, when one disagrees, it is a grievous offense to confront, particularly if done in public because of the possible loss of face. I recently made this mistake when I called a posting in my chat group fake news and a conspiracy theory. The person who posted it then asked how I knew, and I replied, “discernment.” I lost a friend as my disagreement was taken personally.

C. LEADING: Because of the hierarchical nature of Philippine Collectivism and the large power distance between superior and subordinate, the boss should dress properly and keep themselves apart. Moreover, they should be seen to be having the answers to problems. For subordinates, it is not acceptable to disagree with the boss in public. When addressing them, use their surname or put the prefix “Ma’am” or “Sir” if first name is used.

What if there is a need to persuade? For some people such as the French, it is important to know why something is being done, and so start from the general principle onwards to their practical application. For some others, it is important to know “how” even before the “why”, therefore from the specific to the general. Filipinos who prefer to be given instructions want the practicalities, if indeed general principles are necessary. Can-do Americans as well prefer applications before broad generalisations: action-orientated recommendations in executive summaries are on the front page, explanations follow somewhere inside the report.

D. CONTROLLING: Arguably, the most difficult part in an appraisal is giving negative feedback. People who belong to direct cultures and who dislike ambiguity not only give negative feedback directly, but sometimes even use upgrades, such as “this is totally unacceptable” in order to emphasise a point. Indirect cultures, on the other hand, use downgrades, “there is just this minor point.” Filipinos not only downgrade negative feedback but can complement them with a joke in order to blur the message. This goes well within the Filipino high-context culture, but when directed at someone coming from a low-context culture, it can be misleading, confusing, or even taken as insincere.

Whilst in business school, I was taught to use the American “sandwich” approach. Think of something positive to say, then somewhere in between mention the issue you would like to address, then cover it again with another positive message. This normative practice is from a culture otherwise known for its direct communication style.

The British, however, are fond of downgrading their indirect messages. I love golf but have poor body coordination. During training to improve my swing, my British coach almost always said “almost there.” After weeks of “almost there’s” I switched coaches.

How about developing business trust? Are business relationships personal relationships? Americans say no, Filipinos say yes. The reason is Americans do not mix business with commitment to family and friends. Their “trust” is more practical. It goes with the perception that the other party is honest, reliable, committed, and competent--the task-based requirements of the job.

On the other hand, for Filipinos, “trust” is emotional. Deep personal relationships are fostered amongst colleagues and these relationships endure even after their associations with the company are severed. Many Filipinos are therefore disappointed when their close American colleagues no longer keep in touch once they terminate their work relationship.


Over the years, I have found navigating across cultures challenging but also enriching. The most important things are to know your own culture, and above all, your own individual and habitual responses-- then to observe, listen, follow, and test the waters before jumping. It usually means we need to invest time and energy if we want to build relationships, but once we have adapted, crossing cultures can be an exciting adventure.


SOURCES: /1/Edward T. Hall. THE SILENT LANGUAGE. New York, Doubleday, 1959; /2/Edward T. Hall. THE HIDDEN DIMENSION. New York, Doubleday,1966; /3/Ray L. Birdwhistell. KINESICS AND CONTEXT: ESSAYS ON BODY MOTION COMMUNICATION. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970; /4/Erin Myers. THE CULTURE MAP. New York, Public Affairs, 2014.


Gerry van der Linden

25.09.2020 05:26

A very enjoyable read; thanks Vicki!

Herminio A. Liwanag

19.09.2020 10:43

Very interesting Vicki. Incisive but good choice of words.
Your writing style is improving. Keep it up. Thanks.