By Rew Shearer
Openly pointing out somebody’s flaws is generally considered rude – so why do supposedly polite Filipinos do it?
In a previous issue of Filipino Migrant News I observed that New Zealand’s appreciation of beauty, compared to the Philippines, was a kind of liberation for Filipinas living here. We heard from several women who felt far more comfortable in their own skins in NZ than in their home country.
Much of the problem came from the blunt criticisms they faced back home: told they’re too fat, too brown, too balbon, are pango, have dark kilikili or other skin blemishes; nothing is off-limits to a sharp-eyed friend or relative. Even framed in the typically Filipino context of humour, the all-too-common ‘joke lang’, most see it, by Western standards, as nothing less than body-shaming: inappropriate and rude.
So where does such a trait come from? And why? Filipinos are known for their sensitivity – for not wanting to stir up trouble or upset others. Tact is a cultural trait. So why this willingness to point out people’s so-called flaws?
I talked to a number of Filipinos about this. Everybody agreed that it was universal, although some attributed it more to older generations or to less sophisticated, less urbane individuals.
One woman I talked to, Mia, 26, considered such bluntness to come from popular culture: the lowbrow humour of daytime TV, where ridicule and mockery for the masses’ amusement is a staple of big name hosts. Perhaps such humour has a trickle-down effect into common culture and behaviour?
Another, Josephine, 40, gave it a more sinister spin, the o infamous Filipino ‘crab mentality’. This malevolent facet of Filipino nature is a willingness to exploit others or put them down, particularly compatriots, for personal gain. It is the antithesis of the kababayan culture, where Filipinos traditionally work together for the benefit of all and it can be a truly cruel trait. Viewed from this perspective, personal comments are a way of cutting a person down to size and undermining their self confidence; motivated perhaps by jealousy or a social mindset not unlike New Zealand’s ‘tall poppy syndrome’.
But maybe not.
It’s worth understanding that the habit of making blunt personal observations is not limited to Filipinos. It is, apparently without exception, an Asia-wide phenomenon. Japan, notoriously Korea, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand; all share this tendency. To varying degrees, all regard slenderness and fairness and flawlessness to be the epitomes of beauty and relatives, friends or even colleagues will be quick to make less than subtle criticisms of those who don’t meet those standards. And it seems that in all cases such comments are received with an equal measure of annoyance.
Mia agrees, recalling blunt comments about her physique from a non-Filipino colleague that had none of the smiles or ‘just kidding’ softeners.
If such remarks are indeed a deeply engrained and universal trait of Asian culture – and even other cultures around the world – how would the Filipino, normally so considerate and diplomatic, deliver them?
Probably exactly as they do. With a smile, a laugh, a tongue-in-cheek reluctance or a retractive “just kidding”. At the point of tension between a deeply-ingrained Asian tendency and their own sense of empathy, the Filipino uses characteristic smiles and humour, chagrin and delicacy as much as possible.
Preferable, perhaps, to keep their mouths shut. But maybe, softened by that characteristic Pinoy shyness, it’s not such an affront after all. Maybe it’s just a sign of changing times, a culture in the process of evolving, a clash of old and new.
Then again, some traditions are best left behind.