The Grey Chronicles

2009.March.27

The Theory of the Filipino ‘Maybe’



Everywhere on the Web, when you search for Philippine Culture, you will find some sites describing what makes Filipinos tick, especially in business dealings. Somewhere on these sites, you might also encounter a description which goes something like this:

“Filipino businesspeople try to avoid confrontations of any kind; giving a direct answer of NO can be especially difficult for them. . . As a “face-saving” measure, Filipinos will often say YES when they don’t actually mean it. For example, a YES may be used to disguise a lukewarm response such as “I’ll think about it” or an outright NO You will have to be alert to subtleties in conversation to help discern the sincerity of the response. . . to ensure that a Filipino YES really means YES, you must get it in writing. Typically, Filipino businesspeople feel obliged to honour any written agreement.” (ASAG, 2005) [Emphasis supplied.]

Westerners are oftentimes baffled by a Filipino’s positive answer to an appointment or to instructions given only to discover later on that the same individual did exactly the opposite without cancelling an appointment or asking questions regarding the clarity of the instructions. Instead of repeating myself, refer also to a previous post which also discussed when Filipinos will say YES.

Clarence Henderson, who has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines, writing for Asia Pacific Management Forum (1999) gives an example:

“When a Filipino executive feels that telling the truth might embarrass or offend, he or she will often beat around the bush. In this context, YES doesn’t necessarily mean YES. The word YES could also mean MAYBE, "I guess that’s what you want to hear," "Perhaps someday," "I have no idea," or NO. There are, of course, a wide array of subtle cues to the real meaning, some nonverbal and some in Tagalog. For example, the word mamaya implies "later today," while saka na means more like "sometime later, maybe tomorrow, maybe next month, or next year … "” [Emphasis supplied.]

Katz (2008) discussing the Filipino manner of communicating, writes:

“Because the concept of face is important in [Filipino] culture, communication is generally very indirect. When responding to a direct question, Filipinos may answer YES only to signal that they heard what you said, not that they agree with it. Open disagreement and confrontation must be avoided, so you rarely hear a direct NO. Instead, they may give seemingly ambiguous answers such as "I am not sure," "we will think about it," or "this will require further investigation." Each of these could mean NO. as does a YES that sounds hesitant or weak.” [Emphasis supplied.]

Moreover, Salazar (2005) counters by writing:

“In the Philippines, YES is YES, MAYBE is NO and NO is rarely heard. Ask a Filipino a YES or NO question. . . one is likely to get a YES if the idea sits well with him. If it doesn’t, he won’t say NO he’ll say MAYBE. His response, irresolute as it may seem to non-Filipinos, doesn’t necessarily reflect an inability to make decisions. Rather, it shows a well-mastered tact of protecting the other person from hurt. He says MAYBE though he means NO to soften the force of a direct negative and thus immediately assuage the other person’s feelings.” [Emphasis supplied.]


Let us go back to basic English, then. BBC Learning English’s Sarah Bradshaw (2005) answers the difference of the words ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, and ‘possibly’:

“All of those words mean more or less the same thing. They all show that something is possible, or might be true. However, the real difference in meaning between them is when we use them and in what context. One is informal, another is neutral and another one is formal. . . ‘maybe’ is quite informal, ‘perhaps’ is neutral, and ‘possibly’ would be a little bit formal.”

noIn Philippine context, however, all these three are equivalent. These English words are equally translated into Baka in Filipino, Basin in Visaya or Tingali in Cebuano. MAYBE, ‘perhaps’, or ‘I’ll try’ are usual answers to questions to which a Westerner would really say NO.

Salazar (2005) adds: “[D]irectness is considered impolite, Filipinos use indirect speech to convey a need or desire.” Even Lorenzana (2006) clarifies: “Filipinos put a premium on peace. They avoid conflict whenever possible and when it exists they try to settle it in a nonconfrontational way.”


All these boils down to a closer look at Filipinos values or traits. Guthrie (1968), as quoted by Leoncini (2005), explains Filipino behavioral patterns in terms of a few characteristics they behaviorally manifest or concepts they deem important in dealing with others. These behavioral patterns are amor propio [self-esteem], hiya [embarrassment], utang na loob [obligation], and pakikisama [getting along together/with others]. These “four concepts have proven very useful in attempting to understand Filipino behavior patterns.”

Meanwhile, Lynch (1963) defines Smooth Interpersonal Relations [SIR] as “a facility at getting along with others in such a way as to avoid outward signs of conflict.” He describes:

“[SIR] connotes the smile, the friendly lift of the eyebrow, the pat on the back, the squeeze of the arm, the word of praise or friendly concern. It means being agreeable, even under difficult circumstances, and of keeping quiet or out of sight when discretion passes the word. It means a sensitivity to what other people feel at any given moment, and a willingness and ability to change tack (if not direction) to catch the lightest favoring breeze.” [Emphasis supplied]


Thus, I propose that the Filipino MAYBE is a way of dealing with questions demanding decisive answers in a non-confrontational polite manner. It does not reflect indecisiveness but rather the expectation that something is possible because of the positive aspect of utang na loob or pakikisama. Utang na loob or hiya might figure in the answer of MAYBE especially if the asker is a superior. Pakikisama and amor propio tend to be considered in the MAYBE given to a colleague, friend or acquaintance.

To a Filipino, saying an outright NO is similar to turning work away. It offends the desperate desire to be liked or to try first before quitting, and plays to insecurity that afflicts even the best of us. Typical to Filipinos, saying MAYBE or its equivalents—often the infamous phrase: "I’ll try"—is better than declaring a decisive YES or an outright NO at first then rescinding or revising it later. To Filipinos, the latter is tantamount to not being true to one’s word [or walang isang salita]. As a proverb says: It’s better to try then fail, rather than not try at all!

If in the West a declaration of decisiveness is “I mean what I say and I say what I mean,” in the Philippines, actions and facial expressions speak louder than mere words.


Notes:

ASAG (2005). Philippines: Cultural Tips. Online: ASEAN German South American Network, 2005. back to text

BBC (2005). BBC Learning English — Ask about English: Perhaps, possibly and maybe. BBC World Service Learning English Online: BBC, 2005. p. 2. back to text

Guthrie, George, ed. (1968). Six perspectives on the Philippines. Manila: Bookmark, 1968. p. 64. back to text

Henderson, Clarence (1999). Filipino Business Norms, Etiquette and Style. Manila: Asia Pacific Management Forum, July 1999. back to text

Katz, Lothar (2008). Negotiating International Business — The Philippines excerpted from Negotiating International Business — The Negotiator’s Reference Guide to 50 Countries Around the World. Online: Global Negotiation Resources, June 2008. back to text

Leoncini, Dante Luis P. (2005). A Conceptual Analysis of Pakikisama, Filipino Cultural Traits: Claro R. Ceniza Lectures.. Rolando M. Gripaldo, (ed.) Washington, D.C.: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2005. back to text

Lorenzana , Angela E. (2006), Galit: The Filipino Emotion Word for ‘Anger’. Paper presented at Tenth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics (10-ICAL). 17-20 January 2006. Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, Philippines. 13pp. back to text

Lynch, Frank (1963). Four readings on Philippine values. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press. 1963, p. 10. back to text

Salazar, Zeus (2008). Maybe is NO. Online: Living in the Philippines, 2005. back to text 1 | 2

Disclaimer: The posts on this site does not necessarily represent any organization’s positions, strategies or opinions; and unless otherwise expressly stated, are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Philippines License.

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2 Comments »

  1. Brilliant!

    I have been asking Filipinos about this aspect of their culture for a long time, but I was never happy with their answer, they seem oblivious to the fact that they actually do that!
    And when I ask is it frowned upon to complain, as i often do, they tell me no, yet when i complain, everyone seems to frown upon, but if you confront them about frowning upon it
    and explaining your rights, they just shun it off!

    I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THESE PEOPLE! They are annoying!

    Comment by eddie — 2009.June.22 @ 03:32 | Reply

    • Thanks! Now maybe [no pun intended] you know what MAYBE to a Filipino means!

      Comment by reyadel — 2009.June.22 @ 14:16 | Reply


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