• ‘Do you understand what I mean…?’ –Communication issues



    One of the major selling points to investors to encourage investment in the Philippines is that it is an “English speaking nation”—or at least a nation with an English speaking workforce.

    It is always a challenge to communicate in a way in which the recipient will gain an accurate understanding of what the communicator wants to be understood, particularly when the communication is cross cultural. Whilst there can be simple English language problems in the Philippines the non-Filipino speaker is often lulled into a false sense of security given the widespread use of English, that the recipient of the communication has an accurate understanding of what has been said or for that matter, written. Alas this is not always reliably, the case. But it is not the only communication issue that arises.

    The first problem in the Philippines is to actually access the person with whom communication is desired. It’s all too common to end up speaking to some assistant or other who wants to know all about the particular issue but who either doesn’t fully understand it or has insufficient authority to deal with it. This gets several leagues worse when emails addressed to the “boss” are opened by assistants who are empowered to decide what to do about them—they may pass it on or they may not. Boss types get busy, they go on trips, they are really hard to get hold of, and even asking for a cell phone number is a major hurdle to be overcome. Accessing the person to be communicated to can be a challenge

    Filipinos, with some notable exceptions are generally fairly agreeable sort of people. They don’t readily like to admit that they don’t understand a word of what you are talking about, so they nod and smile and give every appearance of having agreed and understood. It’s only later that you find that they didn’t! Or at least they didn’t understand the real message. Perhaps it’s better to be blunt and direct like a German for example; well not really, there are some very thin skins around, easily upset or worse “insulted”. An oblique way of talking seems best but it also lays fertile ground for misinterpretation.

    “Things don’t happen like you would expect” was an early tip given to me about doing things in the Philippines. Well you can certainly say that again. Many times it will be cross-cultural communication issues that bring strange outcomes to things. Other times it’s just plain venality, self-interest, or matters that you just don’t know of and which nobody tells you about, but which you would have thought someone would have told you about as they seem, to you at least to be highly material. You could understand better this closeness of information in, say, China where the way the state operates demands certain secretiveness on the part of ordinary people for their own protection. But in the Philippines! No, you wouldn’t expect that from such apparently open people. You could, for example, spend quite a lot of time negotiating to buy a piece of land, come to the end of the negotiation thinking all was settled only to be told that the land had previously been sold to somebody else! Things like that happen quite a lot. It’s very peculiar. Perhaps it’s just being hospitable, “well he wants to buy the land so let’s not disappoint him by telling him we’ve already sold it”!

    The burden of making you understood by the right person or people, at the right time is of course on the ‘communicator’. There are generally ways of reaching the person who is believed to both understand the issue and be in a position to make a decision; at least, that is the case in government and politics. It is phenomenally difficult to reach, say for example, the head of PLDT or Citibank, who are protected by endless phalanxes of disinterested and un-empowered gatekeepers, from being communicated with by anybody regardless of the merits of the particular issue at hand. Perhaps they set these barriers up deliberately because they know how much their business really cares about their customers!

    In legal matters, often conducted in the Philippines in English there is frequently a rather oddly convoluted form of English used making it very difficult for the averagely knowledgeable reader to actually comprehend. Any legally interested reader who may read this column may like to access the following link to see a summary judgment of a complicated case mostly heard in a foreign language [Russian] with the use of translators and written with absolute clarity: https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/judgments/berezovsky-abramovich-summary-31082012/
    It is incumbent on foreign investors and other visitors to the Philippines to plan their communication needs effectively and to ensure that their messages are properly understood. Then we may all progress faster forward to a better and more FDI-friendly Philippines.

    Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com


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