Straight talking . . .



One of life’s bigger and continual challenges is the need to make decisions. They have to be made all the time. The vast majority of them are small decisions: Shall I wear blue socks or black? Shall I order tea of coffee? Should I get soup or salad? But other decisions are more high profile: Should I recommend investment in this or that opportunity? Should I take control myself or put somebody else in charge? Should I accept this job offer or stay in my current job?

The Philippines has a blame culture or one in which making a wrong decision can bring heavy censure and penalties and much criticism. Enemies will leap onto the making of wrong decisions and capitalize on them at the expense of the decision taker. It is an unfortunate reality that not all decisions can be correct. Through life you may consider yourself to have succeeded if you get more important decisions right than those you got wrong. It is consequently quite unreasonable to pillory people for making wrong decisions, unless of course the decision taker continues to insist that the decision was in fact correct when it obviously wasn’t and armies of lawyers are co-opted to “prove” matters.

It is most likely due to this cultural peculiarity that “misunderstandings” often arise and exchanges in communication tend to be full of vagaries. “I will try,” “maybe tomorrow,” “perhaps it will be finished,” “please try to do do it if you have time.” These qualifying phrases pop up all the time such that you never really know if there is serious intention to do what is to be done. They are basically get-outs or escape clauses. If something does not happen, as it should, then blame cannot be attached to that failure. If you say it will be ready tomorrow at 5pm, and it isn’t then the culture would leave you open to ridicule, contempt and criticism. It’s not always just face-saving. In a Philippines context it can be life saving. People can become extraordinarily upset around over what in most other cultures would just be brushed off as slights – unintended insults made mistakenly which can trigger a need for revenge and often serious revenge at that! I remember once playfully tapping a vice mayor on his shoulder with the intention of showing enthusiasm and camaraderie. It was a big mistake.

One of the problems in dealing with Westerners and North Europeans in particular is that they do not generally include such get outs in their commitments. “I will do it by 5 p.m. tomorrow” means exactly that and it would be natural to place great reliance on such a promise. If for some reason the target were not met, there would be a rational explanation, or an apology. Everybody would be satisfied albeit possibly irritated that the target had been missed. It must also be said that it would be highly unlikely that the promise would not be kept and for sure the rational explanation for its having been missed would not be; “sorry but the roof blew off my suppliers aunt’s house last night so he couldn’t deliver the parts in time for me to finish the job.” Not in the wildest dreams would such an explanation ever be offered and if it were it would be considered a bad joke.

What I find difficult to deal with is that, unless a revenge killing is caused, there is almost never a consequence for these unkept promises. Frequently people don’t state the real underlying reasons for their failure to keep their commitments to avoid awkwardness or embarrassment. You end up with a culture and society in which there is little certainty of anything ever happening as expected.

I guess it is all for the sake of pakikisama and to avoid the risk of people exploding because of small mistakes that are not forgiven and which are seen for some reason as grossly insulting leading to all sorts of unpleasant consequences.

The ability to talk straight, honestly and without fear of being totally squashed because of a small error would certainly do a lot to move the Philippines forward. Straight talking should be revered and not be held as threatening.

Mike can be contacted at


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  1. Amnata Pundit on

    This is the typical western conceit that says only the western ways are right. The Japanese are some of the most non-confrontational people in the world, they are so polite to the point of obsequiousness but you cannot dispute their over-achieving ways. So what’s really to blame over here? I think its the cultural pollution, and how to purge the western influence is the problem, and Im referring not to British but to Spanish, American and Catholic influences ( and abuses ) that combined to distort our peoples attitudes. Better if the Brits had colonized us, we probably would be British accented Anglican straight talking opium addicts by now.

  2. Sultan Kudarat on

    A very good observation. You are right, Sir. With this attitude of “reservation” or “escape clauses” you can never be certain what one will really do. It also gives an impression of non-committal, or things are just hanging/suspended. Neither does it motivates to do the best within the estimated framework. It is a cousin of the “manana habit” (could not type the first n with the wave character on top, phonetically, man-yana) There is always tomorrow. On the positive side, this why people have no stress, but at what cost.