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Cultural Differences between Americans and Filipinos

I have been living here in the Philippines for a year now and still am learning new things about the culture and difference in thinking. I also think if I live for 100 more years I will still never learn it all.

He or She
There is also a language difference even when Filipinos speak in English. One thing that causes confusion is “He” and “She”. When a Filipino is talking about a person they will use he in the sentence and later say she. When you ask who the other person involved, they will say, no it is just the one person.

Then there are directions to somewhere. In America you will say something like, 2 miles away, the next street on name the town, city or state. Here a usual response is “over there”. Over there can be across the street or the next city.
In the states, you usually will use maybe in a sentence if you have an educated guess. For instance, you are at work and a co-worker mentions he had trouble with his car starting that morning. The next day he does not show up for work. If anyone asks if you know where the co-worker is, you will reply “maybe his car could not start.”
Here, if you ask a question to a Filipino and they have no idea of the answer; they will say maybe and inject anything. For instance, someone mentions their TV does not work. They say nothing more than that, someone might look up and say, maybe it is the power supply.

There is non verbal talking here too. A raise of an eyebrow means yes, or I understand. Unfortunately if you’re not looking at their face, or look away for a moment, you never saw their answer.

Instead of pointing with a finger, Filipinos will point with their lips like a kissing motion.

As Bob Martin in his Web Magazine, Live in the Philippines discusses in a new series of articles about SIR (Smooth Interpersonal Relations) and Ulaw (shame, loss of face) there are frustrating times interacting with younger Filipinos.

Elena and I have 3 nieces living with us. They are all in nursing school and are ages of 22, 20 and 18. As in most western families, we are used to conversations at dinner or when sitting around the house. Here when we eat there is silence except if I ask a question. And then all that is said is to answer. There are no conversations. Once I get up and leave the room conversation usually starts up.

All the girls know English, but will not use it unless it is directed to me. Even if I am in the room and they are talking to each other, they talk in Bisaya or else they wait until I leave the room.

When you talk to them about it, they do not understand your feelings or need to know them better.

A lot of times when you’re out, a clerk, waitress, waiter or others you meet in the course of the day will speak in English to you until your companion asks something in Bisaya, then the other person changes to Bisaya and responds to questions or responses in Bisaya leaving you out of the conversation.

Now I understand there are many who have limited knowledge of English, but even the more fluent will do the same.

One of the reasons I looked for a Filipino wife and not a lady from China, Japan, Thailand, or one of the other Asian countries was that English is taught here in schools.

When you travel around town, you will see 99% of store signs in English. The government and road signs are in English and so are most of the newspapers.

I know I was guilty in America feeling that if you move to America, you should know English and I am living in a country where English is not their language, but since most have learned English in school, you usually know Filipinos who speak English with some confidence.

I also have difficulty learning languages as was proved to me in grade school where I was close to failing the second time taking Spanish.

Foods and Meals

In America we are used to different foods for each meal. Breakfast is usually light, juice, cereals, eggs and/or toast. Lunches are usually a sandwich, a salad or a smaller portion meal plate. Dinners are a protein such as meat, poltry or fish with a vegetable and a starch as rice, potato or noodles.

Here most Filipinos will eat the same things no matter which meal and will almost always include rice. Also most foods are pan fried.

Beef and pork here can be tough and we use a pressure cookerer to make them more tender.

Also you will almost always see a small plate of soy sauce sometimes with a small hot pepper mashed into the sause to add some spice. Sometimes it will be vinegar.

In the States we use a fork to eat and a knife to cut and a spoon for liquids. Here most use a fork and spoon. The fork is to move foods together and the spoon is used to cut and to eat with.

Snacks in America will be sweets, a light item as chips or just a drink. Filipinos it is usually carbohydrates. They will even take pansit whish is a rice or what thin noodle and then make a sandwich of it. So it is carbs on carbs.

What do you think? Have you any common of different experiences. Please leave a comment and let me know.

21 Responses to “Cultural Differences between Americans and Filipinos”

  1. Mindanao_Bob says:

    The reason why he and she are confused is because in Bisaya and other Filipino languages there is no distinction. He or she is “siya” – it is the same whether the person is male or female. Because of this, when they switch to their second language, it is difficult to make a full shift and speak perfect English. I have been studying Bisaya for a year and a half now, and I make mistakes when I speak the language. Because of that, it is not unexpected that Filipinos will make mistakes when speaking English.

    Even if learning languages is hard for you, I think you should give it a try. Learn some words, so that it at least can be seen that you are trying. If you expect them to try to speak more English to accommodate you, it would be really helpful if you also make an effort for them. Just a few words is not too difficult to learn, and will go a long ways toward making for a happier life!

    Good luck, Bruce.

  2. Bruce says:

    Thanks for the comment. I forgot to mention that I knew there is no he or she in their languages, but it does get confusing at times.

    I also do know few words but do not use them too often. I do try to use salamat and waly sapian instead of thank you and your welcome.

    One word I have made a joke for to remember. It is, even if you have a little drop of water, it is tubig (too big)

    I have thought of your teacher, but I think I should spend time learning more basic words and pronuncations. I have realized vowels are pronunced differently.

  3. rick bowden says:

    Hi Bruce

    I also find some differences and even frustrations living here in the philippines, sometimes it bothers me but most times i try to look at the positives aspects and that gets me through. the language frustrations you outline are our problems and we need to just get on with it, easier for positive people like us Bruce.

    For me, learning the language is going to be very hard, had a pathetic attempt which i gave up in failure earlier this year, i will try again, maybe my daughters birth here will inspire me to be able to communicate fully with her, lets see, good luck with the silent neices, make them laugh Bruce, that will break the tension

  4. Bruce says:

    Thanks for your comment. My biggest greif is I would like to be closer to my nieces and get to know them better. I realize in America and a lot of other places Teen girls look at adults as the enemy.
    I too will try again. Maybe we could get a beginner Basaya class for us to help each other and not as expensive.

  5. BrSpiritus says:

    I’ve picked up alot of words in Basaya since I have been here, you’ve seen that in the times we have been out together. Some I learned before coming here and some I hear and ask my wife what it means…. somehow it seems to stick in my brain that way. I can tell you what I know that’s useful if you want me to.

  6. James says:

    Hi Bob,

    I can’t stand not saying anything. After reading your post with a handful differences pointed out, i was amused.

    You see, we used to have the same experience with few American missionaries few years back. And obviously they had the same difficulty getting along with the town folks. Imagine the language barrier so terrible, sometimes, both them and us had to do some sign-language to convey ideas. Most of the time, it’s actually an opportunity having an English speaking friend. While it’s taught in schools, the teachers will usually speak the language crookedly. We call it Carabao English. It is always better to learn English from somebody who speaks it well. While it’s part of the curriculum, the language is spoken only in schools, never in homes.

    Shyness was overcame of course after warm gestures, humors and just trying to be conversant.

    Please give them time to know you. Oftentimes, even though the dialog is not two way, you can be assured that your point is understood. Like me, am not good at speaking the language but I can sure well understand and write it.

    The missionaries, it took them two years the most to learn Bisaya. Like English, bisaya/tagalog is syllabic making it easier to speak I guess. Unlike Arabic or Chinese language.

    I think you’ll do fine. I find it even harder to understand a British guy talking than from an American accent. We always find it very cool from other nationalities being able to speak Visayan or Tagalog. And also, being able eat barehands with us. Gross? Using separate plates of course. 😀

  7. Bruce says:

    Thanks for the offer. Since I am not good at languages, I need to be taught a few words, help with pronouncement and reminded and tested for a few days. And then need to be reminded. If not used frequent I forget it.
    If your up to it, great and thanks.

  8. Bruce says:

    Thanks for reading my articles and leaving the comment. Once correction, I am Bruce 🙂
    I think your used to commenting in Bobs site.
    As you mention, filipinos are good at reading and writing but shy at speaking. I thought I would be a good way for my nieces to practice with me. Especially since I heard there is an english compentency test to work abroad.
    If they want, I am here for them. If not, it is their own fault.

    I clicked to your site and plan to be a reader.

    Thanks again.

  9. Mindanao_Bob says:

    Hi Bruce,

    Regarding your last comment to James… when you said:

    “As you mention, filipinos are good at reading and writing but shy at speaking. I thought I would be a good way for my nieces to practice with me. Especially since I heard there is an english compentency test to work abroad.
    If they want, I am here for them. If not, it is their own fault.”

    Think of it like this:

    You, an American are shy or reluctant to speak with them in Bisaya. Your nieces are probably wanting to talk to you. They are there for you to practice a few Bisaya words if you want it. If you don’t want it, that’s your fault!

    Not trying to be mean, just pointing out that there is a different angle that you can use to see the point a little differently. You are living in a place with a differnet language, it is a huge advantage to you to be able to speak even a few words!

    Good luck!

  10. Bruce says:

    You are right in part. I am in a country where english is not their language. Even though newspapers, signs and a lot of posted signs are in english.

    When I moved here I explained I am very bad in languages. I asked Elena and my neices to help me build a work list on my computer with Bisaya, english and a column where I can type it phonetics.
    That lasted one day.
    I have also asked if we can give me a few words and drill me with them each day and then test me in comming weeks so I can build my vocabulary. They were not willing to do that either.
    I am guilty that I do not force the issue either.
    I have learned some words. (pardon spelling) tubig, wala (but meanings) samalat, waly sapian, maayong buntag, hapon gibee for now and do use them when I can.
    What I see with my nieces is glued to the tv or total avoidence from me. One niece once sad when asked why she will not speak in english to me, her reply was “I prefer silence” I do not pay their tuition but pay for their food, shelter and many needs. When I heard that I was close to kicking her out, but I did not. And now a year later the general responce from her when I ask how she is, all I get is “ok” or “Tired” Like many american kids, I have heard here many feel they are “intitled” to all needs and gratitude and respect is falling away.

  11. Mindanao_Bob says:

    Hi Bruce – I can hear you and understand what you are saying. I do believe, though, through my own experiences, that learning more of the language will make your life happier. I know that it did for me.

    Here is a little tip for you. Have Elena make little signs with the Bisaya names for everything, and put these little signs on everything around the house. Leave them there for as long as you need. For example, table is lamesa. Put a little sign on your kitchen table that says “lamesa” and leave it there until you can remember that table is lamesa. Put a sign that says “pultahan” on your door, “katre” on the bed, etc. I did this about 7 or 8 years ago, and it really helped me.

    I still believe that your nieces will come around if they can see that you are also making an effort. Even if they don’t, though, it will help you make other friends, and improve your relationships with people that you already know.

  12. Thomas Shawn says:

    Bruce –

    Don’t forget the social ranking that you have over those girls. They might not be ready to tell you about their day as you are sort of lord of the house in their eyes.

    I find the nonverbal communication an asset that I can pick up quickly and use to show others that I’m aware of what is going on.

    I’ll just have to move here to learn Bisaya … no book learning for me.

    That’s funny about the “he” “she”, my wife does that all the time.

    I think if an Americano just learned a few words and knew how to move about using local customs, people would be pleased by that. My number one strategy will be to go to Mass and skip the English one at the Cathedral. I have a English/9 Dialect missal and learning the language through the Mass might be a fruitful method.

    Also for me, it could be a learning experience for the locals that ours is a worldwide church and that’s a common thing for us to build on.

    That being said, my 4 and 5 year old sons are getting along with their cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents famously. They’re speaking the language of familial love.

  13. Bruce says:

    I have tried everything from jokes to anger to mentioning respect, to trying to get them to teach me bisaya. Nothing works. I will just look foward to them graduating and moving away. I just wonder what will happen if they get an OFW job in America, England, Australia or any other place where they need English.

  14. SafetySteve says:

    A very helpful site to learn Cebuano:

    Look under links, it will take you to a page of resources

    Then download the Mormon Missionary “Learn Cebuano” book…

    I love it!

    Great idea about making signs to learn words! I shall do that.

    The book is helpful though to learn some of the grammatical rules which really does not seem hard and lets you understand how the same exact word can mean two totally different things depending upon if the emphasis is placed upon the first or the second syllable.

    When I arrive, I think I shall play Visayan/Cebuano “dumb” that way I can gain some true insight to how I am viewed since it will be interpreted that I have no clue as to the language….

    • Bruce says:

      It is great your already learning some Cebuano. It will make others grateful you can say a few words.
      When are you planning to visit here and where do you plan to go.
      If in Davao, I would enjoy meeting you.

  15. Garryck says:

    For some reason, mahal ko wants me to learn Tagalog rather than Bisaya, even though she comes from Mindanao (over near Kopiat Island), maybe because she now lives in Quezon City. In the course of sourcing as much material as I could to learn Tagalog and some Bisaya, I found (and bought) the following program, which I find very good, though I need to put more time into it..

    Bruce, you may find some of the programs from Transparent Language of use. They have software products for learning both Tagalog and Cebuano. Their philosophy is that children and adults best learn languages by different methods, so they make software intended to maximise learning for the fossilized brains of us adults… 🙂 it includes tools like flashcards and software that can check your pronunciation (if you have a microphone) as well as word lists you can download to an mp3 player for when you’re away from your PC.

    May I also suggest Bruce, that the more you say you have difficulty with languages, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.. Since you mention it beginning when you were young, I’m inclined to think that your problems were more to do with that particular teacher than your ability. The right teacher can make all the difference when learning something. You may not learn at the same speed or in the same way as others, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

    Just my $0.02 🙂

    • Bruce says:

      Thank you for visiting and commenting. I have seen your name on comments on our friends site. For Davao and many other areas Bisaya/Cebuano is the language of most use, but in some ways Tagalog might be better. It is what is taught in schools and the language of most TV here. Also if your in Manila, that is what is mostly used.

      Dr. Garryck, 🙂 thanks for telling my my problem. It is just I have trouble learning from a book and need application practice. I have learned some Bisaya by writing the phrase and practicing it daily until it is memorized. Then with my age, the memory needs even extra help.

      Maybe you can burn me a copy and save me the cost since I am not making any money here. (joke)

  16. Dr Chris says:

    I haveread this post with interest. In my few visits to the Phils I have had a number of similar experiences. I think the situation where people lapse into their own language – precluding you from the conversation is fairly normal and universal, albeit annoying.

    I have tried to learn a couple of words and phrases. I agree with an earlier post – Tagalog is the better choice as that is the national language, the rest are simply variations with the same words often having very different meanings.

    a suggestion as to how to possibly learn a little more might be to have a short period each day with your partner, say 5-10 minutes to start, which is English free and deals with simple language. Kind of like a mini-immersion in the language. That way you can get to practice those phrases and responses that you have memorized.

    It also helps to have someone who is actively interested to see you learn. One friend was like that – she was an English teacher at a language school and was very pleased that I tried. However another friend seemed a little miffed that I was trying to learn ‘her’ language and was not overly helpful….

    Well..good luck with that.

    • Bruce says:

      Dr Chris,
      I have learned a few words but need to learn much more since I live here. About which to learn, Tagalog lessons are easier to find online and I even have a disk. The problem is me too, I have not dedicated the time each day to learn and practice. Lately I have been busy with a few opportunities that take up more of my time. One day I will need to kick myself in the A__ and dedictate the time.

  17. bingkee says:

    You have raised interesting things here but I may have to clearly explain that your points may not be generally true.

    The He/She is actually just stems out from unconscious confusion when translating the pronoun he/she—Filipino language is not sexist; the pronouns are not gender-based so a “he” may be referred as “siya” and at the same time, a “she” is also referred as “siya.” In the same way “his/hers” is translated to one pronoun, “kanya.” Filipinos learn English as a 2nd or 3rd language, depending on which region he/she comes from. So if a Filipino speaks English, he normally translates everything from one cognition—his first -language/ native cognition which is Filipino. A Filipino speaking English may think in Filipino cognitive-frame of reference while translating that cognition into English. So, if a Filipino refers to a “he” and says “she” to call him, it’s not just one person—it’s one pronoun to refer to both sexes–that is what they mean —it’s the same.

    Another thing the word, Maybe—maybe is also an educated guess for Filipinos, but it could also mean “hope.” Like what you have mentioned about the TV does not work—Filipinos try to “fix a problem” by turning to something that gives them hope—which may or may not be the solution, but at least give them hope. It’s “maybe because of the power does not work”—-trying to turn to the failure of power ” as the reason why the TV does not work.”

    Normally , Filipinos do not like to talk to each other in English in their own land, especially if they are aware that both of them or most of them speak Filipino anyway. Even here in America, I do not speak to Filipinos in English unless I speak to Americans. So why speak English to Filipino speakers in our own native land? That could be ridiculous to most.

    We do not segregate or categorize our food into each meal. This is based on the fact that we consider “food”as God’s blessings. Most Filipinos when expressing emotions are non-verbal—-because they are not as open as their Western counterparts especially in revealing their emotions.

    • Bruce says:


      Thank you for the grammar lesson. I write from my observations. But in a country where “respect to elders, especially family” it is rude at times to ignore us.

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