Filipino Business Ethics and The Importance of Cultural Compatibility in Outsourcing

Naim-imbág ti matáy ta malipátanen ngem ti agbiág a maibabaín;

(“It's better to be dead and forgotten than to live in shame”)


- Tagalog proverb -


To quote Andrew Quartly, British outsourcing consultant with specialism in Sales and Marketing based in the Philippines, “Outsourcing is an attractive option to all businesses small and large alike, however it is a cultural and operational minefield with severe implications for all involved if it goes wrong.”

The readers who have been following Mudita’s work on Culture Clusters and Cultural Dimensions by now might have an idea of what some of the most common challenges in outsourcing/offshoring scenarios may be, since, as highlighted in previous articles, speaking the same language does not guarantee mutual understanding between parties who do not share common values (language: surface culture; values: deep culture):

- different communication styles [high- vs low-context cultures];

- different time-management strategies and different sense of priority [monochronic vs polychronic cultures];

- different relationship with authority and “power holders” [power distance index];

- different reactions to uncertainty and unpredictability [uncertainty avoidance];

- different social and group dynamics, etc.

With regard to outsourcing, it’s worth noting that in 2017 approximately 84.2% of opportunities originated from the US (EMEA and APAC contributed 13% and 3% respectively), while India, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam, Thailand, Chile, Cambodia, and the Philippines were indicated as the top locations for outsourcing deals.

To put it in a cross-cultural perspective, we are looking at major differences between the Anglo- and the Confucian-Asian, Southern-Asian, Latin-American clusters.

Some of the tips Andrew shared in the document “Tips For Outsourcing in The Philippines” (Southern-Asia cluster) include:

- “Having a Filipino team means taking on very friendly and outgoing people. They jump at the chance to make new friends and include as many people as possible in social get togethers.”;

- “The concept of saving face is a big deal in Asian work culture. Filipinos can often go out of their way to avoid losing face or being embarrassed in a public situation. If you think your staff member is saving face then speak to them one on one.”;

- “Filipinos often shy away from confrontation and value their reputation. They tend to address their work superiors with a prefix such as “boss” or “sir/maam”;

What’s the deep context behind these tips?

What does “friendly” mean, how does “saving face” affect daily interactions,in what ways Filipino avoid confrontation?

Let’s start with the definition of friendliness: “Pakisisama” (a term that comes from two Tagalog words, “sama”, to go along with, and “paki”, please, kindly) is a concept that embodies the warm Filipino spirit, a notion that defines a way to relate and to get along (pleasantly) with others.

Father Frank Lynch, an American national who specialized in the field of social anthropology and is well-known in the academic world for his studies on Philippine values, coined the term SIR (Smooth Interpersonal Relationship) to explain the differences between the Filipino- and the American way with regard to personal interactions:

SIR may be defined as a facility at getting along with others in such a way as to avoid outward signs of conflict: glum or sour looks, harsh words, open disagreement, or physical violence. It 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 [Does this ring a bell to Mudita’s long-time readers? In a previous article about social connections and business culture in China, Japan, and Korea we’ve learnt the meaning of “nunchi” (“eye-measure”), the Korean term for the ability to understand other people’s mood through non-verbal cues in order to to avoid situations that could cause conflict or hurt others]. SIR is acquired and preserved principally by three means; namely, pakikisama, euphemism, and the use of a go-between.

At times the word pakikisama is used as synonymous with what I understand by SIR; when so employed, the word is very frequently (almost predictably) translated as "good public relations." But I believe the term pakikisama is more commonly used with a meaning narrower than SIR. In this more restricted sense it means "giving in," "following the lead or suggestion of another"; in a word, concession. It refers especially to the lauded practice of yielding to the will of the leader or majority so as to make the group decision unanimous. No one likes a hold-out”.

As for shying away from confrontation and for valuing personal reputation, Father Lynch observed that “Aside from going along with the other fellow, there are several additional common ways of achieving smooth interpersonal relations. One of these is euphemism, which is the stating of an unpleasant truth, opinion, or request as pleasantly as possible. It is an art that has long been highly prized in Philippine society, and is no less highly regarded today. Harsh and insulting speech is correspondingly devalued.

In order to better understand Father Lynch’s work, we must remember that the Filipino society is characterized by a collectivist orientation: the common good, the well-being of the group, the preservation of social harmony, are more important than individual feelings and personal interests. Conformity with the majority is both expected and valued.

Research (Guthrie, 1968) has also sustained that, together with pakikisama, amor propio (self-esteem), hyia (embarrassment), and utang na loob (obligation) are significant values of Filipinos:

- Amor propio is concerned with self-image, dignity, personal pride, and - in Father Lynch’s words - with “manifested sensitivity to personal affront when some some of the individual’s most highly valued attributes come under scrutiny”;

- Hiya, a tool of social control, loosely translated as “shame”, “embarrassment”, “shyness”, is also concerned with pride, honour, and with social acceptance: the term is mainly used when someone is not able to conform with community standards while not intentionally trying to rock the boat.

As social scientist Ruth Benedict [article on shame- and guilt culture available here] stated, “True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behaviour, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin. Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism. A man is shamed either by being openly ridiculed and rejected or by fantasying to himself that he has been made ridiculous. In either case it is a potent sanction. But it requires an audience or at least a man’s fantasy of an audience. Guilty does not.”;

- Utang na loob, a “debt of gratitude”, indicates obligation and reciprocity (pagtutumbas) and is concerned with moral order and social responsibility: a person who has done someone a favour must be repaid appropriately.

Since it can be concluded that honour and pride are key values in the Filipino culture, firms outsourcing part of their services in the Philippines must consider that “standard” behaviour and practices adopted in the headquarter may not translate well in a different environment (see article on why “Ethnocentrism is the biggest threat to global organizations” for additional insight on this point): performance related feedback, for instance, must be worded and delivered in a way that won’t cause embarrassment (loss of face and reputation) to the receiver (example of a negative feedback session between a US manager and an Asian worker available in a previous article).





- Andres, T.Q.D. (1989). “Positive Filipino Values”. Quezon City: New Day Publishers

- Andres, T.Q.D. (1994). “Dictionary of Filipino Culture and Values”. Quezon City: Giraffe Books

- AT KEARNEY report:

- Guthrie, G. M. ( 1979 ). “A cross-cultural odyssey: Some personal reflections”. In A. J. Marsella, R. Tharp, & T. Ciborowski (Eds.), Perspectives on cross-cultural psychology (pp. 349 – 368 )

- Hall, E. T. (1976). "Beyond culture". New York, NY: Doubleday

- Herbert R. (1946). “The chrysanthemum and the sword : patterns of Japanese culture”. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co.

Hofstede, Geert H. (1997). "Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind". New York: McGraw-Hill

- KPGM report:

- Leon, C. T. (1987). “Social categorisation in Philippine organisations: Values toward collective identity and management through intergroup relations”. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 5(1), 28-37.

- Lynch, F., Yengoyan, A. A., Makil, P. Q., & University of Michigan. (1984). ”Philippine society and the individual: Selected essays of Frank Lynch, 1949-1976”. Ann Arbor, Mich., USA: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan

- Lynch, Frank. & Guzman, Alfonso de.  (1973).  ”Four readings on Philippine values”.  Quezon City, [Manila]: Ateneo de Manila University Press

- Yengoyan, A. A. (1969). “Six Perspectives on the Philippines”. Edited By George M. Guthrie. Manila: Bookmark, 1968. ix, 279 pp. n.p.,” The Journal of Asian Studies. Cambridge University Press, 29(1), pp. 209–210. doi: 10.2307/2942586.

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