For those doing business in the Philippines…

….I thought it might be worthwhile addressing a couple of (mis)translations of two common Filipino phrases you are likely to come across and which are often misinterpreted by Westerners.

Hiya

Filipinos have a strong sense of hiya, which is often (mis)interpreted by Westerners as “shame”. While it’s certainly true that a Filipino may feel embarrassed in situations such as public confrontations or if they were unable to fulfill a request that was asked of them, the word “shame” is not an adequate translation. The Western concept of shame is largely related to externalities – how something has made one look foolish or weak in the eyes of other people. Hiya has elements of that, but it is also strongly connected to the personal (internal) Filipino sense of pride and honor and a more accurate translation is “sense of propriety”.

A lot of foreigners fail to notice this but Filipinos are, rightly so, an extremely proud people. They will take it seriously and personally if you insult them or berate them, especially in public and doubly so in front of family or acquaintances. If you put them in a difficult situation that will cause them to lose face or compromise their personal sense of propriety they will hold it against you. They will rarely confront you about an incident. Instead, expect doors to be closed from that point on, especially those within their personal and professional networks.

Bahala na

One phrase that you’re sure to encounter frequently in the Philippines is bahala na. This phrase does not have a direct English translation, but its meaning is similar to the Spanish adage que sera sera which translates to “whatever will be, will be.”

Bahala na is an expression of Filipino fatalism – a tendency to become resigned when things are not going their way and simply leave it to fate. This attitude sometimes causes frustration to foreigners from individualistic Western societies who may equate this fatalism with giving up too easily or being apathetic.

However, Filipino fatalism isn’t really about this. When a Filipino says bahala na, most of the time they are only acknowledging that they’ve done everything they can about a situation and whatever happens next is out of their control. Bahala na is, in reality, more of an expression of Filipino resilience.

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