Traveling, more than just an exciting, Instagram-worthy experience, is one you will always learn from. But there are simply some things that are more than helpful to learn beforehand. These are the things that will save you from the possibility of outright insulting someone or ending up on the wrong side of town. Here’s what not to do when visiting the Philippines.
First and foremost, it should go without saying that you shouldn’t insult your host country, but the Philippines is a bit of a special case. Filipinos are proud of anything and everything Filipino (this is why “Filipino Pride” is a thing), so to say anything that could offend them or the country could be a huge blunder. They tend to be very protective of their country and people, so the slightest criticism could be taken the wrong way. In fact, the Philippines has a growing list of celebrities from whom they’ve either demanded an apology—or worse, declared persona non grata (an unwelcome person)—actress Claire Danes is living proof that it might be better to tread lightly on the criticism.
Filipinos highly revere their elders, and this is obvious in the way they are spoken to. The words po and opo, for example, are used to show respect. While foreigners are clearly not required to be familiar with the use of such words, the value of respect is still expected from them. One way this can be shown is through a local greeting practice known as pagmamano (mano is the Spanish word for hand). This constitutes a slight bow, taking the hand of the elder, and touching it to your forehead. This act is most commonly done to grandparents, and they’ll likely be pleasantly surprised should it be done to them by a foreigner.
Another giveaway that respect is a big deal in the Philippines is the avoidance of being on a first-name basis with someone older. Depending on the age gap, there is a more respectful term to address an older person. There’s ate (older sister) and kuya (older brother), tita (aunt) and tito (uncle), and lola (grandmother) and lolo (grandfather). These titles are used regardless of blood relation, and simply based on how much older the person is than you. The default titles for a complete stranger, say, driving your cab or selling you something at a store, would be ate and kuya.
Filipinos are very non-confrontational and are a rather timid bunch when it comes to people they’ve just met. So should a problem arise, try not to lose your temper, and remain calm and pleasant. When meeting locals, be friendly (Filipinos are generally very friendly), but avoid being cocky or intrusive. It’s also important to note that Filipinos are quite indirect and will avoid giving an outright “no” at all costs, as they fear it could come off offensive. This might be a bit frustrating to a foreigner, especially when trying to set up a gathering or extending an invitation, but the Filipino way of saying no can come in the form of phrases like “We’ll see,” “I’m not sure,” or “I’ll try to make it but…”.
…at least to casual gatherings. Filipinos are notorious for adhering to something called “Filipino time”, which refers to anywhere from a 15-minute to an hour-long delay on the clock. So Filipino events will almost always start at least a few minutes late. Many are trying to get rid of this stereotype and formal gatherings are much more likely to begin on schedule, but don’t be surprised when your Filipino friends are only leaving their homes by the time you’ve gotten to your meeting place.
I know what you’re thinking—Filipinos get offended and immediately declare persona non grata, but everyone else isn’t allowed to? The thing is that Filipinos are mostly very happy, fun-loving people. However, their sense of humor might not always fit yours. As opposed to dry humor, Filipinos usually enjoy a more slapstick, situational, silly kind of humor. So in a circumstance where a local imitates your accent, for example, and proceeds to laugh, this isn’t a form of mockery, but simply a good-natured joke, expressing amusement over something different. It might become annoying to some, but just remember, it’s hardly, if ever, done out of spite.
The Philippines is one of those countries many people assume is unsafe due to how it’s portrayed in the media. It’s important to remember that the media tend to magnify the extremes and attention-grabbing events. While there are places in the country best avoided by tourists to be on the safe side, like certain provinces in Mindanao, as long as you travel smartly, taking common precaution, you should be perfectly fine elsewhere in the archipelago. Prior research will help you decide where to go, what to do, and for those whose cultures are extremely different from that of Filipinos’, what to expect. It also won’t hurt to know a few Filipino words to exchange with the locals. They love hearing visitors trying to speak their language (and again, don’t get offended if they respond with laughter—this is an indication of amusement).
This will almost always apply to food. On the one hand, Filipinos are food aficionados. They love to eat and food is a huge part of their culture. And on the other, they are fantastic cooks who don’t let anything go to waste—so brace yourself for dishes made of animal parts you never considered edible. You’ll be in the land of chopped up pig’s face on a sizzling plate (sisig), hard-boiled duck embryo (balut), and grilled chicken intestines on a stick (isaw). If you’re the type to get squeamish quite easily, you might be better off not asking what something is. Just try it and should it not suit your fancy, simply don’t have it again. But do try to step out of your comfort zone. This is the perfect place to channel your more adventurous side.
Instead of sharing the road, driving in Manila feels like Darwin’s survival of the fittest. Not only is it a challenge manoeuvring through the Metro’s complicated routes, the difficulty is upped a level by having to compete with the jeepneys that pull over without warning and the huge buses that swerve carelessly, expecting other motorists to automatically give way. The extreme road congestion and ceaseless rush-hour traffic don’t help much either. So unless you absolutely must, you’ll be best off leaving the driving to your Uber.
Sure, the Philippines is a much cheaper country than the US or many of those in Europe, but don’t assume you’re being cheated just because you’re being charged a bit more than what you hoped for. To avoid a heated exchange with a store owner or a pedicab driver, the best way to go about things is by firmly agreeing on a price beforehand. If they insist on an amount you wouldn’t be happy to pay, simply walk away. When bargaining, pleasantly make your offers and if you’re not happy with theirs, politely decline. Remember, while you’re trying to make a good buy on your end, they’re making a living on theirs.
At least during casual conversation, try to avoid getting into a discussion on religion. The Philippines is a significantly Catholic nation, and many, especially those of the older generations, are very pious. In fact, in the Philippines divorce is illegal, and the use of sexual contraception is still largely frowned upon (some things the younger generations are trying to change). So in the attempt to not upset a tita or lola, it would probably be best to reserve the atheism talks for another trip.