Face and Power as Currency in the Philippines

You don’t find much psychotherapy in the Philippines. Seeing a shrink is an admission of emotional weakness, a no-no in a society that prizes power. After all, that’s what shame is, isn’t it? The opposite of power? The undermining of esteem. So if we view “face” as a self-defense mechanism against shame, we are basically looking at opposite ends of the power spectrum, where power is ego-gratification.

  • Power = ego gratification
  • Face = protection against shame
  • Shame = the failure of power
The same closet-minded attitude about psychotherapy existed in the U.S. in the 1950’s. But Americans, with television in front of them, began to see others openly talking about therapy and how they learned from it and grew stronger. And so, like the science of computers, the science of self-awareness spread wide and deep across the nation. Many Americans today want to understand why they behave as they do , “What makes me lose emotional control? Why am I depressed when I have so much? How can I gain confidence?”
Counseling is looked at, not as a weakness, but as a sign of sincerity and, indeed, the courage to understand, and perhaps even change, one’s emotional behavior.


What do psychotherapists or full-bore psychiatrists typically try to do? They try to bridge between our emotional selves and our rational selves. The objective is to teach people to live happier, less stressful, more constructive lives, where dysfunctional behavior takes the form of excessive or inappropriate anger or fear or anxiety or sadness (depression).
I’m not qualified to offer advice that can be taken as anything but speculation and opinion. However, you may be able to use your own observations to confirm the merit of what I express here.
The Preservation of Face
How are Filipinos different from most Americans? For one thing, Filipinos seem to operate on a very different interpersonal framework. The Filipino framework is characterized by preservation of “face”, where face is the positive side of self esteem or high regard for oneself. The negative side is loss of face. Or shame.
But the character of face in the Philippines seems more self-involved than that found in, say, Japan. In Japan, face is an explicit value that incorporates taking care of others as a primary value. In the Philippines, face is an explicit value that is focused mainly on taking care of oneself.
The Japanese excel in courtesy; they are meticulously polite on the outside. Inside may be a different dialogue entirely; it may or may not correspond with the politeness shown to others.
Filipinos do not appear to be so duplicitous. Indeed, I would guess that most outsiders find Filipinos to be excessively pointed and even rude. Maybe this is more honest than the Japanese inter-personal behavior. But it is not wholly good. Filipinos prize power. Courtesy is read by many to be a weakness. Soft. Non-macho. Something to be taken advantage of. And so emerge two of the most common outsider complaints about Filipinos:  (1) rude, and (2) not trustworthy.
So it would seem that courtesy and the concern about others, even the well-being of community, do not drive personal interactions in the Philippines. Self-enhancement and power do. That’s why laws are routinely ignored and little is done to improve sanitation.
What’s in it for me?
If the concept of face between Japan and the Philippines is very different, Americans are even more unusual for having a very subdued sense of face. Indeed, the American arrogance that Filipinos and citizens of other countries complain about is a function of behavior without shame. Even if Americans are shown to be wrong, they don’t exhibit shame. Therefore they project arrogance to those who are shame-based.
Americans operate on the principle that objectivity, acceptance of responsibility, and confidence are important. Saving or building face is not an explicit value for most Americans.  Indeed, the healthy view taught by psychotherapists is that we ought to accept responsibility for our acts rather than find excuses or blame others for problems. And we need not try too hard to impress others, for that reflects a neediness for their approval that is not healthy. That is why so many educated Americans actively manage their emotional well-being with rational introspection, rather than hang their self-worth on face that can be given or taken away by others.
Power as Currency
How else is the Philippines different? Here’s one way. Whereas the Americans social fabric seems to support the accumulation of  “things” (homes, cars, electronics, furniture, clothing), the Philippine social fabric seems to support the accumulation of power.
The Philippines is comparatively poor. Most people can’t spend lavishly to acquire things. But everyone can acquire something different that costs little money. They can acquire interpersonal power. And it seems to me that Filipinos seek to acquire and project power in everything they do. Indeed, as I’ve written elsewhere, just about all interpersonal interactions in the Philippines are binary, 1 or 0, powerful or powerless. Win or lose. Dominant or submissive.
The exercise of power is what pushes the “trade of favors” that generates small scale corruption (an LTO officer taking payment for expediting an application) to large scale corruption (kickbacks on multi-million peso construction projects). The more power a person accumulates, the more favors he can grant and receive. And the richer he becomes. Thus, power, as the means of acquiring wealth, is actually more important as a currency than the pesos themselves.
I suspect the power-dealing is not a conscious thing most of the time. It is built into the personality, the morality, the culture, of the Philippines. Filipinos are intuitive readers of power, their own and whomever they are facing.
The outsider does not grasp this right away. Indeed, outsiders  may come to the conclusion that Filipinos are rude. But they aren’t, from within the bubble of Philippine society. Filipinos are just going about their business claiming and conceding to power as the situation requires.
What are some instances?
One of the rules of acquiring power is to get there first. This applies to the intersection or the ATM or the line at the supermarket. Only one person has power, the one in front, and he is not afraid to use it.  He need not hurry. He need not care about the powerless behind him. He rules.
Another way to acquire power is to get a gun. There is a reason murder is a common occurrence in the Philippines during elections or business disputes or marital disputes or to get rid of an irritating journalist.
You have power if you are a bank manager or a doctor or a government office worker who has what common people need. Therefore, you need not be polite. You need not set appointments or even be particularly good at what you do. You have the power, and that is what counts.
Morality is not what counts; right and wrong are largely irrelevant and courtesy is largely irrelevant. The power is what counts. And sometimes it is wrapped up in that strong defense of face mentioned above.
Power. It is more intoxicating than drugs or alcohol.
Power is as sublime as a backbiting neighbor’s catty gossip. “Oh, the wife of the American is a prostitute.”
Such remarks have the wonderful ability to cut two slices at once, raising the esteem of the person making the remark and cutting down the person who is the object of the remark. It is power and it is everywhere in the Philippines, sly little digs and criticisms.
“Why did you build your house so big?”
“Why did you build your house so small?”
No matter that it is the same house. Because the question is not really about the house at all, it is about raising the power of the person asking it to the level of higher critic.
It is a small thing, really. Except it is everywhere, in every conversation, a fine patina that overlays Philippine interpersonal dynamics like butter over popcorn. This overlay is the need to project a higher mind, to win, and to avoid the shame of losing.
That’s why in blog debates between commenters, you seldom see flexibility or concession. It signifies weakness. Disagreements are two bricks whacking at one another. Solution is not the goal. Preservation of face, and power, are the goals.
The “so what” factor is that the healthiest society is one that deals forthrightly rather than wages power battles sublimely or under the cover of protected face. Power battles create winners and losers. Forthright dealings create only winners.
Filipinos are actually aware of the SYMPTOMS of their power-mongering. They recognize this in the behavior of supposedly educated Senator Sotto justifying his plagiarisms, or in the rice worker blaming others for his crop failure. Face it, the Philippines is at its most dysfunctional self when problem solving and good acts are set aside in favor of blames and excuses and playing the victim.
Most Filipinos are not able to accept mistakes as a normal part of the risks of being human. Face rules. Power as currency reigns supreme. Filipinos deny the value of “trial and error” as scientific method in daily life. They instead waste energy defending, covering, ducking, running, attacking, undermining, dodging and digging at others.
I tend to see the internet, blogging and social networks as being, for the Philippines, much as television was to America. A medium for enlightenment. I read both very healthy and very unhealthy arguments in the comments that people make online. And I sense that most intelligent Filipinos are grasping this notion that forthright is best.
It is a natural progression that healthy should win out, for it is best for the survival of the community, and the species.
We would do more to ensure survival and vibrancy of the Philippines if we did what we can do to accelerate this enlightenment.
Like put it into the schools, you dig?
30 Responses to “Face and Power as Currency in the Philippines”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Ignorance breeds fear and complacency. Unless,we, as a nation begin to understand our givenrights, our clamor for change will remain a pipedream!amor

  2. amor, indeed you are correct. Is there fear? I think not in the way that we would be afraid of monsters or lions, but in the way that people are so easily pushed into submission by the powerful. Complacency is akin to what I call a subsistence lifestyle, going day to day because there is not much to aspire toward. Poverty is a bitch and contributes mightily to ignorance.On the other hand, I think the internet is awakening a large, important part of the population to good values and the need to be straightforward and competent. That's why there is so much anger directed at Senator Sotto, because he represents what most people are trying to get away from, and indeed what they do fear. Someone trying to control them and limit their destiny.

  3. andrew lim says:

    I still have to research on this, but I think your observations and analysis of these Filipino traits have a lot to do with the injection of Catholicism here- so much of what you have said are similarly observed in Latin American countries- Mexico, Brazil, etc. That machismo thing, the superstitions, the lack of personal responsibility and accountability, etc.

  4. That makes sense, andrew. The Catholic Church is quick with a few "hail Marys" to cure sins committed by the flock, thereby dissolving any notion that taking responsibility is important. And going to Church is submission #1 that sets the pattern for other submissions. Still, I don't see how the church nurtures this drive to be a winner in absolutely every interpersonal engagement. So study is required I guess . . .

  5. Edgar Lores says:

    This is a profound look into the Filipino psyche. The model of Power, Face and Shame sheds true insights; and the cultural differentiation is clear with comparison to the Japanese and the Americans.I find it hard to understand what makes the Filipino tick. As noted, introspection is not an activity that we excel in. We do not, as a general rule, engage in navel gazing. We would rather show off a recent acquisition, whether in the form of an idea, a dress or a car. And if the idea is hard to understand – because it is encrusted with jargon and plagiarized from foreign blogs – the better it is to illustrate one’s “intelligence”.When I was growing up, there was a much-used phrase: “sin verguenza” is Spanish for “no shame”. It was applied to any form of misbehavior, from small infractions – like speaking impolitely to parents – to heinous crimes – like the low-cut blouse of the girl next door. Those were innocent times.I would like to place “sin verguenza” in the context of an external frame of reference. In the Buddhist path, there are two innate mental qualities that is the basis of morality. The first is hiri (shame) and the other is ottappa (fear). Hiri is the sense of remorse when we do something wrong; ottappa is the “fear of the results of wrongdoing”.The Filipino is externally driven, not internally driven. True, his basic motivation is to gratify ego, to satisfy his needs without real care for the needs of others. But to validate his worth he looks to others. His worth is not derived from self-respect; it is derived from the respect accorded to him by others.This external respect, it must be noted, can also take the form of its opposite, disrespect. Sotto, who is perceived to be sociopathic, seems to take pride in the mass loathing heaped upon him. Respect ranges from deference to adulation. Disrespect ranges from impoliteness – your first complaint of rudeness – to absolute hatred.The second complaint of untrustworthiness, I think, springs from the lack of personal integrity because of the lack of principles. If the Filipino does have any principles, they are more honored in the breach than in the observance. This hypocrisy is entirely consistent with the pre-occupation with appearance (face) over substance. Example: the pious Corona.Harking back to the Hierarchy of Loyalties, the Filipino at most identifies Self with Family. These are the outermost perimeters of his ego. He will commit graft for family; he will perpetuate dynasty over community.It follows that the hollow man relies on external, rather than internal authority.• This is seen in the “choice” of religion, the Catholic Church with its emphasis on hierarchical authority. With the INC, individual conscience is surrendered to group will in bloc voting. • This is also seen in the external control for misbehavior. The Filipino has little conscience, and refrains from wrongdoing mainly to avoid legal consequences. But if he could get away with it, he would. And, in fact, he does…The paradox is that once a Filipino achieves a certain social status, shame and fear disappear. He begins to believe he is above the law. This belief is vindicated time and again by the long shelves of Trophies of Impunity and Plaques of Exoneration in the Halls of Infamy. The list of names is endless and growing.In the Filipino lexicon, the Halls of Infamy correspond to the Corridors of Power.So from two circuitous routes, we arrive at a common destination:• In your top-down view, the misbehaviour of the Filipino is due to his grasp for “power” in order to have “face” and protect himself from “shame”.• In my bottom-up view, the misbehaviour is due to his lack of “shame” arising from an absence of personal integrity founded on basic principles.

  6. Edgar Lores says:

    On second reading, I see you have extended the Power, Face and Shame model to explain the Winner-Takes-All attitude of the Filipino. Solutions do not matter, superiority does. Truth does not matter, my opinion does.It would be a gross understatement to say that this attitude is not conducive to enlightenment.I would assert that part of the basic principles of the Filipino should include the principle of cooperation and the principle of plurality. Cooperation recognizes that individual effort in itself is not enough, but when combined into group effort great things can be achieved. It is a basis for progress. Plurality recognizes not only the existence of diversity in all things but also the importance of that diversity. It is a basis for enlightenment.

  7. You really should be writing books.What a vivid dissection of the underlying personal qualities and evolutions that lead to corruption and the warped Sottovalues. I think I could easily stop blogging now because you shed so much light on what has taken me about three years to synthesize that I feel we've reached an end-game truth.But I won't.Someone has to nag for change.Thank you for this extraordinary piece.

  8. andrew lim says:

    Joe/Edgar, there is a third circuitous route that will arrive at the same destination. Follow my line of thinking and my research on Catholicism:1. "… Filipino has little conscience…"Who has the greatest impact here for forming conscience? Is it failing in its job? 2. "Harking back to the Hierarchy of Loyalties, the Filipino at most identifies Self with Family. These are the outermost perimeters of his ego. He will commit graft for family; he will perpetuate dynasty over community."This is called amoral familism, first observed in southern Italy, birthplace of the Mafia- the needs of the "family" is put above that of society- leads to nepotism, dynasties, graft, terrible abuse of power (Ampatuans, Marcoses and Arroyos). Prevalent in societies where individual is submerged to that of family- like in Catholic dominated Philippines.3. "It follows that the hollow man relies on external, rather than internal authority" Who favors the use of images, icons, statues and physical objects, to the point of sacrificing lives of wildlife creatures here to emphasize their faith? Despite the disavowed idolatry, we all know many Filipinos attach mystical properties to certain objects -the rope used in the Black Nazarene carriage, certain statues, etc. So from my third vantage point, it is the dominant religion here causing all of this! And it seems to be validated by the experiences of similar societies abroad!

  9. Yes, andrew. Edgar and I are looking at the dynamics, the illness as it were. You are looking for how we got infested in the first place. And the cure is . . . .Join JoeAm's Church of Man! hahahahaNice third vantage point. Next we'll have to write about the "cure".

  10. Edgar Lores says:

    Good, Andrew, pieces of the puzzle are falling into place for you.What I am uncertain of is whether the Filipino's propensity for external authority is the result of Catholic conditioning or pre-existed before Magellan set foot. I tend to the latter view.In the pre-Hispanic culture, the Philippines had datus, freemen, warriors and slaves. One can say, therefore, that the propensity was there, but that it was exacerbated by Spain's rule and Catholicism.So for half a millenium, we have had this feudal culture that even to this day dominates the country in the rule of the oligarchs assisted by the priests.I think we are in line for a long haul…

  11. If anyone care to read the bible, there is no quotes from disciples on how to get rich but acceptance of tragedy and poverty.- the road to heaven is paved with thorns- it is easier for a poor filipino to pass thru the eye of the needle than a rich filipino- share the wealth. filipinos take this religiously. filipinos believe that the wealthy are obligated to share their wealth to non-performing non-working praying filipinos- god did not promise a rose garden, i beg your pardon?- confession of sins to be free again- hungry? throw a stone at someone so the someone will throw a bread at you.- jesus was born in a manager, filipinos emulate this, too- the reason OFWs instantaneously becomes poor because OFWs are forced to share their earnings to their poor neighbors because god said to share to multiply wealth which is definitely not thrue.- etcetera etcetera etceterareligion promotes poorness and poverty because it is the only way to heaven.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Religion promotes poorness and poverty because it is the only way to heaven!He he heReligion exploits poverty to attract wealthy gullible suckers because they believe helping the poor is short cut to heaven. The poor allows themselves to be exploited for the freebies handed to them because they are naturally indolents. Johnny Lin

  13. Attila says:

    If the family is always more important than the society than how will Filipinos will deal with the issue of hunger if the economy is not going to improve enough to counter the effect of over birthing?They will just "hunt" for food? In the form of burglary and robbery? There are already many families who eat only once a day. Than what?

  14. "hungry? throw a stone at someone so the someone will throw a bread at you."You mean like how neighbors put nails in our driveway, steal our bamboo, harass our delivery truck drivers, chase off the welder, call the wife a prostitute, threaten Joe with a gun, hack off the water pipe, then ask us to buy the roof material for the church? Plus request roofing material that is 40% more than what is actually needed?Like THAT application of Bible lessons?

  15. The tried and true method: use natural disasters, disease, pestilence, starvation, war, riots, bombs, shootings and stabbings to cull the extra bodies.

  16. Well, while we are hauling, I figure we can do our best to ridicule, taunt, verbally defile and otherwise pester the recalcitrant power mongers in this beautiful land. You know, become little Rizals swarming like obnoxious, critical hornets through the cathedrals and palaces and congressional chambers. It is at least entertaining, rather like telling jokes whilst being strangled.

  17. Cha says:

    The best and worst of the Filipino values system: On the one hand you have the likes of Sotto, Enrile, Binay, Estrada et.al. who derive power from patronage for the most part and outright deception a close second. Pakikisama, utang na loob, pagmamahal sa pamilya to the extreme. Pang-iisa, pangagantiyo perfected.We can also add to this group a couple of Bishops, that monsignor Cristobal Garcia, the Iglesia ni Kristo hierarchy, the Eddie Velardes… pagmamahal sa Diyos perverted.On the other hand, you have the likes of Jesse Robredo, Gawad Kalinga's Tony Meloto and the thousands of nameless Filipinos that support GK,Raissa Robles, Tordesillas, Noemi Dado, those guys from Pro-Pinoy, Freethinkers etc etc and their many followers and commenters like JohnnyLin, Baycas, Andrew Lim, springwoodman etc etc who seek and so elequently speak the truth, That CNN Hero Efren Penaflorida and his young protege who also won an international award recently, Jimenez and the other Cabinet officials doing a good job, untainted by any hints of corrupt practices, Abaya, Sereno, Padaca and other young, upright and promising public servants…… They are the embodiment of pagiging matapat, pagkakawanggawa, paninindigan, pagiging makatarungan, pagmamalasakit at pagmamahal sa bayan.Who then truly represents what the Filipino is all about?

  18. Anonymous says:

    Pinoys are ants led by roaches

  19. Anonymous says:

    JoeChurchmen most probably heard you asking around looking for the shortest route to heavenAt least all the thatched roof of the poor in your neighborhood and your church have matching color and materials.GI Joe to the rescue as usualGot chocolates JoeHe he heJohnny Lin

  20. You kidding? The Churchmen asked for the highest quality Galvalum roofing, and got it. If you are begging, always ask for dollars, not quarters. Some will give it.Alas, I have no chocolates. Wife ate 'em.

  21. I believe that means they will survive Revelations whereas the rest of us creatures will bite God's gracious dust.

  22. Attila says:

    What I was trying to say is that if they will be always thinking only about their family and not the society as a whole than war is unlikely and crime is the most likely way. Maybe some local war lords would control them? They would return to the pre Spanish tribal ways?Am I too far with that thought?

  23. Probably too far with that thought because the world is getting smaller and clans less isolated. I think the overbirthing will go into a slow slide as more women become aware of choices others are making to have fewer kids. And I think the economy will improve and start paring away at the edges of poverty so that in 50 years the nation is in fair shape. If it goes wrong, then we are back to dictator.

  24. Attila says:

    Not one Filipino I asked believes that there will be a war. They all think that the Philippines are just too divided for that. However they believe that crime will get worst and white foreigners will be a target. We will be blamed for their misery and misfortune and the jealousy and resentment on top of that will just grow deeper. The reason I'm concerned is because I'm planing to retire in the Philippines with my Filipina wife. She is very uncomfortable with the idea unless the economy gets better. She thinks I will be an easy target there.

  25. Yes, there is an edginess here now, so I understand where your wife is coming from. I built a large house in a substantially poor area and the envy is palpable, translated into nails on the road, harassing of truck drivers delivering construction materials, unkind rumors about my wife, etc. One drunken neighbor taunted me and fired his gun into the ground; fortunately he was tossed out of the community forever. It would not take much to tip people against us in a serious way.On the other hand, we have many many friends in the community, and the longer we are here, the more we gain. So I think that as we do good things (we provided materials for a new church roof), we would not be seen as "the enemy" even if the nation went ariot.Life's a gamble, no? The next typhoon could wipe us out. Or, like a couple in a shack at the bottom of the hill, lightning got them one night.

  26. J says:

    Very compelling analysis, Joe! But I must add that this could probably quite controversial. It reminds me of James Fallows and his analysis of a damaged culture.My two cents: I think this Filipino obsession with power is part of a national inferiority complex resulting for having been powerless and at the mercy of foreigners for like 400 or so years. Kind of like Imelda's fetish for shoes because she didn't have slippers when she was dirt poor. Cheers!

  27. I think the Philippines is emerging from its damaged era thanks largely to the internet. Your analogy regarding Imelda rings so true. The line between powerless is finite, and once crossed over, behavior changes 180 degrees.I find that weird, that compassion is not a product of crossing over from powerless to powerful. Rather, the former suppressee becomes the new suppressor. I find Imelda weird, too, frankly, through my western-trained eyes.

  28. erattum, second third sentence, should be. "The line between powerless and powerful is finite . . ."

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  1. […] (brother-/sisterhood) and kaginhawaan (well-being) while Aguinaldo obviously went by the rules of face and power that Joe once observed. Ilustrados like Heneral Luna only joined afterAguinaldo declared the […]

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