Saying NO! in the Philippines

Business Cultural Notes

Saying NO!

Unknown Vocabulary Word – “No!”: In dealing with Filipinos, you soon discover that they don’t much care for the word “no.” In a Western setting, it’s usually pretty clear when the other party isn’t interested in your proposal, whatever it might be. The responsible executive simply looks you in the eye and says: “Sorry, but I’m afraid the answer no.” If you ask why, he or she will probably tell you the reasons for the negative decision.

However, as usual, the Philippines is different. Given the culture value of pakikisama (group loyalty) and the importance of maintaining social harmony, disagreement or interpersonal tension of any sort is distasteful. As a result, business negotiations often have far more ambiguity than the typical Westerner is used to.

For example, when a Filipino executive feels that telling the truth might embarrass or offend, he or she will often beat around the bush. In this context, “yes” doesn’t necessarily mean “yes.” The word “yes” could also mean “maybe,” “I guess that’s what you want to hear,” “Perhaps someday,” “I have no idea,” or “No.” There are, of course, a wide array of subtle cues to the real meaning, some nonverbal and some in Tagalog. For example, the word mamaya implies “later today,” while saka na means more like “sometime later, maybe tomorrow, maybe next month, or next year … “

This unwillingness to say no affects the international businessperson in several ways. Many Filipino executives will always be “out” rather than answer a phone call or meet with someone they know they’re going to have to turn down. This can be very frustrating when you’re trying to nail down a contract or find out what’s going on one way or the other. It can take a lot longer to get a firm negative answer than in other countries, a situation which can leave you hanging in a way that can be hard to explain to, let’s say, the head office back in London.

Another consequence is ningas cogon, an idiomatic phrase referring to what happens when you set a blazing fire, only to watch it quickly fizzle out. The phrase refers to a rather unfortunate tendency to start projects and never finish them. Many meetings in Manila seem positive and productive, fueled by the adrenaline rush of money to be made, and sure to lead to great and wonderful things. All too often, the projects under discussion never get off the ground as the parties involved move on to other projects. This is usually because some participants were reluctant to show their reservations in the first place; they wanted to go along with the group consensus and share your fervor. While this has the short-term advantage of everyone leaving the meeting with a pleasant buzz, the longer-term consequences include puzzlement, frustration, and resentment.

Filipino Business Norms, Etiquette and Style
From Pearl of the Orient Seas, 1999, Clarence Henderson
Henderson Consulting International, Manila, Philippines

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