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Carmila Legarda
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Business training is useful not only for professionals but also for our everyday lifestyle.  In particular there is the issue of assertiveness and how we can improve our professional and personal relationships through practising more assertive behaviour.  Related to this I would like particularly to address two questions:
1)  Are Filipinos naturally assertive?
2)  Are Filipinos more or less assertive than most?
First of all we need to agree what “assertiveness” is.  In a spectrum of emotions with “Passive” being on one end and “Aggressive” being on the other end, psychologists cite “Assertiveness” as being slap-bang in the middle.  An assertive individual is neither passive nor aggressive.  This does not mean that they never lose their temper when the occasion warrants it.  It merely means that the assertive individual responds to each situation with the appropriate behaviour. In particular, when there is a conflict, the assertive individual will not only defend and protect their own wants and needs.  They will also defend and protect the wants and needs of the person with whom they are at conflict. I’m OK, you’re OK.  Or for those of you who are into Transactional Analysis – assertive people use “Adult to Adult” dynamics in their dealings with people rather than “Parent to Child” dynamics.  The foundation or human quality that is needed for assertive behaviour is simply positive self-esteem.

Are Filipinos naturally assertive?

To be brief and succinct, in general the answer is “No”. Indeed, one of our National Heroes, Jose Rizal, wished for Filipinos to have more “amor propio” which in today’s modern emotional intelligence language could be translated as “self-esteem”.

But do not worry - all is not lost!  Actually there are very few cultural races that are assertive.  This is precisely why most of us would benefit from some form of assertiveness training.  Assertiveness does not come naturally to the majority of people and even after assertiveness training, as with most things, practising the skills still takes time to “perfect”.

So, why are we Filipinos, in general and as a cultural race, not assertive?  Speaking very generically we are not assertive for four main reasons:

1.  our history

2.  our religion

3.  our family traditions of honouring and respecting our elders

4.  our language, cultural norms and expectations

Our History

Not that I want to make you all repeat “Philippine History 101” but looking back on what our forefathers (and mothers) endured over the centuries in the history of our great nation does help to give us an insight into our psychological archetypes.  A quick recap:  Despite centuries of the Filipinos enjoying an independent and thriving culture led by our Datus (chieftains) through Baranggay (village) units and our being regarded as sound and profitable traders by our neighbouring countries, our relatively more recent history as a colony of Spain for over 300 years and being governed by America for over 50 years has left us with a somewhat deep-seated belief system of “inadequacy”.

During the Spanish occupation we were the native “Indios” who were not even allowed access to education, never mind our own natural resources.  And although the relatively wealthy “Illustrados” were given access to education, it was made very clear that these “half breeds” could only aspire to positions with no or limited influence within Spanish colonial socio-economic and political life.  Whilst the American colonisers improved our access to education, our access to our own natural resources did not and has not improved proportionately.

Being deprived of our own birthright and our own natural heritage for over 350 years has helped to shape us into a race that has a psychologically deep seated belief of “not being good enough” which is very damaging to our self-esteem as a cultural race.

Hence some, if not most, of us believe that “imports are better” or “foreigners are better than we are” or “white skin is better than dark skin”. 

Our Religion
Since the majority of Filipinos are Catholics, most of us are no stranger to feeling guilty every time something goes wrong whether or not it is our fault.  We also have been told “Blessed are the poor for they will be rewarded in Heaven”,  “Blessed are the meek”,  “Blessed are the sufferers” and “We should sacrifice”. So, in our wish to be good Catholics we all suffer in silence putting aside our wants and needs and desires.  Sometimes it is so extreme we stay in relationships that are detrimental to our physical or mental health. Don’t get me wrong.  There is nothing wrong with being a Catholic, after all, I am one myself! But it doesn’t help to improve one’s self-esteem unless it is balanced by sensible teachings and gentle and wise pastoral care.

Our family traditions of honouring and respecting our elders
Whilst honouring and respecting our elders is not by any means a negative cultural trait to have, it does mean that within our families, we “give in”, relent, “make do” and more often than not we follow what our elders want regardless of our own wants and needs.  For example, in our culture most of us are not subject to “arranged marriages” but nevertheless, God help any man or woman who is not liked or admired by their Filipino in-laws!  Meanwhile, as parents, often in the paternal or maternal wish for our children to show respect, we “beat our children into submission” in order to show that we are older and wiser rather than walk alongside our children and help them out through their journey. 

Why is this?  Well, first of all, it is much quicker to tell a person what to do than to explain all the ifs, buts, whys and wherefores.  So as a time saving parenting device “telling” is so much easier than “sharing”. Do we as Filipino parents ever share with our children our mistakes as we grew up? Or do we just tell them “don’t do that”.  “Why?  Because I say so.”  Furthermore, as generation gaps grow wider and modern living becomes more complex, we sometimes feel inadequate as parents in knowing just how to explain the difference between “right” and “wrong” particularly in this day and age when it is so difficult to tell apart fiction from fact.  For example – take the “Lion King”.  It started its life as a cartoon, then became an animation and now it is staged live as a West End musical!  Another example is Spiderman.  First a cartoon, then a feature length film with real people playing the parts.  In our SFX Special Effects world, how much is distorted for us about what truly is real? And as for our children, how much more difficult then is it for them to fully fathom what is painful, what is violence, what is death, what is life, what is love, what is wrong and what is right?

It is all so complicated and we all have so little time.  It is so much easier to “scold” than to “explain”.  So what happens next?  We think we listen to our children but we don’t really hear.  They try to express their wants and needs but we can’t relate to them – sometimes in the way our own parents couldn’t really relate to our own wants and needs.  So how do our children grow up?  With us telling them that we are right and they are wrong. If we cannot balance our children’s needs and wants with justice and prudence and wisdom, how does that affect their self-esteem and how can we expect our children to become naturally assertive?

Our language, cultural norms and expectations
They say the language of a people reflects the culture of the people.  Let us take look at one of our most popular languages, Tagalog. We do not like ”mayabang” (bigheaded) people, people who are “BSS” or “bilib sa sarili” (think very highly of themselves) or people who make us say “akala mo kung sino siya” (who do they think they are?) 

However, it is not clear whom we DO like.  “Magaling” (good) is an attribute of skill, “mabait” is an attribute of kindness but where in our language is the attribute for a good or positive self-esteem or having a good and well-rounded “ego” (a positive thing which is not to be confused with egotistical).  The nearest to positive self-esteem takes us back to “amor propio” a term, take note, we had to borrow from the Spaniards.

By the way, if any of you can think of some words in any of our languages in the Philippines that means “positive self-esteem” please let me know! We have so many dialects and languages that I am hoping that there is a word or phrase out there somewhere!

So, to wrap up, there are a myriad of reasons why people around the world are not naturally assertive.  We have looked at some of the reasons why Filipinos as a cultural race are not naturally assertive. 

However, both in the Philippines and overseas, Filipino parents everywhere have noticed that our children are far more assertive than we were at their age.  How often do we hear ourselves complain that our children are far more cheeky, far more self-assured to us than we ever were to our parents?  Guess what?  Perhaps after all, this is a good thing.  Perhaps as we strive for a decent honest living and do our best for our children’s futures, so do we slowly eradicate the negative archetypes that our children inherited from our collective histories.  Perhaps we are gradually producing children with sound and positive self-esteem and who are naturally assertive?

Carmila Legarda is a Human Resources Specialist and  offers consultancies and training in HR practices, job evaluation & grading, customer services excellence, mediation, leaderships skills, organisational change and development, and cross-cultural business communications.  You can contact her through email address:

EuroFilipino Journal, 3 Penta Court, Station Road, Borehamwood, Herts WD6 1SL