Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Culture Lesson No.2: Walang hiya ako (I have no shame)

Hiya is a concept that I had difficulty making my husband understand. Roughly translated to being ashamed, it is a strong desire to live up to expectations and standards of society. I guess it evolved as a way of controlling social behavior. If one is criticized, or does not live up to expectations the result is deep shame and lost self-esteem affecting not only the individual but his whole extended family. In the Philippines, being called walang hiya (you have no shame) is the ultimate insult. My husband just didn't get it. In Switzerland, children are educated to speak their minds and to be independent. They are trained to have no shame (walang hiya) and go after what they want as long as they are not breaking any law.

An example of this is opening of gifts. In Europe, when someone gives you a gift, it is normal to open it in front of all your guests. In the Philippines, we don't open gifts in public because of hiya. Why? If the gift is too cheap compared to the rest of the gifts received, it will be too shameful for the giver of the gift. Also, we like to save ourselves the embarrassment of pretending to like the gift. When we receive gifts, it is customary to open it in private where we are free to express our real emotions without embarrassing anybody. In the beginning of my stay in Switzerland, I really hated it when I had to open gifts in-front of the people who gave it to me. The problem is, most of the time they are watching my facial expression as the gift is revealed. I hated to have a pretend smile and a ready exclamation of "Wow, thank you!" even if I had no idea what the gift is used for.

Another example is admitting ignorance for something. In the Philippines, if you ask someone for directions, no one will admit that they have no idea what you are talking about. So most of the time the person you ask will just point to a random direction. Usually, you will know if you found a person who knows the place you are looking for if the person is more specific in giving you directions. If the person you ask just points somewhere and says "I think it's there" that can be translated to "I have no idea what you are talking about but I will send you somewhere just to get rid of you".

Anyway, after living in Switzerland for four years and working with a lot of Swiss and Germans. I really had to throw away my hiya. It was quite difficult because it was deeply ingrained in my soul. If I don't understand what my boss is telling me, I have to admit that I don't understand. If I don't agree with someone, I have to say that I don't agree. Here, it is quite normal to argue openly (with shouting and everything) with colleagues and it would not be considered personal. I have to be walang hiya otherwise I will not be successful in my job. The problem arises when I go back home to the Philippines for a vacation because I am still programmed to be walang hiya which doesn't rub well with a lot of people....

Culture Lesson No.1: Don't look me in the eyes


Anonymous said...

I agree with you, the notion of protecting one's Face Value is very relevant not only for us Filipinos but also for our other Asian neighbors. Sometimes this has both its positive and negative effects.

I enjoyed reading your blog, thanks for sharing your experiences. =)

Cathy said...

Thanks for reading my blog! Protecting face value is completely absent amongst the Swiss. I even think that calling someone "walang hiya" could be a complement. Because this means the person is free of all inhibitions and therefore could be more successful in life. Thanks for your comments.

MBW said...

I don't know if what you are referring to is similar to "losing face" but I find that the act of "losing face" is so much more heightened in the Philippines and in Asia in general than in Western Europe.

I personally was never a timid person even in my younger days, not even in my childhood so I can relate to Europeans self worth, i.e., not taking things too personally.

Filipinos are very sensitive that it almost is pathological. I've witnessed incidents where are prepared to fight violently because they felt they've been slighted. Very unnerving indeed.

I personally would laugh at someone who attempts to insult me; it's the best way to unhinge a person all the more. Come to think of it, Filipinos wouldn't survive in an English public school (exclusive schools) setting where the rule of thumb in order to survive is stiff upper lip.