Business Travel Tips for Philippines

business travel in the philippines
Copyright: jojo nicdao, flickr, CC 2.0

Asia is a huge destination for business travelers these days, including the Philippines, one of the area's largest countries. The Philippines represents a variety of cultures. The country is in the heart of South East Asia, however, it is heavily influenced by non-Asians from Spain, Mexico, and the United States. As a result, the Catholic Church is more influential in the country than in other Asian cultures, making the Philippines a truly unique and diverse country.

To help provide some perspective on cultural factors that business travelers should be aware of while traveling to the Philippines, I recently interviewed Gayle Cotton, author of the bestselling book, Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication. Ms. Cotton is a well-known author and a distinguished keynote speaker. She is also President of Circles Of Excellence Inc., as well as an internationally-recognized authority on cross-cultural communication. Over the years, Ms.

Cotton has been featured on NBC News, PBS, Good Morning America, PM Magazine, PM Northwest, and Pacific Report. 

With all her expertise, Ms. Cotton was happy to share a variety of tips with readers to help business travelers (or any traveler, for that matter) avoid potential cultural gap problems when traveling to the Philippines.

What Tips Do You Have for Business Travelers Heading to the Philippines?

  • The majority of inhabitants are of ethnic Malay stock, although unlike neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, the influence of Islam is more limited.
  • ‘Small talk’ is an important part of establishing business relationships with Filipinos. You'll find that they can be quite enthusiastic conversationalists.
  • Expect to be asked personal questions regarding your marital status, income, religion, and other sensitive subjects. If you don't wish to answer, side-step these questions as graciously as possible.
  • Embarrassing someone, or reprimanding them in front of others, can cause them to "lose face" or loss of reputation and this has very negative consequences in this culture.
  • Maintaining cordial relationships is essential in the Philippines. Keep your comments as positive as possible, because negativity can inadvertently cause "loss of face",
  • It’s best not to be too direct when communicating with Filipinos. They will usually be more receptive to a rather indirect approach.
  • English is the language of most business transactions and nearly all government bodies in the Philippines.
  • Business travelers are expected to be on time for all appointments, and although the Filipinos may not always arrive exactly on time, you probably won't be subjected to an overly long wait.
  • When meeting a new customer, letters of introduction from friends and business associates can often be helpful in opening doors.
  • Although there are many social inequalities in the Philippines, Filipinos believe that everyone must be treated with respect. They are expected to behave with modesty and graciousness, especially in their dealings with the poor or less fortunate.
  • Businessmen should expect to shake hands firmly with other Filipino men both upon introduction and subsequent meetings, however, it’s best to wait for a Filipino woman to offer her hand first.
  • Close female friends may greet each other with a hug and kiss. Similarly, close male friends may have close physical contact, such as holding hands or walking arm in arm around a friend's shoulder.
  • Some Filipinos may greet each other by making eye contact, then raising and lowering their eyebrows. When someone raises their eyebrows at you, it is often a way of indicating that you have been understood.
  • Raising one's voice is unacceptable in the Filipino business culture. It's important to maintain a low, controlled tone of voice at all times.
  • Don't assume that a smile is an indication of amusement or approval. At times, smiling is used to mask embarrassment, nervousness, and other feelings of discomfort.

What Is Important to Know about the Decision Making Process?

  • In order to reach the decision-maker, you will likely have to meet with subordinates first and also adapt to the business protocol at the different levels of the organization.
  • Producing "instant results" is not a strong part of Filipino business culture. Consequently, you will have to adjust your expectations regarding deadlines and decision making when working with them.

Any tips for women?

  • Women are accepted in business circles, however, should avoid acting in a domineering way with male colleagues.
  • Women managers are expected to be highly competent and assert their authority in a professional, restrained manner.

Any tips on gestures?

  • Because of the years of U.S. military presence in the Philippines, most westernized gestures and communication styles are recognized and understood.
  • Pointing at someone or something can be perceived as an insulting gesture. Filipinos typically point at objects using an open hand. For giving directions, they may use a glance with a slight nod, or purse their lips to signify which way.
  • To beckon someone, hold your hand out, palm downward, and make a scratching motion with the fingers. Beckoning someone with the palm up and wagging one finger can be interpreted as an insult.
  • Indicating ‘two’ with the fingers is done by holding up the ring and little finger, not the forefinger and middle finger. The thumb is not used to count numbers in the Philippines.
  • Don't put your hands on your hips when conversing. This gesture can be misinterpreted as challenge to another person.

What are some good suggestions for topics of conversation?

  • Discussing the Filipino culture and customs is always appreciated
  • Family is also a good topic in the Philippines
  • Filipinos love fiestas, so asking about these occasions will create a lively conversation
  • All types of sports, especially basketball
  • Food and the local specialties is a great topic

What Are Some Topics of Conversation to Avoid?

  • Politics in general, unless they bring it up first
  • Corruption, terrorism, or drug trafficking -- even though it may be in the news
  • Foreign aid and related policies
  • Religion in general, unless they bring it up first
  • Topics that could potentially cause embarrassment or “loss of face”
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