Business in Asia
by Sue Dockstader
Jeepneys, Balut, and Tagalog
This is part five of our ongoing series on doing business in Asia.
How many people can you fit in a jeepney? Just one more!
A jeepney is a variegated cross between a minibus and a taxi, frequently adorned with small statues of horses and an impressive array of colored lights. It is the most common form of public transport throughout the many islands which make up the Philippine archipelago. In the remote countryside the drivers of these elaborately decorated vehicles usually will stop and ask if you need a ride. In the center of the capital city, Manila, a very determined effort is required to squeeze onto the constantly-packed, open-sided vehicles which seldom stop completely, but merely slow down enough for passengers to leap on and off. Irrespective of the number of people, chickens, or other miscellaneous cargo crammed inside or hanging off the back of a jeepney, there's always room for "just one more."
The Philippines offer a very westernized environment in which to do business. Americans can easily feel very integrated due to the remaining effects of 50 years of American colonial rule, coupled with the trappings of modern day U.S. influences which are present everywhere. The national language is Tagalog with over 70 other languages and dialects spoken throughout the islands. However, English is the lingua franca of business and politics and is spoken virtually everywhere. Despite the familiar fast food chains, American films, and friendly "Hello Joe" greetings from small children even in the most remote locations, the Filipino's character is a very complex blend of Asian values influenced by their mixed colonial experiences. The over 300 years of Spanish Catholic mores followed by 50 years of American free enterprise, have left the Filipinos with a western veneer over a unique Asian disposition from when independence was finally granted from Japanese occupation and American colonialism in 1946.
The common denominator between the diverse population of over 64 million is the constant smile. It is true that the Filipinos are a very happy and relaxed people, but they also will smile and laugh in situations that other nationalities may not find the least amusing. Where an American may use his most solemn tone and serious scowl to deliver an important issue, a Filipino is more likely to use his most relaxed smile and loudest laugh. But just because a Filipino laughs at his (and your) troubles, does not necessarily mean he is enjoying himself; his broad smile is merely his way of easing anxiety and perhaps softening the hard blow of bad news. A belligerent attitude and the use of harsh language, even in the most trying of circumstances, is rarely appropriate or effective.
In addition to wide grins when facing times of disaster, the Filipino "yes" also can cause confusion to the foreign business visitor. Meanings will vary from a simple affirmative, to "maybe," to "if you say so" to the ultimate "I hope I have said it unenthusiastically enough for you to realize I mean no!" It is essential to remember your local colleague is unlikely to be able to bring himself to actually say "no," so even dinner arrangements should be reconfirmed repeatedly, as a casual yes is unlikely to be considered binding.
Filipinos are incredibly hospitable people, thinking little of taking several hours out of a business day to entertain a business visitor to a lavish lunch. A recent visitor to Manila was amazed when her host insisted on battling through the city's traffic jams to sample "the best apple pie in the Philippines." There are few mysteries about mealtime etiquette, familiar silverware being usual in the cities. However, if you are taken to a restaurant where you are ushered to a bathroom area to wash your hands before eating, do not take offense by concluding that your host feels your cleanliness is not up to scratch. Follow the lead of your host in rolling up your sleeves and washing up to your elbows. This will be a "hands on" experience where no silverware is provided, even for the soup, crab, and rice. At such a restaurant and in many rural areas where no cutlery is provided, only the right hand is used as your eating utensil.
As in many Latin American countries, if you visit someone's home unexpectedly during a mealtime, you always will be asked to share the food. The usual appropriate response is to politely decline, preferably adding words to the effect that you have just eaten to avoid embarrassment to your host for possibly not having enough food to go round. On the subject of food, there are certain gastronomic delights which will indicate the level of your assimilation of Filipino culture. There are boiled duck eggs with half incubated chicks inside (balut) and very pungent smelling shrimp paste (bagoong). Both can be politely declined without causing offense, but consumption can provide the opportunity for instant acceptance among your local colleagues.
Body language is an important part of communication in the Philippines. Raised eyebrows coupled with a smile signify a friendly "hello." However a hard stare, especially if accompanied with a toss back of the head is considered not only rude and aggressive but also a challenge. A stony glare also can be interpreted as someone giving "the evil eye." Despite more than 80% of the population being Catholic, pre-Hispanic beliefs still exist and concerns that a stranger can cause illness by giving "the evil eye" persist. It also is necessary to keep your arms and hands in check. Arms akimbo are considered arrogant, and challenging and beckoning with a crooked finger also is inadvisable; motioning with your hand palm down is the correct approach. In any event it is important to remember that Filipinos are very tolerant people, always ready to laugh off any social gaffes, especially when perpetrated by a foreigner.
Personal appearance is of tremendous importance to all Filipinos and beauty queens from the many beauty contests are held in high regard. Perhaps more famous for her shoe collection than her good looks these days, one of the most well-known former "Miss Manila" is Imelda Marcos. Western-style office attire is appropriate for business meetings, unless you chose to sport the barong tagalog. This is the loose-fitting men's shirt, usually cream or white and always worn with the tails out, with no tie or jacket and is perfectly acceptable in most business situations.
When visiting the Philippines the hot, wet summer months are best avoided, especially as the frequent power cuts, or "brown outs" as they are locally called, often will disable the air-conditioning. The spring usually offers beautiful hot dry weather and can be more comfortable. Also remember the very strict observance of Christian festivals. At Easter, for example many people will leave Manila for the entire holy week to visit family in surrounding towns and villages. It also is advisable to check on other fiestas before planning a visit, as these elaborate affairs usually celebrating the saint's day of a village's patron saint, can be fun to witness as a tourist but an annoying distraction to the business traveler on a tight schedule.
Foreigners have been trading with the Philippines since the 10th century when the Chinese and the Arabs first brought their wares to this group of islands. The country's main trading partners now are the United States and Japan with many other countries enjoying the Western business environment which is generally conducive to foreign trade. The political turmoil of recent years has not helped the development of the economy, but President Fidel Ramos currently is emphasizing the need for a revised economic program to speed the country's recovery from the years of economic stagnation endured since independence. Whereas previously the government preferred foreign companies to set up joint ventures with Filipino entities, it now is encouraging 100 percent, foreign-owned ventures in most sectors, although there are registration and other compliance requirements to be fulfilled. The government also has instituted many incentive programs to encourage foreign companies to invest in the Philippines, many in the form of tax benefits.
When dealing with your Filipino counterparts, remember that business is a slow process in this part of the world. There is likely to be much general chitchat before any serious business is discussed. The necessity to cultivate friendships, establish valuable contacts, and develop personal rapport are all considered as equally as important as the particular project under discussion. Therefore, generous time must be allowed for all negotiations to accommodate this rather leisurely style of doing business, not to mention the time required to battle through the traffic and the excessive bureaucracy. Although bribes are officially considered illegal and immoral, applying "persuasive communication" or lagay sometimes is the only way to get things moving. Often handled by go-betweens, the unspoken token of appreciation for services rendered has been described as "the only antidote for the agony of inaction."
Though the composite market index in Manila has been steadily rising, the economy of the Philippines has not realized the potential of its abundant natural resources, which include a skilled, relatively low cost workforce. However, the crippling natural disasters of volcanoes, earthquakes, and typhoons, (all conspiring to undermine the development of the economy) have not dampened the gregarious enthusiasm for life for which the Filipinos are so well known. As the country continues to streamline its bureaucracy and open its economy to overseas investors, its commercial links with other countries no doubt will increase and all that the Philippines has to offer will become more easily accessible to foreign traders.
Sue Dockstader is an English and Hong Kong lawyer who spent six years in Hong Kong. This is part four in a series of articles on the issue of cultural diversity and its impact on businesses new to Asia. In future articles Sue will share advice and observations about doing business in Asia, providing a variety of facts, figures, and anecdotes to offer a taste of the Asian business environment. She will highlight some of the cultural nuances to be observed when doing business with specific Asian countries, offer practical hints and travel tips, and mention some of the obstacles (and pleasures) of being a gweilo/gei jin/farang, that is, a foreigner in Asia.