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  • 3 Differences: American versus Filipino Ways of Expression

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    If you turned your head to read this post, you’re in good company!

    In today’s post, I will talk about 3 main differences between American and Filipino ways of expression.

    Filipinos regardless of whether they’re in America or in Dubai have the ability to pin-point the other by using a simple-pssst!

    “Who’s calling me? Ano raw? “ ( what was that?).

    When I first set foot in America at age 11, I was told by my uncle to never pssst anyone,it’s plain rude, & tactless.Interestingly, such rude ways of catching someone’s attention can also be a source of familiarity, especially in places where racial diversity seems more a fad than a fact of life.

    The context of our language and its appropriateness is shaped by our environment and the culture of that environment.


    Filipinos are known globally to be bilingual, an asset that made the Philippines as a  hub for telemarketing outsourcing.

    One time, when I was in the car with my Auntie and a cousin, I remembered my Auntie asking my cousin, ” where would you like to eat?” He nonchalantly shrugged his shoulders and responded, I don’t care.

    My mouth drops.

    Remember I was this girl who just recently immigrated from the Islands. Telling an elder, I don’t care, “ is like sticking your middle finger out.

    I don’t care implies “bahala ka,” in my Island contextual language. A statement usually lashed out by elders to the young to tell them the exact opposite of what they TRULY mean.

    Confused? I don’t blame you.

    As I navigated the American culture with curiosity, I quickly learned that even though I spoke English well, I needed to adjust to speak the American language and its meaning with better fluency.

    What sounded the same ( I don’t care) had very different meanings attached to it.

    So, when my cousin responded, “ I don’t care,” what sounded like a disrespect tone was actually a tone of trust-

              “ Go ahead, mom. You choose.”

    In my work as a clinician and an outreach Worker, I find that many Filipinos dismissed the need for a language interpreter. Indeed many of us immigrants  want to pride ourselves for being schooled well, therefore, speaking English.

    You stick our nose up, insulted when asked, “do you need an interpreter,” as if you were asked to say our A-B-Cs.

    Speaking the English language is only an entrypoint to learning how acculturated a Filipinx is to the American culture but it doesn’t end there.Many of us, whether born in the Islands or in America continue to need an interpreter-

    A cultural interpreter.

    We speak the same language in our homes, in our schools, with our loved ones BUT operating with  very different meanings.



    If you’ve ever watched a scared toddler point  to the ceiling many times to get your attention , & you say-

       That’s wonderful, honey, or

      I know, w-h-i-t-e. The ceiling is white.

    To later find out that, your toddler was pointing to a scary looking spider, in dire need of your help. Watching this scene unfold in retrospect is frustrating for both sides.

    The experience of Filipino families in America/abroad is similar to this toddler scene. You may feel misunderstood & the language you use or used on you are both lost in translation. You continue to be frightened by the spider while others around you affirm you for things they find comforting but to which you find no consolation from.

    To help support the need of both traditional Filipino and Filipino-Americans in their hope to be understood, its important to understand the difference between Filipino & American Way of Expression.

    There are many differences to tackle but in today’s post will focus on these three.

    By the way, if you want to dive deeper into this topic, check out my FREE Webinar on Speak the Pinoy Language of Love: Strengthen Your Filipino Relationships Today.



    I want to quantify that when I say “American,” I mean the culture, the lifestyle rather than the person.

    Your being “ American,” therefore is not dictated by your ethnicity but how closely influenced you are by it’s core values, cultural expression & expectations, and lifestyle to name a few.


    American culture operates  on a low context way of expression. This means that it relies more on verbal and direct communication to convey its meanings and intentions.

    If you want your husband to send you love notes in your baon (to-go food) bag once in a while, you can say,

    “ Babe, I would love it if you can write me love notes at least once a week.”

    Low context rely more on saying and conveying your need so that you can get your needs met. No need for mind-reading or dropping hints like-

    “ You never write to me anymore.”

    High context culture like that of traditional Filipino way of expression rely more heavily on using non-verbal cues, dropping hints, using humor or euphemism to express a need.

    There is a fascinating difference in the way children are reared from both traditional Filipino versus Filipinos raised in the American culture.


    In America, children are geared towards independence. Many  Filipino-American parents have to work with limited informal support system at home (i.e. nanny, lola, tita..etc) or often may use formal caregiving arrangements like a day care to keep getting that paycheck wired in your bank account.

    Children, therefore, have to be taught to eat independently in their high-chairs as soon as they can sit up & grab the first cheerios in sight.

    Subo (spoon feeding) a child whose three years old would be an odd sight in America. A sight not so uncommon in the islands even for a child whose 5 (intermittently spoon feed at this age to coax to eat more).

    Subo-feeding by hand

    In addition to the important skill of teaching independence, expressing your need is a social skill revered in the Western culture. So, at a young age, children are asked,

    Which one would like to wear the blue or the pink dress?

    How are you feeling today?

    Linear communication is a form of communication where you ask and you get an answer. You express your need in a straight forward way.

    Usually, groups of people who express in a linear way of communicating take turns speaking


    When the nurse asked the Traditional Filipino who came into the hospital-

    “What brings you here today?”

    This Filipino explained-

              Well, I went to the park to play with my nephew,  I was    already limping to begin with. So, when I ran after him because, ya know, we were playing chase, I tripped.

    So then, are you here because of your foot, the nurse continued to ask.

              No, no, when I tripped, I banged my shoulder on those metal tables nearby. Aray (ouch)!

    Circular communication incorporates more story-telling in its way of communication. It takes a round-about path & the party asking the question usually may have to ask a follow up question(s) to get to the answer.

    There is no implication that one is better than the other. They both have a use depending on the context and the cultural setting they’re utilized.

    Circular communication provides an array of information that may be useful later. Filipinos are natural storytellers and/or story consumers & I find that this way of communication gives me the juiciest scoop about their lives. As a Psychotherapist this is golden.

    In a circular way of communication, it is not uncommon for people to talk at the same time or overlap in thoughts, as in the case if you’ve been to Filipino potlucks.

    You can also watch this video.


    In America, you express love by verbally saying it-

    • I love you.
    • I miss you.
    • I need you here.

    or by explicitly showing affection, as in the form of a hug, holding hands, kissing.

    When Filipino American children are raised in this Western way of expressing love, it makes sense that this becomes the standard, the norm they go off to measure how well love is shown to them.

    The problem arise when Filipino parents do not express love in this manner. Instead, they show affection through doing-

    • Working two jobs.
    • Putting food on the table.
    • Sending their children to private schools.
    • Preparing Baon (to-go food)
    • Cooking.
    • Asking “Kumain ka na?” (did you eat) for the nth time.

    pinoy love language

    In the Islands, there are certainly more teachers around to teach a growing child that the above gestures are as good as a direct vocalization of love.

    Indeed, it is ideal to hear these loving words even on occasion for any child (or adults for that matter).

    Transplanted in America, Filipino Immigrant parents who left the Islands for greener pasture hold onto these expressions of love.

    And through doing as an expression of love, they, too expect doing as an expression of being loved back. As in-

    • Showing up with As in your report card.
    • Eating her home-cooked foods.
    • Greeting her/him upon coming home from work.

    Related Posts

    Exposing our Hidden Faces

    Two Tales in One Jeepney

    The Beauty of the Filipino Language

    It is understandable within the Filipino American culture why there is a clash between Filipino versus American way of expression within our own household.

    The meaning we have placed on the way we express, show and receive love are operating from different meanings.

    Want to Speak the Pinoy Language of Love? Check out this FREE Webinar on Speak the Pinoy Language of Love: Strengthen Your Filipino Relationships Today.


    Many Filipinos readily speak English upon immigrating in America. Such acquisition of language may make Immigrant Filipinos feel that they don’t need an adjustment period to this new life in America.

    Filipinos may refuse a language interpreter when asked if they need one. In reality, many of us whether you were born in the Islands or in America may need a cultural interpreter.

    We speak seemingly the same language but operate in different meanings.

    I hope this was hopeful. Comment below for any thoughts.

    Sa uulitin (until then),


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    1. Edil
      September 4, 2020 at 3:06 am -

      OMG – I love this post so much because while Filipinos do speak English, I often find Filipino immigrants are often misunderstood and just as well, we misunderstand Americans. As someone who’s married into a white family, I want to make it a point that my almost 4-year old daughter will be able to not only speak Tagalog, but speak our culture as well. Especially the non-verbal cues and the ways we show love to our family. Thank you for such a thoughtful post! Please add me to your mailing list❤️

      1. Roanne de Guia-Samuels

        Roanne de Guia-Samuels

        September 6, 2020 at 10:31 pm -

        I love what you just said, Edil! Indeed teaching the language is truly about teaching the culture, isn’t it. Complex and yet beautiful. Both spoken and the non-verbal expression encompass the language of love or otherwise. Sending love your way 🙂

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