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What Filipinos actually mean when they say “Yes”

When visiting any country, one thing you worry about is the language. You definitely need to learn basic questions and simple local expressions to help you while going around their place or else, you’ll be faced with confused faces trying to decipher what you’re talking about.

If you simply just want to travel without this kind of hassle, you may try to visit the Philippines, a country well-known to have residents who speak the English language so well. You’ll even be surprised they often start the chat asking “Where are you from?” or “Where in the Philippines do you want to go?”

Group of People Waving Filipino Flags in Back Lit

In fact, if you listen to their conversations, you’ll notice that 20-30% of what they are saying is in English, especially in the Southern Philippines where people speak more English than Filipino.

chinese tea

This has something to do with the American occupation of the Philippines in 1898 where they imposed everything American including their language. They brought in teachers who speak in English and require local teachers to do the same. Until today, schools use English as the medium of teaching students as young as elementary. Their favourite news channel, signage in English and even the desire of Filipinos to work abroad are contributing factors on why they try as much as possible to be good at the language.

So you think you won’t have any problem communicating or asking these fellows? Well, there’s one thing you should take note. While they are fluent in English, there’s this one word you won’t want to mess with—the word “Yes”. For you it’s an affirmative response, same as saying “Sure”, “Alright” or “Agree”.

But for them, it may mean something else. Filipinos find it hard to say “no” to requests and queries because they thought they could offend the person asking. As much as possible they want to entertain every wish of people, even strangers. Yes, they always say “yes” but they don’t always mean “yes”.

Their yes can mean:

  • “Yes”
  • “I’m not sure”
  • “Perhaps”
  • “I don’t understand”
  • “Maybe”
  • “Whatever”
  • “If you say so”

Filipinos’ social etiquette is highly influenced by the concepts of “hiya” (sense of shame) which are common behaviour of Filipinos. They are always shy to express what they truly think or feel because they don’t want to reject and get rejected. “Hiya” prevents them from asking questions, contradicting others’ opinions or refusing guests’ requests, thus, disguising real thoughts with a pleasing “yes”.

Only a few ever fully understand the hidden meaning of this word, only when you live with the people for some time and see how their actions match with their words. So beware. The best thing to do is avoid as much as possible to ask questions that require a “yes” or “no” as an answer.

About Author

Active traveller with a love for Asian food and Japanese anime.