Pinoy Kasi

Cher, ‘po’


The toughest part about being an anthropologist is keeping pace with rapidly changing social norms, in particular, our system of salutations (e.g., “Mr.,” “Miss”) and terms of respect.

The idea for today’s column was sparked by one of my kids asking if “po” means “please.”  I said no, it’s just a way of expressing respect, and that it’s “paki” that’s more like “please.”

Then another question: “My teacher says we shouldn’t mix our English and Tagalog, so is it wrong to say, ‘Yes, po?’”

That question stumped me for a few seconds but I finally answered: “No, po, you can say ‘yes,  po.’”  By using “po” with my child, something unthinkable in the past, I was also teaching him that respect is not just a matter of age, or of rank, but also of respecting each other’s views, if not respecting the person.  For example, when a parent is very busy and children are persistent about wanting to talk, we finally turn to them and say, exasperated but also apologetic, “Po?”

“Po” then is a way of saying “I hear you” and “I will get to you shortly,” and it’s important for both parents and children, and teachers and students, to use that, whether conversing in English or Tagalog (or, I’d like to suggest, Cebuano and other languages without a “po”).  Notice how much of a difference “po” makes compared to “yeah?” or “ha?” or even a protesting “ano?” or “what?”

Now here’s a twist to it: I’ve caught quite a few household helpers who acknowledge their employers’ requests or calls with “yes?” rather than “po?”  I asked one helper why, and she said that was the way she was trained by a previous employer, an upper-class Filipino woman, and somehow it rubbed off on her. “Mas maganda  ang  tunog  (It sounds better),” she said.

How do these terms change?  Do household helpers meet on a Sunday and decide on the terms? I’m sure there was no formal convention to ratify this practice, but word does spread and, yes, po, English is a prestige language, so “yes?” can dislodge “po?” in some situations.

Sir, Mam

Let’s shift to forms of salutation now.  We have our now world-famous “Sir Mike” and “Mam Mary” terms.  I say world-famous because non-Filipinos are always amused by this practice, with a Dutch friend recently asking me when I was knighted and by whom, after hearing me being called “Sir Mike” and “Sir Tan” by my students.

Younger Filipinos think this is an age-old practice. It is not. I can’t place an exact date but am quite certain we weren’t using this in the 1970s or in the early 1980s.  Before that, it was “Sir” and “Ma’am,” if not “Mr. Tan” and “Miss Cruz” or “Mrs. Cruz.”

“Sir” and “Mam” are anchors, somewhat like the “po,” establishing a sense of respect, but with less rigidity; in fact, this practice allows several degrees of formality. “Sir Tan” suggests more formality and distance than “Sir Michael,” which in turn is more formal than “Sir Mike.”

There are some people who just don’t like this practice for various reasons: one “Mam Mary” told me it makes her feel like “Mama Mary” (the Virgin Mary, and notice, too, that “Mama Mary” is a way of narrowing social distance when praying).  Others, usually older people, are offended by the informality.

People involved in HR (human relations) training should point out the dangers of using this system of “Sir” and “Mam” especially when combined with a nickname. Some years back a bank employee once called my parents’ home asking for “Mam Apol” and was curtly told “wrong number.” She tried several times to get through, unsuccessfully, until she used the formal complete name, which was Mrs. Apolonia Tan. Her mistake, too, was using “Apol”—she had created a nickname on her own, which slightly irritated my mother, who in the first place never uses “Apol.”  To nearly all of her friends, she’s “Nieves,” but that’s for another column on names, nicknames and aliases.

To complicate matters even more, we have this practice of adding titles like “Engineer,” “Architect,” or “Doctor” to our names. This is not uniquely Filipino; in fact, I think we probably got this from the Spaniards and then went overboard with it. These days, even nurses want their profession used, as a title, with my nurse-friends arguing that it gives them a certain identity, and respect.

We struggle between formality and congeniality.  So while we like titles, we still end up abbreviating them to make them sound less formal.  “Professor” becomes “Prof,” “Doctor” becomes “Doc,” “Congressman” becomes “Cong,” “Undersecretary” is “Usec,” and “Assistant Secretary” is “Asec,”—all combined with a nickname.

There are more and more variations now around these salutations. I get correspondence from my kids’ schools addressed to me as “Daddy Mike,” and signed “Teacher Rose,” for example, but “Mam Cher” or “Cher Rose” is how my son will talk about her, “cher” being short for “teacher.” Worried about the informality of “cher,” I have to remind my son: “Cher, po.”

The “cher” phenomenon shows how a practice may first be confined to a “subculture,” in this case my son’s school, which is famous (or notorious) for using that “cher” title.   My daughters’ schools don’t seem to be using it. Readers may tell me if this practice is spreading to other schools.

UP Diliman vs UP Manila

Talking about subcultures, at the University of the Philippines Diliman, we call utilities people “Ate” and “Kuya,” “Manong” and “Manang,” but in UP Manila, everyone calls each other “Sir” and “Mam” (no first names or surnames).  Even a dean will call the janitor “Sir.”  It was Dr. Anthony Cordero, who’s working on a degree in medical anthropology, who first pointed this out to me (and proved to me he is becoming an anthropologist).

After Doc Ants (that’s Anthony) pointed out the UP Manila phenomenon, I began noticing clerks and other personnel in stores calling each other “Sir” and “Mam.”  I first thought they were using the salutations for managers, but no, everyone is a “Sir” or “Mam.”

When I asked one clerk if they still use “Kuya” and “Ate” for each other, she smiled and answered no, then quickly changed her answer as she looked at my kids and explained that they do call the customers’ kids “Kuya” and “Ate,” to make the kids feel important.

I think it’s a charming practice to prepare older kids for a new sibling by telling them: “You’re going to be Kuya (or Ate) now.”  (Ethnic Chinese will use “Ahia” or “Achi.”)  These older kids take it all seriously, anticipating the new sioti  (younger brother) or  siobe  (younger sister) by helping their pregnant mothers. After the baby arrives, they do have that Kuya and Ate flair and confidence, and I’m convinced this helps to reduce sibling rivalry.

The salutations can be chaotic, but they reflect how those terms are flexibly functional, adapting to changing times and needs.

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  • josh_alexei

    Mr. Tan, we have had a CEO with a very hard to pronounced second name but very lovely first name and she signed every paper with only her First Name Annette and that the only she wanted called and that the only name she had been called…and she was running a firm with I would say somewhere in the $ 5 billions in its Canadian operation, (30 overall) and she was also running our China and other overseas operation..and she was a very pleasant and just your everyday Annette.

    And in 1920 MP Nickels passed a Resolution Requesting that the Throne not to Grant ITS Canadian Subject the Peerage or Royal Title as Canada is going a different route of Democracy and that was Confirmed in PM Chretien V. Conrad Black where Mr. Black about the be granted Lordship by Queen E 2 as Lord Black of Cross Harbour, but Prime Minister Chretien argued that if Mr. Black wanted to be a member of the House of Lord, he must Ceased to be a Canadian…he must First Renounce his Citizenship and Mr. Black did…Now he is trying to regain back his Citizenship but I doubt if it will be granted back…Some who inherited their Title from their Parents may use them when they are in GB, but they will be addressed as Equal once they are in Canada.

    Our Charter of Rights and Freedom which was in Effect after we repatriated the British North America Act of l867 from GB, the Constitution Act of l982 Guarantees that EVERY Individual is Equal Before and Under the Law and has the Right to Equal Protection and Benefit of the Law, without Discrimination….etc..etc…

  • josh_alexei

    By the way, my baby Sis is a Physician in NY and so is her husband my brother in law, my other younger sister is an RT (registered technologist or Med Tech) but this title is never seen in their names or we never call them by their profession like Doc sis or Doc bro…I still Believe the sweetest sound in everyones ear is the sound of the name given to them by their parents and to my dearest Sis, my dad gave her the name JOY and to other one my Mom gave her the name LIGAYA…

  • tra6Gpeche

    Kapag ginamit nating palagi ang “yes, po,” maaring mawala na sa Tagalog ang “oo.” Bakit hindi gamitin ang “oo, po?” Ganoon din ang palaging paggamit ng “sir” at “mam.” Bakit hindi gamitin ang “mang,” “ka” at “aling?” Dahil sa ginagamit nating palagi ang “mr,” “mrs” at “miss,” nawawala na ang “ginoo,” “ginang” at “binibini.” Samantalang ang ating laging bukang-bibig ay mahal natin ang ating sariling wika. Mga palingharap o ipokrita ba talaga tayo? Ang lalong masama ay ang binabanghay ang English sa Tagalog. Ang tawag dito ay “taglish.” Tulad ng salitang “gagawain.” Sa “taglish,” sasabihing “winowork.” Nagmumukha tayong kulang sa pito subalit sobra sa walo. Ano ba talaga ang gusto natin? Gawin na lang nating mga Pilipino na pambansang wika ang “English.” Dahil sa hindi natin pinagyayaman ang sariling wika, marami ng salita ang nababaon sa limot. Palagay ko ay sasang-ayon ang mga hindi katutubong Tagalog at baka dito magkaroon tayo ng pagkakaisa.

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