A few weeks back I wrote about the problems resulting from the matapobre mentality in the Philippines—a double-standard hospitality where we go overboard in meeting the needs of others but only if we see them as equals or superiors, while snubbing or even being hostile to those we perceive as inferiors.
That column brought me much feedback, enough for several more columns. The interest in this matapobre problem also got me more observant of other people’s behavior, and realizing that the problem often ties into what I call the suki trap.
Suki is one of the most intriguing words that came into Tagalog (and other Philippine languages) through Minnan Chinese (also known as Hokkien and Amoy). An Amoy dictionary by the missionary Douglas Carstairs, published in 1873, defines tsu-kheh as “a regular customer, either buyer or seller.”
Suki is now very much a part of our languages, even used as a greeting: “Suki,” said almost with a tinge of protest, “long time, no see!” It’s easy to imagine how the word was introduced to the Philippines through the Chinese traders who first came more than a thousand years ago to barter, or, in the 19th and 20th centuries, through the street and itinerant vendors of food and
other small items, calling out “Tsu-kheh, tsu-kheh!”
Establishing a suki relationship, whether as buyer or seller, is an art, comparable to courtship. It can happen even in an establishment where there’s no bargaining involved, like, say, a Mercury drugstore. Simply because you’re there often, perhaps as a senior citizen, the salespersons get friendly and if they don’t have stocks of your prescription, go out of their way to find a branch where it’s available. Good service is suki service, and you go back to that branch even if it might not be the closest to you.
It gets more complicated, but fun, in establishments where the prices are not fixed. Both parties know the seller has to make a profit, and the suki relationship happens because each party tries to accommodate the other. The transaction also has a longer-term perspective: Either the buyer or seller will actually say it as you move toward closing the deal: “Sige na, so we can become suki.” It’s a pledge from the seller to give you a bargain again next time, and for the buyer to come back.
The bargaining can be intense, but there is much of the nonverbal going on—smiling or pouting, looking up into the air, looking into your wallet—which softens the brusque nature of business transactions. There’s theater involved, the vendor practically begging you to buy something as buena mano (first sale of the day, even if it’s already 5 p.m.)… or the buyer dropping a line like “Look, I won’t have any more money to get home.”
Suki is a work in progress which does not really end. In fact, the expert suki builder leaves each transaction open for another one, as when the vendor gives you one more discount for the total bill, or adds a bonus or gift to what you purchased, usually for the children. Smart psychology there, because my kids actually look up the suki next time we’re in the neighborhood.
Men, sellers or vendors, tend to be more awkward at building a suki relationship because men are so status-conscious and
suki-building is equalizing. The rules are somewhat different, but men can be suki, too; in fact, some of the big taipan businesses grew out of male-to-male suki relationships.
Perks, and peril
I could go on and on, but let’s get to the perks of a suki relationship. More than just a regular customer, you are a special customer. You get lower prices and bonus items, and can even buy on credit without a credit card. Do you have a defective product, or something you realized you didn’t really need, or want? No problem, repairs, returns and replacements are quick, and are essential parts of the real tests of a suki relationship.
All these frequent-flier and discount-card schemes are really modern-day variations on the suki, but are still part of the cold business world. The suki involves attitudes, the sense of a special relationship, or even an intent to develop a special relationship—a bit like MU (mutual understanding) in courtship. Little things count, as when they offer to have someone to help you carry the stuff you bought, even if it’s small and light, to the car. Suki relationships grow, and seller and vendor sometimes end up as kumpare or kumadre (fellow godparents), or just plain good friends.
But suki relationships, like marriage, can sour as well. Essential to nurturing a suki relationship is trust, a faith in each other. Sellers can betray that trust by selling you defective goods, and, worse, making you wait for the replacement or repair when there was no intention at all to correct the problem. Or, because they know you’ll bargain less, they might end up overpricing an item. Others hound you, chasing
after you and practically pulling you to their store or stall to buy something… or if they can borrow some money.
Buyers, too, can actually have their suki status removed without their knowing it. I’ve had suki store owners telling me after a customer leaves: I hope she doesn’t come back. The litany of abuses can be long—over-bargaining, over-demanding, not paying debts, or just being insolent with the staff, even the owner.
Let’s link the suki trap now with matapobre, which comes
into the picture when a seller, or—and this important—the members of the sales staff (including waiters) pay attention only to their suki. We Filipinos can be seguristas, and it’s easier to just attend to the suki and never mind the customer who just walked in dressed in a duster and slippers.
But that is very bad business sense. Your suki pool remains small, or might become even more reduced because the quality of service deteriorates when you become too suki-oriented, which can be interpreted as being matapobre or, quite simply, bad service. Waiters are especially prone to do this, discriminating even among the suki in favor of the ones who tip better.
It will help to go back to the original Chinese words for suki, which are khe for a guest and tsu for primary, or No. 1. All customers should be seen as primary guests, with potentials of becoming extra-special. I think of all of my mother’s suki, who still ask about her even if she has been bedridden all these years. I used to tease her about the way she would “bribe” suki bank tellers, sales staff, even food servers, by bringing merienda and little gifts for them. Many of them are now my suki, and I suspect my children will become their children’s suki, too, cutting across generations, gender, ethnicity and, most important, class. Which means that any hint of being matapobre on the part of a business establishment and staff, and they will no longer be suki.
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