Character | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi


/ 05:26 AM April 13, 2018

It’s the time of year for commencement exercises: One university president told me he had to attend eight of them in his institution, from grade school upward.

Commencement speeches are difficult to write. You don’t want to sound self-righteous and preachy, but you want to send strong messages to the new graduates that they can use.


This season I’ve delivered one speech so far, to a remote lumad school in Mindanao; I have one coming up at the University of Makati (UMak for short), which I’ve been following because it was one of the first to institute a senior high school program six years ago. This means many of UMak’s college graduates this year actually came out of its senior high school. (In contrast, for the rest of the country, including the University of the Philippines, we are only now taking in the first graduates of senior high school.)

Thursday morning I woke up with a bad head cold, still wondering what I’d say at UMak. I had a breakthrough after getting an e-mail from a UP faculty member airing her views on our hiring and promotion criteria. I was surprised, almost amused, that we have guidelines in UP that’s been in use for some 30 years now, naming “physical characteristics and personality traits” among the criteria.


Here’s that section’s entire text for your entertainment:

“Attitude: professional in dealing with client and co-workers. Emotionally mature (cooperative, patient and discreet). Courteous, enthusiastic and with sense of humor.

“Commitment: responsible; adhering to the code of moral values; willing to render overtime service even without pay.

“Appearance: in prescribed dress code. Well-groomed
(neat and clean).”

Perfect, I thought, since graduates want to know what gets them a job.

‘Pleasing personality’

I realized that “personality” may have evolved in its meaning to emphasize physical characteristics such as those sought in beauty contests… which is why I’d advise young people to be careful with recruiters seeking people with a “pleasing personality.”


But that’s the story of what’s happening in job recruitment. We emphasize the superficial, or, even if we use criteria like “innovativeness,” we may have forgotten the importance of character, which is supposedly covered by a certificate of good moral character and which only tells us the applicant has never been found guilty of an administrative offense.

We hear people talk about building character, but the word itself comes from the Greek character, which means a stamping tool, or engraved. I prefer this comparison of character as something that is engraved, and that educational institutions are entrusted with precious gems whose full potential has yet to be brought out.

Gems come in all shapes and colors, each with its own relative value. The differences we see in gems are the differences in personalities: extroverts and introverts, temperamental versus calm. The scientific research is still ongoing but we know now that a significant portion of personality is genetic, yet not immutable. Social environments can reshape personality. Thus, a person may be mainit ang ulo, but that hot-headedness can be changed. In some people, especially those raised in an environment of privilege and power, the hot-headedness can turn into dangerous aggression, feeding from and into impunity. Others, fortunately, can control their temper, even positively tapping into it: Hot-headedness can also mean passionate commitment to causes and advocacies.

Good educators value all personalities, including the more challenging ones—for example, the super-hyper ones, as well as the very phlegmatic whose every move is measured. After all, what would the world be like if all of us had the same personality? Think about it, even in terms of the person you want to settle down with: You don’t want someone with the same personality as you have or you’ll end up with a battlefield for a home… or, on the other extreme, a monastery, hanggang tinginan na lang in Filipino, meaning just looking at each other all day.


Character is the product of upbringing, at home, in school, and, even after graduation, your workplace, your community. We generally think of character in normative terms—what society wants you to be like. A desirable character is based on normative values, so in the Philippine context we speak of someone as having utang na loob, pakikisama, hiya. Notice how those values are sometimes seen as negative by non-Filipinos, who say utang na loob leads to corruption, pakikisama to hiding faults, and hiya to passivity.

Values are context-based: We develop them because of specific circumstances. There’s the natural environment and its challenges for human societies. Hunting-gathering societies encourage individual initiative, risk-taking. Agricultural societies nurture cooperation and communalism, as we see in utang na loob, pakikisama, hiya. As more and more Filipinos have to work and live overseas, we will find more emphasis on assertiveness as a positive character trait.

I was not surprised when I could not find one Filipino term for character but found a general convergence for desired qualities as pakikipagkapwa, or a concern for others. Pagmamalasakit, or compassion, actually came out less often in the literature I reviewed, but I think it’s there in pakikipagkapwa.

This focus comes close to that of the Spanish calidad humana, the quality of being human. It’s not surprising that archaeologists and anthropologists look for it even in the bones. The skeletons can tell us if a community was caring for people who were old, or with disability and illness. (I would add here: Finding the remains of animals in contexts suggesting they were pets and not food are also part of calidad humana.)

I found discussion threads on the internet involving HR (human relations) people talking about how hiring might be based on a perception that an applicant’s calidad humana is gran (strong) or poca (lacking).

A Filipino term which I think comes closest to, maybe even surpasses, the English meaning of character is kabutihang loob (inner goodness). It converges well with the English term in the sense of character being molded, engraved by our social environment and becomes internalized, becomes what the sociologist Robert Bellah called “habits of the heart.” Character sets the default for the way we think and do things. No scripts, no show biz, because it comes from within.

I also like kabutihang loob because it emphasizes the need to be mabuting tao (of good character). Note mabuti, rather than mabait (kind). It’s important to be mabait, but not all kind people are good people in the sense of defending principles. Character involves moral strength, one which you project and, maybe yes, you can even tell from the way one neither over-, nor under-dresses. It’s dressing up (or down) to express one’s respect for others; throw in grooming, too.

I worry sometimes about how our educational institutions emphasize “employability” by using terms like curiosity, innovativeness, even disruptiveness, but without these traits being anchored on character. A good school, mabuting paaralan, should produce people with good character, mabuting tao.

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