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.
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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