The silent language of the gestures:

Nonverbal communication on the Philippines


Which social situation we also select always – the behavior of a buyer or a sales person in a supermarket, a job interview or the behavior of visitors in a soccer-stage -, we notice that we are living in a world of gesticulatory and mimic signals. The social anthropologist Edward T. Hall advocates the theory that round about sixty percent of our communication is nonverbal – without any use of spoken or written language, only with the aid of mimicry, gestures and other forms of the body-language. Even if this figure seems to be too high, we have to concede that non-verbal communication represents  an important part of the general human communication and that it can very helpful  to recognize and to classify nonverbal signals especially with regard to the interpretation  of hidden attitudes.  

Nonverbal signals are already in the same cultural context often ambiguous. In western societies lifted eyebrows can express doubt but also arrogance; crossed arms - refusal, isolation, taciturnity or fear. There are no simple equations of the type „X means Y “, a better interpretation needs very often a knowledge about the social situation. Other cultures can interpret body-signals more differently – and further doors for misunderstandings are opened. 

In the following we discuss specific peculiarities of the nonverbal communication in the Philippines. This is especially justified under the aspect that nonverbal behavior is attached here with increased significance. Gochenour (1) wrote in this context: „Filipinos have at highly developed sensitivity to the nonverbal aspects of communication.. Filipinos are considerably less dependent on of spoken words than are Europeans Americans; They watch their listeners carefully and identify body language cues to assess what the person is feeling.”  

Personal space 

There exists a personal shelter space – 1.5 to 3 meters in western societies -,  which is defended by the individuals. Its non-recognition and penetration by strangers can provoke feelings of uneasiness. In a full elevator, this body-distance is removed and feelings of malaise and indisposition appear quickly.   

The Philippines have been characterized as „touch-oriented society , as society, that shows within the sexes less body-distance and more body-contacts. So be not surprised or even disconcert, if in the nearly empty jeepney a person bulges up to you or if a good friend touches your knee or puts his hand on your shoulder or holds suddenly your hand at walk. Women frequently welcome each another with a kiss. Presumably this behavior has nothing to do with homosexuality or bigamy, the gesture  wants to be understood as expression of warmth and friendship. We have indicated a restriction already. The body-contacts refer only to members of the same sex. Body-contacts to the other sex are taboo and in the public a proper distance is hold. This is the case especially in rural regions with conservative sex morals. Here, lovers kissing on the street can quickly become an issue of barangay-conversation. Under the circumstances of a smaller body-distance, especially western visitors should consider a  possible perspiration-smell. The noses of most Filipinos may be smaller, their capability however is well developed. 

Hands and fingers 

We have some „Does “ in the sense of desired behavior and some „Do knots “, in the sense of undesirable behavior. Let's speak first from gestures considered as polite.     

Also the Filipinos know the soft handshaking as welcome or goodbye greeting. But take into consideration that the initiative for handshaking has to come from the woman.   

There are some situations of passing and crossing, which recommend to lower the head and to hold together the lightly extended hands. This is the etiquette if you cross a room, where people are talking or in front of a switched on TV or if you take your way between two conversation partners. If you are still whispering an „Excuse me “, then you get perhaps as response a  „Never Mind “or a friendly „You are welcome “.   

In families with more conservative attitudes older family members get a special respect-attestation. The younger family-member takes the hand of the older person and leads it to his forehead. Aarau /Jocces (2) are mentioning that this traditional gesture of respect is on retreat.    

A taxi or a person is beckoned with extended arm, downward showing palm and bent and stretched finger-movements (Scraping movements). In order to attract the attention of a person, you can touch shortly his elbow with the finger. To indicate an object you can point to it with your ring respectively pinkie finger. Often the thumb is not often counted when counting. If you want to pay in the restaurant, you can draw with the hand into air a symbolic rectangle or you make a short sibilant. But Jens Peter (3) writes that  thesst”- sounds are more and more disappearing in communication.   

Which arm and finger movements are depreciated? If someone puts his hands on his hips, he is looked as arrogant or that he is angry. It is regarded as impolite – even offending -, if a person is beckoned with curled index finger. To show the outstretched middle finger is – as also in many other parts of the world – a kind of obscene war-declaration.   

Signals of the head 

Jerking the head upwards is mostly interpreted as a “Yes”, jerking the head down as  „No “. If the head is jerked upward and if there is simultaneously a fixed stare it can signalize the provocative question: What do you really want from me? If someone is scraping his head it can mean, that he is ignorant and does not know the answer. Some are saying, if the head is lowered and scratched, this gesture would signalize a guilty conscience.  

An „eyebrow flash“ is the lifting of the eyebrows combined with a short look and perhaps a smile. It expresses the friendly perception and is a silent mute, quick greeting. This mimicry stands also for consent. Often the parents control their children in the public with silent looks, loud reprimands are as much as possible avoided. It is regarded as rude, to stare at a person for a longer time. But strange foreigners can be stared  longer. Instead of pointing an object with hand, the direction of place is often shown by a shifting of eyes and mouth. Hanewalds(4) is mentioning „clouck-clouck-clouck“-movements in the cheek and interprets these as disapproval of an event. If a question is not understood, then an open mouth could be seen very often. Hanewald often reacted to opened mouths with the comment: “Oy, hindi ako dentista!” (I am no dentist) and by this remark  the situation became less seriously.  

Laughing at the top of one’s voice - especially if there is a misfortune of another person - doesn't correspond to the official behavior-codex. Especially women hide their  laughter by covering their mouth with the hand. However smiling is wide-spread in South-East Asia. If we follow Aarau (5) then the Filipinos are „masters of smile“: „They smile, if they praise, and they smile if they criticize. They smile if they are emotional or have caused a small outrage; they smile if they ask for something; they smile if they are happy.“ Each situation has its smile. It is ambiguous and often it has a conflict-reducing function. 

An comedian could put up the question at the end: And what significance has the rubbing of  noses? We can comfort him. Only the Maoris people are touching the tops of their noses as a greeting-ceremonial. 

© Wolfgang Bethge, 2003


(1) quoted from: http://www.Language Issues, Philippine Culture, Philippine Beliefs, Filipino Tradition.htm

(2) Aarau / Alfredo & Gace Roces, Reisegast auf den Philippinen, Munich, 1994, p.18

(3)Jens Peters, Reisehandbuch Philippinen, Berlin, 2002, p. 96

(4)  F. and R. Hanewald, Tagalog für Globetrotters, 1983, p. 70

(5) Aarau / Alfredo & Gace Roces, p.19