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Why Filipinos follow Filipino Time

For Filipinos, being late and starting things late have always been part of our culture. Many Filipinos seems to either practice it or accept it, so much that we’ve been given a term for it — Filipino Time.

However, what many Filipinos don’t realize is how crippling on our total productivity Filipino Time can be, and how it says a lot about the character of Filipinos. With the deep-rootedness of tardiness in Philippine culture and literature, the horrible Manila traffic and public transportation system, and our lack of ability to discipline ourselves, Filipino Time will always be a glaring facet of Filipino culture, and its strong network effects speaks volumes about the kind of people Filipinos are.

Filipino Time in our Literature

Before we can discuss the implications of Filipino Time though, it’s important for us to know the origin of the term first. According to Fr. Miguel Bernad, who wrote an essay about Filipino Time in his book “Budhi: A Journal of Ideas and Culture”, the phrase Filipino Time was coined by Americans in the 1900’s because they were irritated by the lack of punctuality of Filipinos.

However, this habit of tardiness was already commonplace even during the Spanish colonial period, and students may even remember that it was featured in Jose Rizal’s “El Filibusterismo”. In chapter 22 of the novel, where the characters watch a play in a grand theater, a lady and her husband enter the theater very late into the play. She was decribed to have the “air of a queen” and came late as if to say, “I’ve come later than all of you, you crowd of upstarts and provincials!”. Rizal points out here that tardiness by Filipinos was not just a habit, but a status symbol. He even compared this mindset of tardiness of Filipinos to being in a mule race — that the latest one “wins” and is considered most important.

Filipino Time in our Government

Because of its deep-rootedness in Philippine culture and literature, Filipino Time was also practiced by some of the most important people in the Philippines — government officials. One example of a specific, embarrassing instance of our tardiness is the story of President Quirino’s acceptance of an honorary doctorate in Fordham University back in the 1950’s.

Fordham had honored many heads of state before, and they scheduled to start the grand ceremony to award President Quirino at 2:00 pm of that day. However, the President ended up coming at 4:00 pm, when much of the audience and press left already, and this clearly insulted the hosts. For President Quirino to set such an embarrassing example like this, it’s clear why tardiness among Filipinos continues to thrive as a sign of our culture already.

The Reasons for Filipino Time

However, in today’s society, there are legitimate reasons as to why Filipinos still have the habit of Filipino Time. One of these is the incredible traffic Filipinos have to go through in Metro Manila. Metro Manila is now known to have the “worst traffic on Earth” based on a global survey by Waze. As such, when people want to meet up at a certain time in Manila, the unpredictable traffic can make them either way too early or too late for their meeting.

Moreover, Metro Manila also has the longest commute time, with an average of 45.5 minutes based on the Waze survey. Filipinos are already used to waiting in long lines for the LRT and MRT lines, and with no set times for the trains to come, they can never be certain of how long it will take to get from point A to B. As such, it is almost impossible for two people to meet precisely at a certain time with the condition of traffic and public transportation here in the Philippines.

Why Filipino Time is Contagious

Filipino Time can also be incredibly contagious, and a simple situation shows how. Let’s say a head of an organization needs to meet with some of his members regularly at 1:20 pm every Tuesday. Since the head does not want his time wasted, he would rather let his members get to the meeting place first and wait for him. Over time, his members know he usually comes late, so they have no reason to be punctual either. As such, instead of meeting at 1:20 pm every day, they usually start their meetings at 1:30 pm already, because everyone has gotten used to being late.

Huge Network Effects

This here is an example of the dreadful “network effects” of tardiness. When who we’re meeting with is constantly tardy, we have no reason to be punctual anymore. We slowly generate an understanding that other people will be tardy too, so we show up late to anticipate for it.

Hence, there is a network effect of people influencing others to be tardy as they meet more people. This is similar to the network effects Peter Thiel describes in his book “Zero to One”, such as when people use Facebook. If all your friends are on Facebook, then it makes sense for you to join it too. And if all your friends are always late, then it’s alright if you’re late too. This shows how contagious Filipino Time can be, and if we add up all the minutes and hours lost because of people being tardy to meetings, school, or work, we can start to imagine how damaging Filipino Time is to our productivity as a country.

Filipino Time in Philippine Companies

This lack of punctuality isn’t just exhibited by Filipino people, but it is also exhibited by companies from one of our biggest industries — the aviation industry. Our two major airlines, Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific, have both been notorious for the high percentage of delayed flights they have. According to Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) General Manager Jose Angel Honrado, the month of January 2015 had a staggering 103 delayed flights in a day on average. There doesn’t seem to be any action being done to reverse this lack of punctuality by airlines either, and these are circumstances we have come to tolerate whenever we have to fly on local airlines.

A Form of Branding

As such, Filipino Time has transcended being a mere habit of Filipinos. Instead, it’s become a form of branding of our people, our companies, and our country as a whole already. After all, whenever foreigners come to our country, and they complain of experiences dealing with tardy Filipinos here, it’s easy to tell them: “Oh, well that’s because we follow Filipino Time.” And because we call it Filipino Time, foreigners can generalize that all Filipinos, and everything else in the Philippines, is late as well. As such, tardiness becomes the brand of our people and our country. And yet, many Filipinos continue to just tolerate it, accept it, or even practice it.

So what does this tell us about Filipino culture? Well, for one, Filipino Time shows how we Filipinos can have a lack of respect for other people’s time. We can be individualistic in nature. What is more worrying, though, is that Filipino Time shows how Filipinos have become a complacent, tolerant, and change-resistant people. We have had this habit for centuries already, and there is no sign we will ever lose it. Instead of blaming our tardiness on ourselves though, some of us even celebrate it as a hallmark of our culture as Filipinos. We perpetuate that it is normal to be tardy here in the Philippines. In turn, this has crippling network effects to our image as Filipinos to foreigners.

What Can We Do About It?

All in all, with the deep-rootedness in Philippine culture and literature of Filipino Time, our horrible traffic and poor public transportation, and our acceptance of Filipino Time as a brand, it is nearly impossible to eradicate tardiness from our culture and society. However, what’s important is that we do not celebrate our tardiness as a brand for us Filipinos. We cannot blame why we ourselves are always late simply on Filipino Time. We should see that it is usually because of our own lack of discipline and lack of respect for other people’s time.

When we label our tardiness as Filipino Time, we simply further perpetuate the crippling network effects of the habit and its negative brand. This is unfair for the many Filipinos out there who are punctual, disciplined, and mindful of other people’s time. As such, the next time you are tardy, don’t blame it on Filipino Time. It’s time we start admitting our own faults. It’s time we stopped Filipino Time from being a celebrated part of our culture as Filipinos.

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Brian Tan is a 20-year-old writer, UI/UX designer and front-end web developer from the Philippines. He’s also the co-founder and CEO of HangTime— a web app built to help students create and share class schedules with each other. Get in touch with him at brian@hangtimeapp.com.