The Debt of Gratitude Culture in the Philippines

A culture is an important aspect of any society as it includes the patterns and way of life of the people living in that particular society. If one needs to understand the life in an area, one should need to look closely at their culture.

A culture is also said to be relative to the people living there. This means that no two cultures should be compared against each other because a particular culture should be seen through the lens of that particular culture and not of the outsider. Because of this fact, there are disputes as to how to brand a particular pattern in a culture. Is a certain culture dysfunctional or better for the people? Should this be removed in favor of another?


The Philippines as a nation with a little bit of every culture that it has interacted has formed a cultural system that is intriguing, distinct, and at times very different from the others. Some of the cultural patterns in the Philippines were also branded to be “good”, “outdated”, “not good”, and “dysfunctional”. By dysfunctional it means that it is not necessarily bas as in not good, but it is somewhat hampering the betterment of an individual, in this case, the Filipino.

One example for this a dysfunctional cultural component is the “ningas cogon” trait of most Filipinos. It is literally translated as “flash fire grass’ and its idiomatic meaning is to start a hype then abruptly end it in a while. A Filipino is know to be a very energetic initiator of everything and starter of a lot of things but very few really finish what they have started. Ningas cogon is seen in the light of dysfunctionality rather than a straight “bad” cultural component.

However, there is a more interesting Filipino culture. This is called “utang na loob” in the Filipino language. This is the debt of gratitude culture in the Philippines. This has been disputed, debunked, and debated by the different sectors of society who are interested in knowing its contribution to the Philippine culture and society as a whole.

The debt of gratitude culture simply means that a Filipino’s achievement regardless of the size and nature is always attributed to someone or those who have helped him or her accomplish that achievement. For example, Juan is looking for a job. His friend, Pedro recommended him to his father’s business. Juan was able to get a job in Pedro’s father’s company. Juan feels that he has a debt gratitude to Pedro and therefore feels like he always owes something to him.

Whenever Juan sees Pedro, he feels like Pedro is a hero. He goes on introducing him to whoever as the one who was instrumental for him to have a job.

The debt of gratitude culture in the Philippines is more than economic and financial in nature. It transcends the emotional, mental, and even psychological state in that sometimes, relationships, work, and even the family is disrupted and affected. The consequences are far more complicated than simply thought of.

Picking up from the previous example, Juan worked for Pedro’s father. Pedro’s father turned out to be unfair and giving salary to Juan below what Juan deserves and what was dictated by law. However, Juan feels that because he has a debt of gratitude to Pedro he cannot leave Pedro’s father’s company just yet. For Juan he needs to stay for a longer time in order to “pay” for the debt of gratitude.

This debt of gratitude also hampers Juan to demand for the right amount for his salary. Demanding for a higher salary would seem to be disrespectful to Pedro who made the way for him to have a work. So in effect, Juan seemed to be working for Pedro.

The debt of gratitude culture does not only affect the parties involved but also their families and the people around them. Juan’s family may be in need of more finances because of their growing children, but because of Juan’s refusal to demand for a higher salary or look for another job, they simply cannot do anything.

The debt of gratitude is not a stand alone cultural component. It is joined by other dysfunctional facet of the Filipino culture like “hiya” (shame) and “pakikisama” (togetherness). Because of Juan’s lower social class status than Pedro he feels the shame to demand or to leave the job. He also takes into great consideration their being friends and does not rock the boat in fear that their togetherness will be broken.

Debt of gratitude does not only apply to the one who is “lowly” here. Pedro’s father may be using the debt of gratitude to his advantage by thinking that without his son’s help; Juan could never get a job. So in effect, the father thinks that Juan should be contented with what he gives since it was his son who gave Juan the opportunity to work. For Pedro’s father, the job was a reward already for Juan.

Debt of gratitude is not all bad as it teaches a Filipino to be grateful and to see that his accomplishments are not of his own. There is nothing wrong with the debt of gratitude but if it jeopardizes more important things in the individual’s life like the welfare of Juan’s family and his labor rights, then debt of gratitude becomes dysfunctional.

It is also not anymore culturally acceptable if the whole life of a certain individual is indebted to another individual even if the help and support extended is minute. Again in the case of Juan, it is only right to be grateful to his friend Pedro. However, it is never ok to be indebted to Pedro for the rest of his life as if Pedro gave him the air to breathe.

The debt of gratitude should never be erased all together as again, it teaches gratefulness and gratitude. It should be managed and balanced within an individual and think wisely on how this culture affects him or her and the people around.

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