When the Usage of “Po/Opo” Becomes “Pabebe”


In Philippine culture, the usage of “Po” and “Opo” is a sign of respect. That is, respect when talking to elders and authority figures. We, Pinoy, pride ourselves in using those words. It shows how polite and respectful we are, which is something that is being revered by foreigners.

When I was in the academe in the home country a few years  ago, there was not an issue about the usage of “Po” and “Opo” until I became an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW). I have been working in the Middle East for more than five years now but it was only in 2018 that I started noticing the, I may say, abuse to said usage in either casual communication—be it at work, gatherings, online chat, and other informal settings—or formal conversation.

Prior to drafting this post, I did a little digging into Google’s search box for some articles that talk up the abuse, if not trivialization, of this courteous practice. I have found just one. Check out the first related article below. The rest were about promotion and encouragement given the commendation for our courtesy. 

I would like to make it clear that I, too, am is a fan of using “Po” and “Opo” when talking to people who are evidently older than me. The words are music to the ears of my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, and teachers. My two children use them as well when talking to me; it is a requirement. At work though, I use “Sir” or “Ma’am” when talking to people in the executive level or those with higher salary than mine. I do not start each of my sentences with any of those polite terms of address nor end every sentence the same words. I use them sparingly.

I am a proud rank and file. More often than not, I get to talk with people under the same roof. I have been speaking with a decent number of people where I explicitly and politely asked them to drop the “Po” and “Opo”—on multiple occasions—but to no avail. The people I am referring to are technically older and have a higher position than me. There are also some who are either just a year or a few years younger, which ultimately belong to the same age bracket. This is where the frustration comes from not only because of the polite imposition I am working on but more so the multicultural setting we are all into. This explains why we, in general, also use “Yes, Sir” or “Yes, Ma’am” inordinately that even the Western and local bosses could not help but call our attention just to be told that they would rather be called by their respective first names. The same goes for for “Po” and “Opo” in the community. I have encountered a considerable number of people who are older than me expressing their discomfort to be on the receiving end of those polite terms of address by using the same to me during the course of the conversation. This is a situation where the essence of this polite practice becomes devalued because participants are, in effect, just talking in circles. It makes both parties feel more uncomfortable every time they stress the term out to each other. I have also met a few ones who will politely tell me to refrain from addressing them formally so that we can interact on equal footing.

Pinoys nowadays tend to use “Po” and “Opo” as mere expressions—forgetting what they are really intended for, which is as a sign of respect to elders and authority figures. There is no problem with these polite terms of address if they are used sparingly or when needed. It all comes down to this: Excessive usage of those words devalues their meaning. It also becomes more of an annoyance or “pabebe” effect rather than respect especially when people are not comfortable to be on the receiving end.

Respect is seeing how the other person sees it and doing how the other person prefers it done. It would be best to consider the other person’s frame of reference relative to it. Not everyone is gifted with an ability to tune in to somebody else’s perception of respect with regard to the usage of “Po” ad “Opo”. We should learn to adjust our vernacular or jargon together with our behavior to what is acceptable in a given situation. 

The next time you use “Po/Opo” as well as “Sir/Ma’am” in a conversation, ask the other person how they would like to be addressed if it is made clear that they are not okay with those polite terms. You can also consider using “Ho/Oho” as an alternative particularly in INFORMAL COMMUNICATION.

Related Articles

The trivialization of ‘opo (bworldonline.com)

Filipinos are not hospitable (medium.com)

Little Big Respect (fowpal.org)

18 Signs That You Are A Pabebe Girl (cosmo.ph)

How Pabebe Are You (ilustradolife.com)

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