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 and it is revered by foreigners.

When I was in the academe and the corporate world 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 casual or formal conversation more so online chat—be it at work, gatherings, and other settings.

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 grade 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 employee. More often than not, I get to talk with people under the same roof. I have been speaking with a decent number of people, enough to give this post a go 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 here 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 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 its receiving end.

Respect is, more often than not, 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” and “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 conversations, unless, of course, you are talking to your parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, teachers, or authority figures.

Related Articles

The trivialization of ‘opo (bworldonline.com)

Filipinos are not hospitable (medium.com)

Little Big Respect (fowpal.org)


8 Comments Add yours

  1. vinneve says:

    So true! Happy New Year to U. Let’s wish that this year brings us luck and opportunities.


    1. hehe…Thanks, Vinneve. Just trying put things into perspective. People, in general, just go with the flow nowadays. The regard to checking this and that is gone. Everything that’s convenient is “okayed”, which often causes spread of misusages and, worst, fake news.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was in Dubai, I’m surprised the word ‘Po’ is widely use amongst the service staff. I didn’t know what ‘Po’ means until I googled it. Could be because I look like a kabayan 🙂


    1. Yes, Hero. It’s definitely because you look like a Filipino. I am quoting what I replied to Vinneve’s comment up there: “Just trying put things into perspective. People, in general, just go with the flow nowadays. The regard to checking this and that is gone. Everything that’s convenient is ‘okayed’, which often causes spread of misusages and, worst, fake news.”

      Thanks, Bro, for sharing your experience. This proves that the subject misusage has extended beyond the Philippine walls. You know what I mean…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I heard people taking at the checkout counters and referring to each other adding (which to my hearing sounded like) -ko at the end of the sentences. Now I wonder what it was – actually Ho or Po? Sounded very similar as the ending in phrase ainako which I often hear from Filipino population here.


    1. The “ainako” is a different expression that’s generally acceptable and with less blow-when it comes to appropriateness-compared to the subject. It’s rather cute.

      Thanks for the supplement, Annash!


  4. AJ says:

    This pabebe way of saying “po” started way before 2018. I believe it was when Kathryn Bernardo said a sing-songy “Sorry po” complete with a curtsy in Got to Believe. That was in 2013. 🙂


    1. I haven’t watched that movie but I will be to get the “pop culture reference” I need, in accordance with your suggestion. I love Kathryn Bernardo but I would hate her a bit for the proliferation of this pabebe effect, I may say. 🙂


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