Thinking Outside the Filipino Box

Whenever we hear about “thinking outside the box,” we immediately focus on the meaning of the expression and often ignore the box. Moreover, we tend to underestimate the latter and assume almost that it is something ineffectual. But the box is actually quite reasonable and useful in and of itself. It equates to what we call “conventional wisdom.” It is conventional, but there is still wisdom in it.

In the Philippines, however, the “box” is a different kind of animal. The conventional element is present, but in a lot of instances the wisdom part is missing. Generally speaking, this particular box is not conventional wisdom – it is just “convention.”

If you come from another country and you have this daily experience of thinking, “Why don’t they just do this, why can’t they stop being like that,” it is probably because you brought with you a normal-sized box which happens to be bigger than the Filipino box. Your mental reactions are caused by the size discrepancy between your box and the local box and if you’re not careful, these may eventually transform into emotional reactions until they become a recurring source of stress in your life.


In this illustration, your mental reactions (assuming you are an expat) are like light bulb moments of the wrong kind. You are not thinking outside the box, but you are thinking outside the Filipino box without even trying, simply because your mind is exposed to that smaller box. This outward projection of thought from someone else’s incompatible box produces such peculiar, potentially irritating moments. Unlike the pleasant “light bulb moments” we experience when solving a problem, this is an involuntary process, which means you are going to experience it whether you like it or not, unless you get the hell out.

To the expat, thinking outside the Filipino box merely serves as an irritant. It doesn’t help him at all. He already gets the fruits of such way of thinking as a default where he used to live, which means there’s nothing new about it.

To the able-minded native, however, thinking outside the Filipino box can be beneficial to both himself and society. If we look at all the advancements in the world that raised humanity’s standard of living, nearly everything can be attributed to the people who thought outside the box. Even the cell phones you use, the trains you ride, and the accounting and law principles used in business and government would not be here if no one thought outside the box in the first place. In like manner, if no Filipino thinks outside the Filipino box, many important aspects of life in this country will remain stuck in the mud – civility in the people, pleasantness in the surroundings, meaningfulness in conversations, comfort and convenience in public systems, efficiency in business and government, quality of education, quality of television programs, etc.

But don’t get me wrong. Thinking outside the Filipino box is not necessarily the same as “thinking like a foreigner.” The standard is not the “foreigner.” The standard is reason. If you can reason correctly, you should be able to reason differently from the way most Filipinos do it inside their box.

This incidentally brings us to the root of the problem, which is intelligence. It so happens that the ability to reason correctly is directly correlated to intelligence, but the average IQ in the Philippines is only 86.

This doesn’t mean that if you have a high IQ you are automatically a person who thinks outside the Filipino box. Growing up in the Philippines can be so influential that it makes the intelligent person think the same way as the majority do. There are quite a few intelligent people in national-level politics, for instance, but they too would only think inside the Filipino box. If that is not the case, then we would have noticed a difference already.

I’m taking the liberty here to talk about intelligence because if we are trying to discuss thinking differently as Filipinos, it simply cannot be avoided. It’s a way of putting things into perspective, and a necessary one at that.

Not every native Filipino can or will think outside the Filipino box. Those who can’t are hampered by low intelligence and I don’t blame them. The lower the IQ, the more rigid the membrane and the more difficult it is to grow the box. But those who can but will not, are arguably hampered by the matrix they were born into. Or selfishness. Or mediocrity. Whatever it is, they need to wake up.

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