Feb 15, 2011

Why are elevators so challenging to Filipinos and are Filipinos really more discourteous?

Dear Filipino,

I'm from the States but I have been living in the PI for almost six years now. I'm married to a wonderful Filipina woman, adopted her two daughters from a previous marriage, and a year ago we had our first daughter together. I've run a few businesses/offices here with 40+ staff. I've gotten used to the corrupt MMDA guys; to the horrible snarl of traffic on EDSA; to the general driving populace's apparent inability to pick a lane to drive in or pay attention to when a stoplight turns green; to mentally translating "out of stock sir" to properly mean "we have never had it and likely never will". This background is to show I'm generally more familiar with the culture here than a "fresh-off-the-boat" expat or a tourist

But there is one thing that I simply cannot get used to and cannot understand the root cause of the phenomenon: It seems a large percentage of the population simply cannot understand the simple concept of an elevator. Why?

Why do people think it's a bright idea to push both the up and the down button at the same time? Why do people think it's a good idea to get on an elevator travelling in the opposite direction they want to go? Why do people get on an elevator without bothering to take note of the direction it is heading and then after travelling a few floors burst out with the inevitable "AY!" and get flustered as they realize they're heading the wrong way or just as often when they realize they've missed their floor because they didn't bother to push the button to indicate the floor they wanted to go to?

I've asked friends. I've asked people who engage in this strange elevator behavior. Most of the responses center around fear of "overload". I can't think of a better way to put this: that's just moronic. By causing the elevator to make unnecessary stops, they reduce the efficiency of the system which causes longer waits which causes more "overload". Is it like the sleeping at the stoplight phenomenon where folks just aren't in a hurry to get wherever they're going so they don't really care what direction they're heading? I've often heard from less politically correct expats that elevators are too new a concept for people "fresh from the provinces" and they shouldn't be expected to understand their use. Ignoring the racist overtones of that explanation, it still doesn't make sense. Even if one has never seen an elevator before, one certainly can grasp the meaning of an up and a down arrow. So again, I don't get it.

It's taken quite a while for me to get over the vast difference between here and my home culture in the importance of common courtesy. Holding the door for someone or thanking someone that does the same for you, letting someone get over in traffic when they signal they want make a lane change, properly waiting your turn in line while making sure not to block all foot/vehicle traffic, generally being aware of the people around you and behaving in such a way as to not only avoid interfering with them but additionally being aware of any opportunity in which you can lend a helping hand. These are all things I was raised to do. All things that were impressed upon me as important to being a good person. I get that this is not the case here. Fine, it's a different culture.

With all that said, I can't see how a culture that's known worldwide as being so friendly and caring can condone this elevator behavior. My previous employment was on the top (33rd floor) of a building. The 23rd floor has a huge call center. Every day my staff was unable to get on the elevator to go down for lunch because every time the door opened it was packed full with people from the 23rd floor. We're talking about hundreds of people a day riding 10 floors in the wrong direction and forcing everyone 10 floors above them to miss the elevator because they couldn't wait their turn. ARRGGGHH!

I've spent almost six years trying to figure this out and honestly I'm just as stuck on this issue as I was the day I landed here. Please, can you shed some light on why this happens and perhaps some suggestions on how to deal with it? Someday if I ever have the funds, I intend to produce a 2 minute video on how to properly use an elevator and air it on ABS-CBN. But I refuse to do it until my Tagalog is good enough that I do not have to use any English. Airing a commercial about how to use an elevator already sounds like a self-righteous/racist expat. Hopefully if I can do it in Tagalog, a few people will get past that and actually listen to the message.

Marc Womack
Consultant for Traffic, Outsourced Labor, Hosting & More!

Dear Marc,

If your question were just a straightforward logic question on elevator use, it would be fairly simple to answer. Why? Because it is not quite as “moronic” as you put it; in fact, there is some twisted “genius” behind pressing both buttons – which means, I’m sorry to break the news, the 23rd floor folks in your previous building had probably outsmarted you to some extent.

You see, in a typical modern office building which has a bank of elevators, system programmers consider “interfloor,” “up peak,” “down peak,” and “lunch time” traffic patterns to maximize the elevators’ utility. While “interfloor” traffic is important if, say, there’s a major tenant occupying multiple floors, most systems really address “up peak” traffic by making elevator cars wait by the lobby during certain times (e.g., around 8am) to provide faster service to passengers arriving at the building , and “down peak” traffic by sending elevator cars towards the highest floor to await hall calls placed by passengers wishing to leave the building (e.g., around 5pm).

The “lunch time” mode is a two-way traffic pattern found somewhere between “up peak” and “down peak.” That’s why if you press both the up and down buttons, you increase your chances of getting an elevator to stop by your floor because you get to summon the closest elevator car or catch the one in-transit on the way up or on the way down, whichever is closer.

To illustrate, let’s say you want to go down and you press both buttons. If an elevator on the way down stops by your floor and it has room for you, then you ride; if there’s no room for you, you wait for the next one. But if an elevator on the way up stops by your floor, you may still decide to ride it if it’s empty because you can typically override the system to travel to the opposite direction (most possible if there’s no one above you who summoned the same elevator), or if it’s not empty and you don’t mind travelling up a few floors instead of waiting.

This partially explains why the 23rd floor folks probably thought it would, overall, save them time to go up 10 floors rather than miss an opportunity of getting a ride. They would rather lose time going up 10 floors than wait for a car with enough room for them, or walk 23 flights down.

I’m sure there were instances, of course, when it was an honest-to-goodness mistake on the part of the elevator riders which account for the “round-trip,” or maybe their outright impatience. But I would wager that the main reason is time: i.e., “saving time” is very important to these folks because they are on the clock and every minute is important.

You see, with the shortage of decent jobs in the Philippines, ordinary workers do not really enjoy a lot of rights, and especially in call centers, they are monitored like robots. So if it’s lunch time, off they go lest they miss their lunch, which is not only a time for eating but also a chance to socialize with their friends and co-workers as well. And they won’t let elevators get in the way.

But in a way, the elevator behavior you have observed is actually very similar to the driving culture in Manila. People are only concerned about their personal time, not the societal time. So drivers don’t hesitate to squeeze into lanes where they shouldn’t be, make turns without regard to traffic lights, or stop in the middle of the road without regard to the other motorists behind them.

Is this type of behavior selfish? Sure it is, and I’m not going to defend it. [In fact, let me tell folks engaged in this kind of behavior who are reading this post: PLS. STOP!] But off the top of my head, I will discuss three reasons why this type of behavior festers in Metro Manila. (Although you may observe similar behavior in the provinces, I submit it would be to a much lesser extent.)

One major reason is Metro Manila is just way too crowded. The metro region -- which covers the City of Manila and 15 other cities (Caloocan, Las Piñas, Makati, Malabon, Mandaluyong, Marikina, Muntinlupa, Navotas, Pasay, Pasig, Parañaque, Quezon City, San Juan, Taguig, Valenzuela) plus the municipality of Pateros – has an estimated population of some 20.8 million as of end-2010. By my calculations, this translates to a population density of 32,345 per square kilometer. Compare this to NY City’s 10,194; Chicago’s 4,923 and Los Angeles’ 3,041. Can you imagine what will happen to these major US cities if they had population densities similar to Metro Manila’s?

A second reason is that the systems in place are not only inadequate, they are also overwhelmed. You can have traffic lights and all, but if there are way too much cars on the road, traffic will still be monstrous.

Applying this in your elevator scenario, a building developer and/or building manager should take into account the building tenants, the density of occupancy per floor, and the schedule of lunch breaks, when programming elevator systems. In fact, a building-wide meeting to address these types of concerns is not a bad idea. Because an employee’s one-hour break can easily be eaten by long lines which impact productivity and encourage rule-breaking, when I was working for a multi-floor tenant of a big commercial building, we had to stagger lunch breaks to address the traffic not only on elevators but also at the cafeteria.

A third reason is the systems’ lack of incentivizing and penalizing mechanisms. By this, I mean the equal and consistent application of rule-enforcement mechanisms. This is why I applaud P-Noy’s “No wang-wang” rule, even if I think he needs to use the wang-wang for his own safety. Applied in the elevator situation, there should be no “special elevator” for the exclusive use of a handful if the building’s configuration didn’t originally plan for it, if these “special passengers” have no compelling reason to be accorded special treatment, and most especially if they’re not paying for the privilege.

I said I was going to enumerate three reasons and I did. But did you notice that not once did I touch on culture?

Why is that?

Because I think the elevator behavior you mentioned is not Filipino culture per se! And this is why, even though I really appreciate your sincere intent to understand, I have to push back a bit against your contentions, both the express and the implied, because I think you also unfairly contextualized your question by bringing up other issues, especially when you said that there is a “vast difference” between your “home culture” and the Filipino culture with regards to “common courtesy.” You also quite impertinently alluded to “all things [you were] raised to do” and “impressed upon [you] as important to being a good person,” which you claim to “get that this is not the case” in the Philippines because “it's a different culture.”

That paragraph saddened me, but because I can understand to a certain extent where you're coming from, I will not dwell too much on your implied assertions in this blogpost. But I will say this: If it were purely Filipino culture that’s to blame, don't you think this type of behavior would persist even in the States where almost 5 million of us now reside? But it doesn’t, does it -- whether anecdotally or otherwise? Why? Because where systems work, where laws are enforced, and where people are treated equitably, Filipinos behave just fine.  So it's not about culture.

In fact, I would argue our native Filipino culture is much more “courteous” than the culture in the US. Truth be told, I was treated rather much more discourteously as a tourist in New York than anywhere else except London where I was beaten up by four thuggish teenagers who wanted my wallet and my bag!

But how can I convince you? Because it’s difficult to devise the metrics for “courteousness” and because there's not a lot of data on this, I think a reasonable metric to use is the rate of criminality among our peoples. I mean, you can’t really call someone courteous if he’s trying to mug or kill you, right?

So let’s look at those figures.

According to the 2000 US Census, 3.04% of males ages 18-39 are incarcerated in the US. But if you parse the figures, you will discover that incarceration rates increase sharply if you compare the foreign-born immigrants’ figures to US-born figures.

For instance, the incarceration rate among foreign-born Non-Hispanic Whites is only 0.57% but this figure increases to 1.71% among their US-born. For the Non-Hispanic Blacks, the rate increases almost five-fold from 2.47% of their foreign-born to 11.61% of their US-born; for Mexicans, the rate increases more than eightfold from 0.70% of their foreign-born to 5.9% of their US-born; among the Vietnamese, the increase is more than tenfold, from 0.46% of their foreign-born to 5.6% among their US-born. And for Filipinos? The rate is 0.38% of their foreign-born to 1.22% of their US-born.

Overall, the incarceration figure is 0.86% of foreign-born and 3.51% of US-born. Clearly, something in the US culture is to blame for the rise in incarceration figures among the US-born sons of immigrants, don’t you think? (As a Filipino-American myself with US-born kids, I'm very concerned about this.)

Besides, I would also wager that “your” culture, though it may appear “courteous” at the superficial level, is actually much more aggressive. I mean, it should be obvious from a cursory parallel review of the histories of the West and the East, right? In the 20th century alone, Europe visited upon the world two world wars which killed millions. And let’s not even talk about the thousands of smaller Western wars and battles and imperialistic adventurism which transpired during and prior to that century which also decimated millions for the sake of resources. (And yet the Brits supposedly taught the world what it means to be a "gentleman"?)

Personally, I see the Filipino culture fighting tooth-and-nail against a culture of poverty which, because of its all-enveloping reach and depressing level of magnitude, is getting the better of the Filipinos oftentimes. This culture of poverty breeds distrust and ignorance especially among the folks at the bottom of the social pyramid; corruption and impunity among the folks at the top; and massive selfishness all throughout. It is evil, it is pernicious, and therefore it has to be fought and defeated.  (I refuse to believe our culture is the reason why the Philippines is poor, because, again, Filipinos in the US are in fact one of the most affluent minority groups.)

And this is why I think if you really want to help, you would be better-advised spending the money you’re saving for the two-minute commercial you’re planning to air on ABS-CBN about elevator use into something more productive - something that will really help the country fight against the culture of poverty. I mean, I personally think a funny commercial that drives home the point about elevator use is a great idea, but I really believe there are better uses for your money.

Like what? Well, you’re a consultant – you should be able to figure things out! But if you really insist on what I would recommend, well, why not help distribute books? Why not help the Books for the Barrios?

Got a question for The Filipino?  Email him now at askthepinoy@gmail.com.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you explanation Mr. Filipino...and i think this elevator things also happens in other countries and not just in the PH..When I was working in Singapore, I also experienced this...and I havent heard any complaints...I think it's all in people's way of seeing/thinking/evaluating things..Some things or situations, even if it is not unique to the PH, turn out to be very negative if it occurs in the PH...

Insight 2 the Insane said...

Oh..the abbreviated official reference to the Philippines is PH or PHL. PI or Philippine Islands is the colonial name of the country. It may seem insignificant, but lives were lost to get from colonial PI to becoming a republic.

Anonymous said...

Simple explanation. During peak hours we ride an elevator upwards when we are going to the lobby because the elevators are not full going up but they are full going down.

If you wait until the elevator goes down to get a ride, you will not get one for hours unless you are on the topmost floors and get a ride from the top. So in this case Pinoys are more intelligent and practical than this Caucasian who is complaining.

Long-term solution. Require buildings with high density of occupants to have more elevators to handle the traffic.

What is courteous in one country may not be so in other countries. Yes it is a matter of culture.
That is so obvious the complainant should remember the saying that "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

D. Y. said...

This situation is just like commuting via MRT during rush hours. If you travel from, say Ayala Sta. towards Cubao/North Edsa, you will find it nearly impossible to get on a train unless you're willing to jostle, inch your way towards the yellow door markers, and wait for the next 2 or 3 trains, since the trains from Taft Edsa are already packed like sardines. The intelligent commuter would go across and take the short ride instead from Ayala to Taft Edsa, to ensure a seat for the longer ride back towards Cubao. Just a practical, intelligent, and time-saving move.

Is that rude or selfish behavior? Well... you decide.

Ed said...

Nothing to add, TF. Napuruhan mo, even the snide insinuations, didn't escape your correctional
slaps. What can I say, Pilipinos confronted with the use of elevators are just human after all. I can understand why you needed to answer with a dissertation...pero OK lang, para maliwanagan.

Rufo C. said...

The building owners/administrators helped create the problem by leasing an upper floor to a tenant who would obviously generate extreme peak-hour lift traffic. You simply can't get away with doing that even in a building with sophisticated queueing software & adequate lift provisions.

Ruy Moreno said...

It is not only in the Philippines that I have experienced this issue of elevator usage by pressing up and down -I was an expatriate from the Philippines assigned to Vietnam where I lived and worked for a decade as managing partner of a major accounting/consulting firm. I also noticed the propensity of the Vietnamese to press both the up and down buttons to summon the elevator. It used to bother me but thought there are more important issues in life to worry about. The solution is really in planning building occupancy vis a vis number of elevators -a good example of such design is RCBC Plaza where the elevators (around 8 per bank) can take the number of tenants-I think even at peak loads- in that particular area/floors thus I suggest that expat move to a better building. By the way, even if it bothered me I did not make snide remarks about the people as I considered myself a guest in the country and one dies not make disparaging remarks about your hosts as this is not courteous or appreciates their good qualities -this is how I was brought up! Ruy Moreno

Fred Z said...

Nobody mentioned the most basic reason for our elevator culture: the building owners did not want to spend more money to provide enough elevators. Maybe its time to legislate elevator capacity.

Trosp said...

Marc Womack has just two or three questions that he wants to be answered:

"Why do people think it's a bright idea to push both the up and the down button at the same time?"

There are those who thinks that by pressing the down push button when the elevator is still up, it will go down faster (or the other way around). The trouble is it will not happen. Another trouble is, in some elevator, when you do that in the first floor and there is still a lower level below it, the elevator has to go down on that lower level first before climbing up again after getting into the first floor from the upper floors.

There are those among us who want to make an impression that they know better.

Why do people think it's a good idea to get on an elevator traveling in the opposite direction they want to go? Why do people get on an elevator without bothering to take note of the direction it is heading and then after travelling a few floors burst out with the inevitable "AY!"

Usually, this happens when a group of persons would take the elevator. Some sort of miscommunication among them.

The question is why it is a regular recurrence? Why???

Has anybody here noticed that when you're very polite in waiting at bay for the elevator to open in the floor where you're in and then suddenly, somebody who has just walked in would imposed him/herself the nearest to the elevator door?

Only in the Philippines.

And those who can't wait few seconds to alight from the elevator to continue discussing the last episode of the telenovela they have watched last night.

Only in the Philippines.

Anonymous said...

The answer from Mr. Filipino is right on.

I just want to add that Mr. Womack, "home cultured" as he seems to be, seems not to have been to an Opera in the U.S.

At the end of an Opera, while queueing to get to our car parked on a high floor, we would find "home cultured" people walking up to the Mezzanine floor, grabbing the elevator on its way to the ground floor. Those of us "courteously" waiting on the ground floor, would find the elevator full; so we wait, and wait, and wait until the "home cultured people" are serviced.

I suggest that Mr. Womack move his desk temporarily to the 23rd floor. Then, he can experience for himself if he would still have the same righteous viewpoint about himself and elevators.

By the way, there is no "holding the door for someone" either. It's usually a mad rush to get in first, at least for the first few rides.

PISST OFF said...

Mr. Womack must have pushed your button which led you to do a lot of research and honed your erudite response to his article. That was excellent work and I kind of feel sorry for Mr. Womack for in spite of the fact that life is too short - he spent an ample time on this elevator issue.

I had to Google what those acronyms are that Mr. Womack used in his article. Growing up in the Philippines, I still didn’t know what MMDA was: Money Market Deposit Account; some organic compounds; or Metro Manila Development Authority – probably the last but I also need to know how they are corrupt? I learned early in English classes that you just don’t start your dissertation using acronyms without telling your reader first what they mean – kind of wasted some of my time (did they say time is money?).

And what is this PI thing – could he had meant the Philippines? It’s like San Franciscans don’t like their city being called Frisco, just plain San Francisco – and that is a city in Northern California.

I can’t believe he would write such thing as his ‘home culture emphasizing the importance of common courtesy – and all those impressed on him as part of being a good person’. There was this ex-navy man, a black person, who asked me if I was Filipino, and he said he loved the Philippines so much he and all his buddies call the Philippines their ‘soul country’ and I asked why ? He said because the Filipinos are so nice, generous, hospitable, caring and loving (especially Filipino nurses from what I hear from American hospital patients), always smiling, patient, very musical minded, - and Filipino food is just awesome. How can one be all of these if he is not a good person? Well, Mr. Womack probably knows this, if the adage ‘you win a man through his stomach’ is true.

Generally Filipinos love the United States and Americans – most I would say. But we also know the history of the United States and its racist beginnings, which are still evident to some extent. I still cannot believe that the US helped the enemies more than it helped the allies after World War II.

Well, thanks again for all the statistics that you mentioned in your response. Glad to know those numbers – proving that Filipino Americans are good citizens and ‘good people’. One thing, from my experience with the founders of Books for the Barrios, I probably would not support that organization – but that is another story.

Anonymous said...

In this case, Filipinos know that the fastest way from one point to another is not necessarily a straight line. That takes intelligence, doesn't it?

In traffic this is a common principle. You avoid routes that are clogged up, take detours but arrive sooner. That is common sense. Tell the American that he can learn a few things from the Filipinos.

Cari Nelson said...

As an American, I find my fellow Americans the rudest of all people... particularly the white ones (and yes, I am also white.) They are rude on the roads and especially as a customer of any shop or store. So although the man asking the question says he was not raised to be discourteous... most Americans have not received a similar memo. When foreigners say how much they love the states... I really don't get it :-/ They tend to be arrogant, selfish and self-important a**holes... if all my family wasn't here I would definitely be soemwhere else. I love other cultures! Hence, why I have my very own cute Filipino boyfriend :p

Sepo said...

As an argentinian immigrant in Spain, I can say than I have been cursed an hung in the air like a puppet by a spanish-born 40 y/o man, to whom I complained about pushing both up & down buttons.
I've always felt annoyed about this issue, but never complained, except when this incident happened. It's not like I'm complaining about it on every oportunity I have....
So I would refrain from stereotyping.
For what I know, people don't know how to operate elevators worlwide.
Just watch out about telling out about it on someone from Spain =)

Christian said...

It is not only in the Philippines that
we experienced this issue of elevator usage by pressing up and down.
There are those who thinks that by pressing the down push button when the
elevator is still up, it will go down faster
(or the other way around).lol

Jonathan Estrada said...

that's quite a generalization. i've worked for tenants in several buildings in makati, fort bonifacio and ortigas, and that elevator issue only happened in one building.
i want to add, though, the filipino nailed it in when he said that poverty breeds massive selfishness. i think that a lot of customer service employees in call centers these days come from the lower brackets (like classes C to D). i believe they do know those unwritten rules regarding courtesy and public kindness, but they are more readily inclined to disregard them simply because, well, they are poor.
if the letter sender wants this addressed, i suggest he speak with the management of that call center. if he lectures the employees personally, i can almost guarantee they'll think up of more things to annoy him.

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