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From Where We Sit

Keep right

Michael C. Gallego Michael C. Gallego

Three Pinoy friends are waiting to catch a jeepney for a ride home. A jeepney stops in front of them, but only two seats are vacant. What do you think will happen next? They will either give this a miss and wait for the next one, or get on board, with one of them having to sit on another’s lap. Is this a familiar story?

In my discussions with University of the Philippines Professor Jovy Peregrino, visiting professor to the Busan University of Foreign Studies, he emphasized this practice as being part of our sama-sama culture, of our need to relate to one another. This relatedness is demonstrated in various ways: from our attempt at establishing a connection with a fellow Filipino when we are out of the country (‘Huy, taga saan ka? when a kababayan acknowledges our sutsot. After a brief response, we follow it up with ‘Kilala mo si …?’), to walang patid na kwentuhan’ with a good friend we have not seen since high school, to being allowed to join as a ‘salimpusa’ in a neighborhood school during our kindergarten days.

These behaviors demonstrate that relatedness is innate and deeply rooted among Filipinos, and that walking together, side by side, may have cultural roots.

In Greece, where the landscape is suitable for herding, animals are normally guided by one or a few herders from one grazing area to another. In China and other parts of Asia, where the landscape is suitable for farming, farmers need to plant rice seedlings together, simultaneously. Otherwise, one could be left in the middle of the rice paddy and prevent the whole community from completing the plot (at worst, slow ones could be trapped in the middle of the paddy). Scholars say this gave rise to the cultures of (Western) individualism and (Eastern) collectivism.


After living as an expatriate in the United Kingdom (UK) and Spain, I brought home with me westernized behaviors, including observing the ‘keep right’ rule, i.e., we walk on the left side and stand on the right side when using the escalator. Walking promotes resistance exercise, and being on the right side is a courteous way of allowing those in a hurry to pass by. Especially in the London subway, I found this practice making sense, as some escalators were long and you might miss your train. At times, the escalator speed would increase to accommodate and move more people faster.

Interestingly, this ‘keep right’ rule has found its way to our escalators.

In my observation, however, this gives rise to a cultural conflict. Imagine this scenario: two Filipinos walking slowly side by side on an escalator, talking animatedly, re-establishing connections. Then someone from the back comes dashing through the queue up the steps until he is compelled to slow down abruptly because the two are blocking his path.

If we follow the walk-stand orientation, we may be promoting individualism, since we will suddenly find ourselves alone on the escalator step. Maybe this example is just a drop in the bucket, but the ripple effect will impact our deeply seated norm.

If we allow the stand-only orientation, we may be strengthening our culture of relatedness (and perhaps, by extension, of teamwork and collaboration). Despite our busy schedules and fast-paced lifestyle, we still give ourselves that moment to nurture relationships.

From this perspective, our relatively shorter escalators add little value, if at all, to the time gained by walking ahead.

In January, the Nanjing subway system abandoned this practice, because the equipment was wearing unevenly, and found that 95 percent of the escalators showed severe damage on the right side. A UK study also showed that a stand-only orientation moved more people within a shorter time period than a walk-stand orientation.

Is this desire to walk faster on an escalator a reflection of today’s Twitter patience (i.e., a very short patience level)? Do we sacrifice culture for efficiency? Are we at the tipping point of a culture shift? How may we apply the ‘keep right’ rule to other areas, or is it more applicable elsewhere (such as in our expressways)? Could this be a reason policy implementation failures arise, as they are not aligned with culture and norm?

I want to share my thoughts on the impact of adopting foreign rules and practices on Filipino culture. In our role as policy makers, there is no better example than the ‘keep right’ rule in influencing change, and that we develop rules with a conscious determination of what we hope to change and what unintended consequences it brings with it. If we are, indeed, on the verge of fully shifting to this ‘keep right’ practice, I pray that, subliminally, this practice will shape a behavior that we will carry beyond the escalator (e.g., driving on the expressway, paying the right taxes, avoiding bribery); but, at the same time, still allowing our culture to be rooted in relatedness.

Otherwise, we shall see the two Pinoy friends get on the jeepney and leave their friend behind to wait for another one.


Mhycke Gallego is a partner for advisory and head of knowledge management of P&A Grant Thornton. P&A Grant Thornton is one of the leading audit, tax, advisory and outsourcing firms in the Philippines, with 21 partners and over 800 staff members.


As published in The Manila Times, dated 29 November 2017