[OPINION] No such thing as a free lunch: The Filipino ‘libre’ culture

Jade Harley Bretaña
[OPINION] No such thing as a free lunch: The Filipino ‘libre’ culture
Has the Filipino tradition of gift-giving and treating friends and family gone too far?

Different parts of the world consider generosity as a virtue. In fact, British organization Charities Aid Foundation even has a World Giving Index, which ranks countries based on 3 giving behaviors: volunteering time, helping a stranger, and donating money. 

In its 2018 report surveying 144 countries, the Philippines ranked as the world’s 8th most giving people in terms of volunteering time, 102nd in terms of helping a stranger, and 117th in terms of donating money. 

Despite our low ranking when it comes to helping a stranger and donating money, most Filipinos highlight generosity as morally good and admirable. Even the Philippine socio-political and cultural environments call for people to be generous not just during the holidays, but during everyday activities.

One popular form of generosity in Filipino culture is the libre. Generally, the word libre means “to treat” or “for free.” However, as much as we want to give, our reality dictates what and how much we can give, since we also need to take care of ourselves. Indiscriminate generosity could lead to a disaster. (READ: The myth of ‘kapwa’

People should be reminded that it’s impossible for a person to give something if they have nothing. As the adage goes, “We cannot give what we don’t have.” Despite this reality, Filipinos often hear the following from their community, which puts a lot of pressure on the person addressed:

Hoy! Libre mo naman ako!” (Hey! Pay for me!)

Pa-burger ka naman!” (Treat us to burgers!) 

Ui, congrats! Wala bang pakain?!” (Hey, congratulations! Aren’t you treating us?)

Gift ko ha?!” (Don’t forget my gift, ok?)

Pasalubong!” (Don’t forget to bring something back for me!) 

It is quite problematic when libre becomes an obligation rather than a sincere act of giving. 

Whenever there is a reason to celebrate, Filipinos are bound to milk it. Some may even exaggerate someone’s milestones to convince this person to celebrate. Worse, some can even be quite entitled when they ask for a libre. For instance, if the person being pressured refuses, it could even be taken against him, and he will be tagged as a selfish or inconsiderate individual. (READ: Pare, bos, dear, and Pinoy culture

Deconstructing the Filipino libre 

The libre, then, is a complex and dynamic aspect of Filipino culture. Here are several proposed characteristics, categorized by whether it’s from the receiver, the giver, or a structural viewpoint.

The receiver’s viewpoint:

Libre as the result of economic insecurities. Economically insecure Filipinos may use the libre as a way to satisfy some of their wants and needs. 

Libre as an emotional security. Knowing that someone is willing to spend for them may symbolize that the giver values the receiver, thereby imparting emotional significance.

The giver’s viewpoint:

Libre as a status symbol. A person who treats people may be regarded as mayaman or sosyal (rich or high-class). Libre has become a status symbol that signifies high economic and social standing, which in turn commands respect. (READ: Don’t call me madam

Libre as an act of charity. It is a Filipino trait to be sympathetic, and Filipinos tend to lend a helping hand whenever someone is in a bad situation and desperately needs assistance. 

Libre as a social responsibility. Promising something, in this case a libre, is an important social contract that needs to be fulfilled to maintain good relationships with others.

The structural viewpoint:

Libre as the consequence of a collectivist society. Filipinos value a sense of community, so they tend to prioritize the welfare of others over the self, despite personal financial shortcomings, just to maintain good relationships.

Libre as a gesture of generosity and gratitude. As a religious people, with a strong belief in having “more blessings to come”simply by sharing, Filipinos celebrate thanksgiving to acknowledge divine goodness. 

Libre as a customary practice. Libre has become part of Filipino culture. This practice may be handed down from generation to generation, which is then accepted and practiced as tradition by its community members.

Libre as a treat and escape from reality. A libre can just be for pleasure and enjoyment. It’s a way for people to go out and enjoy the company of others, and to escape from their daily routine.

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The libre dynamics may be performed in different ways and have become a tool to exploit or strengthen social relationships, consciously or unconsciously. Filipinos value good relationships as much as they value their financial wellbeing. 

Despite this social pressure, people should never give in just to put on a good face. One should also be sensitive to how they view someone who is cash-flush, especially those who’ve worked hard to improve their economic condition. Filipinos should stop abusing others’ kindness and generosity for the sake of personal gratification and interest.  – Rappler.com

Jade Harley Bretaña teaches sociology at Bukidnon State University. He is also a volunteer of the Diocesan Youth Formation Team-Diocese of Malaybalay and Bukidnon Youth. 

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